Derelict hospital becomes metaphor in NYC art installation
A derelict Naval hospital that treated soldiers from the Civil War through World War II is the site of an art installation that deals with the wounds of war and the human power of healing.
Conceptual artist Bettina WitteVeen said it took five years to secure the Brooklyn Navy Yard site for her "When We Were Soldiers . once and young" exhibition, which opens Saturday.
"I basically perceive the building and my artwork as one," she said.
It is the first time an artist has been allowed to use the building, preserved as a time capsule of another era and boarded up for decades. The Navy Yard, which served as a major military shipbuilding site for more than 200 years, was decommissioned in 1966. The 300-acre campus has evolved into a bustling urban industrial park. Its largest tenant, Steiner Studios of film and television, plans to restore the hospital over the next several years and turn it into a major media-technology center along with other nearby historic buildings.
"The public has never had a chance to see the beauty of this building," said Doug Steiner, chairman of Steiner Studios. "The building is so integral to her art. ... I can't distinguish between the two."
WitteVeen, who was born in Germany and lives in New York City, said the cracked walls, shattered windowpanes and worn state of the building serve as a metaphor for her work. She has traveled around the world photographing the beautiful landscapes once destroyed by war.
Indeed, it is easy to envision the soldiers who once occupied the former treatment rooms that line a long white plaster-wall corridor of the first floor.
Here, WitteVeen focuses on how combat affects the soldier. She groups her color photos with black-and-white archival images that she has reworked using a complex process that "quiets" the picture and directs the viewer's gaze toward the subject's face.
"You don't just see the missing limb or prosthesis; you see this intelligent human being. You get a sense of the personality," she said.
WitteVeen has deliberately placed these images in a room near a broken inner staircase propped up with poles and sealed off by glass as a metaphor for the amputees pictured next door.
There are rooms with images of weapons and the injuries they inflict; of war robots and drones; and of bravery and compassion by nurses and soldiers carrying and bandaging the wounded.
The installation continues in the basement, where it focuses on industrial warfare's effects on civilians.
A portrait of an anonymous woman raped when she was 12 hangs in an empty prison cell another weapon of warfare that devastates lives and communities, WitteVeen said.
Elsewhere, there's a walk-in altar inspired by a church in Berlin, Germany, a tranquil space for reflection with soft music by Bach in the background.
The last room features a series of panoramic photographs of a garden in Crimea, Ukraine. The pictures are bright and colorful, but on closer inspection a rusted barbed wire also appears.
"A wound can become a scar, but it can heal and permit a blooming life," she said.
The message she wants to convey is "we are not hot-wired for war," she said. "There's actually more evidence that we're hotwired for compassion and cooperation."
As visitors depart, they will receive a list of organizations that deal with these issues, including the Wounded Warrior Project.
"I want people to feel empathetic and hopefully do some social activism," she added.
The exhibition runs through Oct. 24.