During the Civil War, nearly a third of the medicine distributed to Union soldiers came out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and during World War II, thousands of patients were treated there. But its historic hospital complex was decommissioned soon after the war, and the Navy abandoned it altogether in 1989. Since then, its stately main building, built in 1838, has been sitting fallow amidst of landscape of weeds. Starting this weekend, however, you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk its halls and contemplate the inhumanity that once filled its treatment rooms with casualties.
Artist Bettina WitteVeen has spent the past five years planning “WHEN WE WERE SOLDIERS… once and young,” an installation of photographs intended to “show the suffering – often the long-term suffering – that war causes.” Speaking yesterday afternoon at a press preview, she pointed to a massive ADA ramp that was installed over the building’s front steps in order to allow handicapped veterans to access the exhibit – a symbol of the cost of war.
Aside from the new ramp, much of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s landmarked Hospital Annex remains frozen in time – a musty marvel of peeling plaster. It’ll be some years before Doug Steiner, owner of the adjacent Steiner Studios, will “restore it to its former glory” and lease the building to what he hopes will be a major media company. Yesterday, he told us he was “trying to figure out how to make it continue to look like this while having all the conveniences” that such a tenant would expect.
He plans to turn neighboring buildings – like the officer’s club, cottages, surgeon’s house, lab building, and morgue – into support facilities for Steiner Studios as well as offices or post-production studios for media and tech companies. An underwater studio is also in the works, although it won’t take advantage of the campus’s abandoned swimming pool.
When Steiner’s sister connected the developer with her friend WitteVeen, he decided that the fourth installment of the artist’s “Heart of Darkness” series would be a prime opportunity to open the building – for the first and last time – to the general public.
“WWWS” isn’t the first time WitteVeen has taken over a historically significant space. In 2008, she mounted a similar exhibit in Berlin, in the cellar of a building where parts were manufactured for German missile and defense systems. It was crucial that she stage this latest one in a military hospital. “I used the building’s dilapidated state to reinforce my message,” she said yesterday, clutching a copy of Eric L. Haney’s Beyond Shock and Awe: Warfare in the 21st Century. “But I also wanted to use the grandeur and the beauty of the building to show how beautiful it is to be in the healing arts, to help the suffering.”
The historical photos (from the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Sudan, the Crimea) that WitteVeen has culled and retouched are sometimes subtle, sometimes striking. Throughout, photos of battlefield poppies symbolize beauty springing from disturbed ground as well as the use of opiates as a coping mechanism.
Elsewhere, the imagery is more explicit: a British soldier is draped over barbed wire, a pregnant Vietnamese woman tends to a legless man.
In a bathroom stall, a Civil War photo of amputated legs asks us to contemplate the “very problematic situation” amputees must face when they use the toilet.
“You’re seeing imagery that is painful, people with amputations and things like that,” said WitteVeen. “And I wanted you to really feel that.”
At the same time, the artist steered away from images that were gruesome and shocking. “When you go into shock,” she explained, “well, then you have what they call empathic distress – you have a fight or flight response.” Rather than turning people off, WitteVeen wants to move them to action, which is why literature will point visitors to organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Refugees International.
Since each room has a theme like “Injuries to the Lower Torso” and “Injuries to Head and Face,” it’s tempting to view the installation as a museum exhibit. A room at the end of the first-floor hallway, “War Invisible,” is dedicated to drone warfare, which WitteVeen said is “the new idea of warfare – the idea being that you’re so terrified, so paralyzed that you don’t even know whether that fly is a fly or is actually a robot out to kill you.”
But the artist stressed that the installation was intended to be artistic rather than historically informative. Many of the images she culled are “very, very retouched,” she noted. Some are bathed in a scarlet hue to symbolize blood and “seeing things in red,” as soldiers sometimes do in the heat of battle. Others have been toned down, encouraging the viewer to “look beyond the wounds and see the faces behind it.” Though she included a photo of Dachau as a nod that military intervention is sometimes necessary, there are no captions identifying the concentration camp or any of the other people or locations shown in the installation.
In the hospital’s basement, where Confederate prisoners were once housed, a portrait of an anonymous young woman is the centerpiece of one room. She’s actually Hannelore Kohl, who was raped by Red Army soldiers at the age of 12. Though she would go on to become the wife of German chancellor Helmut Kohl, she was ultimately driven to suicide by what she said was an extreme allergy to light (hence the room’s dramatic brightness). Yesterday, WitteVeen declined to name the woman or her place of origin, arguing that the point was to show that the ravages of warfare are a universal problem.
She was more informative, however, about the origins of the photos that formed a crucifix in the chapel-like room next-door (WitteVeen is actually Buddhist, but there are symbolic crosses throughout the exhibit, sometimes blocking entry to areas that are still off-limits). There, strains of a Bach cantata evoked “the beauty of the human voice when humans are together in a peaceful way,” WitteVeen said.
The “altar of resurrection and redemption,” as she calls it, is made up of a photograph she took of the distinctive blue stained glass of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, another she took of a full moon over the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park (her “hello to Brooklyn”), and an X-ray of the skull of a World War I soldier who seemed to be “between suffering and transformation and release,” a la Christ.
Ending things on a hopeful note was important to WitteVeen, a self-described optimist. “I’m a very, very strong believer that we’re not hard-wired for war,” she said. “That we need to understand war in order to abolish it, and that we can.”
“WHEN WE WERE SOLDIERS… once and young,” from Sept. 19 to Oct. 24 at The Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital, Flushing Ave. bet. Ryerson St. and Grand Ave.; open daily from noon to 6 p.m.; free.