Memorializing Iraq War's Dead, in Chelsea

Jane Hammond, Fallen, 2004 - Ongoing, Collection of  the Whitney Museum of American Art, Photo by: Genevieve Hanson ©Jane Hammond

Two weeks ago, The Observer was in a van full of journalists heading back from an exhibition in Connecticut. Outside, the fall foliage was in full color; death, in other words, was everywhere, hanging around resplendent on a clear and unseasonably balmy day, in toniest Connecticut, et in arcadia ego. One of the journalists peered out the window at the leaves, and remarked, of the snowstorm that had hit the East Coast a week before, that it takes just one frost to kill the things. After the frost, they know to die, and change color.

Fast forward to the Guggenheim Museum’s annual gala, last Friday. Outside the museum, the swells were lined up under a light rain. They were there for the afterparty, to see a band play. There was time to peer up and down Fifth Avenue, all along which leaves were falling, mixing with the rain. Once these guests made it past security, had their names checked off and entered the museum, they would be confronted with an installation of Maurizio Cattelan’s work, a retrospective in which every artwork he’s ever made is suspended in the rotunda. Many of them are bodies: the pope, the artist himself. One is a child, hung by its neck, deceased. It’s an exhibition that its curator, Nancy Spector, has described as a “mass execution.”

We’ve taken too long to get to the point, but here we are, it’s the fall, and one of the most significant exhibitions in town is one big memento mori. It is not, however, the most affecting memento mori in town. For that, you have to head to Chelsea, to the Flag Foundation, to see Jane Hammond’s artwork Fallen.

Fallen is owned by the Whitney Museum, where it first went on view a few years ago, and is on loan to Flag; it is a sculpture of a pile of leaves in fall colors, each a unique inkjet print, each of them inscribed, in black Japanese “sumi” ink, with the name of a U.S. soldier who died in Iraq. The artwork went on view at the Flag Foundation, in Chelsea, in September. While at Flag, the piece gained even greater resonance: late last month, President Obama said he would pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of this year. At the end of the year, Ms. Hammond’s piece will be deinstalled from the Flag, which has extended its stay. The timing is poignant. The artwork’s date is “2004-ongoing”; Ms. Hammond has been adding leaves over the years since she began the piece. At Flag, it began with 4,455 leaves. Presumably, that “ongoing” may soon change to an exact year.

It is to understate the matter greatly to say that memorializing the dead, particularly the war dead, is no simple task. Among contemporary monuments, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial comes to mind, and the images of legions of family members lined up and scanning the wall-like structure to find the names of those they mourn. To think about Ms. Hammond’s work in comparison with this is instructive, and perhaps points up the differences between a public memorial and an artwork: to look at Ms. Hammond’s piece is to look down, rather than across; when you do look down you are looking not at something so solid as a marble wall, but rather at something seemingly quite a bit more ephemeral; in order to find your war dead in this pile of leaves, you would have to go rummaging, mixing with these thin and brittle objects. Not to get altogether too morbid, but something else comes to mind: your chances of finding your leaf, among thousands, are narrow. Often the chances of finding a body, an intact body, in a war, are similarly narrow.

But let’s say we descended into these leaves. The metaphorical resonance of the piece becomes greater, wilier, darker, as it recalls the leaves raked into piles so that children can jump into them. Helicopter parents will first sift through the pile for sharp branches; less intrusive ones leave the kids to the fun with little supervision. Life will never be without risk; best to learn that early.