An-My Lê’s The Silent General

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Lê reflects on a significant strand of recent American history, touching on interweaving narratives, past and present

To experience An-My Lê’s series The Silent General is to venture inside her mind — its meditations on contemporary life; a complex web of interweaving narratives that straddle past and present, truth and fiction. At a time when history seems to be writing itself at breakneck speed — endless streams of news, and people’s perspectives on that news, playing out across the internet — Lê steps back and takes stock. She imparts no definitive message or conclusion. Instead, her reflective, large-format photographs expose the complexities and contradictions of modern life.

“There is no conclusion, and, if there was a conclusion, it would be that there is no conclusion,” explains Lê, following the opening of The Silent General at Marian Goodman Gallery, London. “Instead, it is about engaging people and making them reconsider something, or opening up new avenues of thought, which they can continue down alone.” The project, which takes its title from a fragmentary passage of American poet Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, comprises a series of colour photographs that occupy the ground floor area of the space (a selection of images and a video work from her series 29 Palms is on show upstairs). The stills are divided into six photo essays and collectively consider a significant strand of recent American history and the complexity involved in representing it.

Fragment VII: Swamp, Film Set, (Free State of Jones). Chicot State Park, Louisiana. From The Silent General. 2015 © An-My Lê, Marian Goodman Gallery

Multiple factors precipitated The Silent General, and the project’s multilayered form reflects this. The work was motivated, in part, by Lê’s desire to delve into issues that she observed unfolding across the US, including the increasing prevalence of discriminatory rhetoric. On 16 June 2015, Donald Trump formally launched his presidential campaign, and, the following day, a 21-year-old white supremacist gunned down the congregation of one of America’s oldest black churches in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine African-Americans. “The divisiveness that was building up was very distressing,” she reflects.

As with much of Lê’s work, serendipity also fed into the equation. The photographer was invited to shoot on the set of a high-budget film about the civil war, which was located just outside New Orleans, and also began work on another project based in the south. Meanwhile, debates surrounding the removal of confederate monuments and memorials, symbolic of the southern US’ slave-owning past, intensified following the Charleston massacre. Then, on 09 November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. “It was interesting to tie all of that together: to talk about America’s history and assess the current situation,” she explains, “so I mixed those project-based photographs with everyday scenes as the first presidential year unfolded”.

The following year, on 12 August 2017, a 20-year-old white-supremacist and neo-nazi drove his car through a peaceful protest against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering one person and injuring 28. “That was the second thing that precipitated the project and gave me the confidence to continue,” says Lê. 2017 also marked an avalanche of divisive and discriminatory legislation enforced by the Trump administration, including an executive order that restricted immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, and the president’s unrelenting resolve to construct a border wall between the US and Mexico. “It seemed that dramatic events were happening almost every day, so I think travelling and finding a way to talk about those became very important,” says Lê.

Fragment II: Lutheran. Church Melville, Montana. From The Silent General. 2019 © An-My Lê, Marian Goodman Gallery.

“We have made progress, but how much progress have we really made? I am not interested in telling people what to think. I want to throw those questions out there”

Fragment IV: The Monumental Task Committee press conference with Demonstration by Descendants of General P.G.T. Beauregard. New Orleans, Louisiana. From The Silent General. 2017 © An-My Lê, Marian Goodman Gallery.

The photographer embarked on numerous road trips across the country and photographed what she observed. “I try not to think about how the images will fit together,” she explains, “I just go, and end up with a big box and make little prints, which I shuffle around and think about how they connect visually, temporally, and thematically”. Read together, the images, many of which depict quintessential scenes of American life in exquisite colour — a small, white church nestled on a vast expanse of rolling meadow, a tarmacked street lined with industrial warehouses — are the antithesis of news photography. Shifting between landscape photography and social portraiture, the images are not documents of specific events, instead, they tease out interweaving narratives that span decades and touch on the US’ political history, particularly in the south, along with multiple other issues including identity, racism and immigration.

“In terms of how the images are put together, it is like free association,” says Lê, “finding visual connections but also thematic connections. These days we are bombarded by images — on Instagram and on the Internet. They are often square or very graphic, and you just flip through them very quickly. I am more interested in images that are descriptive — describing a gesture in a way that you have not seen before, or a moment, the light. I want to keep the viewer engaged long enough that they will start being engaged intellectually as well”.

And it takes time to unravel the project, which feels as though it contains infinite meanings, revealing its countless historical and contemporary references and the connections between these. “I do not want the pictures existing in a vacuum and that is why historical references are important,” she explains. One image, the only portrait-orientated picture in the series, depicts weather-worn statues of the secessionist generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, both generals in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, housed in a temporary wooden container at the Homeland Security Storage. The statues represent the dark legacy of slavery and the ongoing issue of racism, which pervade the south, along with the subjects of colonialism, migration, and displacement.

Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, which Lê came across by chance during her work, provided a point of inspiration. “It gave me a clarification of how to move forward. He was a journalist, so it is almost photographic in the way he talks about and describes moments and events,” she reflects. Written in 1882, the poetic prose is divided into short titled fragments throughout which Whitman blends personal history and current affairs as he remembers the Civil War era. The book’s structure also influenced her: “The fragments made me think about stringing together a series of pictures to say something; the whole evolution is not linear.”

The images should draw us in with their “complicated beauty,” as Lê describes it, explaining the discordance between their aesthetic appeal and the darker, underlying narratives. “I want people to enter into a picture and have a complicated physical experience,” she says. However, the photographer avoids telling us what to think and encourages us to question what we see; to acknowledge the fine line between fiction and truth — mixing images of film sets with references to history, and events unfolding in real-time. The images’ individual titles are significant but Lê keeps them brief to “provide enough information without pushing people to interpret or follow my interpretation”.

The Silent General is ongoing, and Lê will continue developing on it until, at least, the presidential election in November. “We have made progress, but how much progress have we really made,” she muses. “I am not interested in telling people what to think. I want to throw those questions out there.”

An-My Lê’s The Silent General is on show at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, until 29 February 2020.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.