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Việt Lê and I co-curated Love in the Time of War that queried how love and war police bodies for SF Camerawork in San Francisco and UC Santa Barbara.
The Vietnam War may have ended on April 30, 1975, but that is the American point of view, as was the name.
The American War, as the Vietnamese call it, is in some ways never-ending, and that is the point of view presented in “Love in the Time of War,” at SF Camerawork on Market Street. The group show uses the 40th anniversary of the ceasefire as a launch pad to explore all of the ways that the war is still being fought in Cambodia, Paris, Hanoi, Los Angeles and places in between.
“Our exhibit asks, ‘How do we respond with love and compassion amidst overwhelming chaos?’” explains the show’s co-curator, Viet Le, 39, an assistant professor of visual studies at California College of the Arts.
Le, who arrived in California as a refugee on his fourth birthday, organized the show with Jennifer Vanderpool, who teaches at UC Santa Barbara. Together they assembled a dozen artists representing the countries President Richard Nixon bombed — Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — along with Oakland, New York and the Netherlands.
They range from Los Angeles artist Bruce Yonemoto, a Japanese American born in 1949 and old enough to remember the draft, to Vuth Lyno, a Cambodian born in 1982.
There is an undercurrent of violence and sexuality to the show, but nothing overt. SF Camerawork has huge picture windows overlooking Market Street, and one of the images in “Love in the Time of War” is striking from the street below: It is of a Muslim woman fully shrouded in a sparkling red chador, surrounded by American flags.
Follow that to the big red SF Camerawork door and up the stairs to see images of folded letters. These were written in English to a daughter in the United States, from a Cambodian man being held captive.
As you enter the gallery, at the top of the stairs you are confronted with a wall of cameras shooting video of your entry. These are instantly translated to video screens in a piece called “1984.”
There are also portraits of military officers in Hanoi. On the opposite wall are images of a giant red centipede, called “The Buddhist Bug,” by Anida Yoeu Ali, who is a first-generation “Muslim Khmer.” There are even some lyrics by Pat Benatar hidden in the wall text.
Taken together, “Love in the Time of War” amounts to “powerful new work from an exciting group of international artists that can’t be seen anywhere else in the Bay Area,” says Heather Snider, executive director of SF Camerawork.
The exhibit closes Oct. 15, with a site-specific performance of “Red Chador,” by Ali, who will be traveling from Cambodia.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.