Photographs of disfigured faces and exploding bombs covered the walls. Images of wreaths, gravestones and grieving relatives were interspersed among them. And the mood of the guests was appropriately serious.
The occasion was the launching of the Washington Project for the Arts' 13th year, and the opening of its most ambitious project yet, a comprehensive exhibition of artworks called "War and Memory: In the Aftermath of Vietnam." About a hundred people -- veterans, politicians, artists, writers and others whose lives were touched by that conflict -- gathered at the WPA for what was called "a reconciliation."
The guests seemed to gather near works that were less emotionally demanding. While people sipped wine or drank beer, the French bread and brie, the strawberries, kiwi and orange slices -- arranged in front of perhaps the most graphic photographs -- were largely untouched.
"I thought of the irony of it earlier tonight while we were putting the candles and food together," said Jock Reynolds, executive director of the WPA, who curated the exhibition with WPA Media Curator Philip Brookman. "But this is a reestablishment of a conversation about Vietnam ... we're all still just trying to understand what happened."
For many of those who attended it was just that -- a chance to tell a story, to express their confusion and anger. Visual artist Bill Short, who served as a platoon leader in Vietnam, drove down from Boston for the show with his wife Willa Seidenberg. He talked about his memories of Vietnam, of getting drunk one night with two comrades. They were desperate to get out of the war, he said, and "we jumped on each other's legs, trying to break them."
Short has photographed and gathered personal histories of 11 Vietnam veterans who protested the war while they were in the army. He calls it "Dissent Within the Military." He also displayed his Vietnam artifacts in a case that holds family photographs, the records of Short's two courts-martial, his glasses, his peace-symbol necklace and his great-great-grandfather's Civil War uniform buttons.
"It's been 15 years," Short said, standing in front of a wall of photographs. "And I still haven't figured it all out."
"Art is a form of expression and it's important for the veterans to have this opportunity," said Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), chairman of Vietnam-Era Veterans in Congress, which hosted last night's benefit. "Otherwise they are self-contained, unable to comment on what the war meant ... the pain, the suffering."
Seattle artist Richard Posner created a room installation for the show. The entrance to his work is a doghouse with a low ceiling, and guests had to stoop to walk through. "This is a moral wakeup call. And it's an opportunity to make lemonade out of a sour lemon," said Posner, a conscientious objector who performed 40 months of alternative service -- one year of which was spent teaching at the Logan School in Washington.
The evening was the first of many events being held in conjunction with the show. Panel discussions on the war will be held for the duration of the exhibition, which opens today at 6 p.m. and runs through Dec. 19.
Not all of the artists are former soldiers. Kim-Ly Harbin is a Vietnamese artist who moved to Annandale two years ago. She lived in Vietnam during the war. "I think it is very important to learn from mistakes," she said, standing on the sidewalk near her painting called "The Boat," which hangs in the WPA window. "The Vietnamese people felt betrayed. The American people felt betrayed too, but we lost our country. I like to keep this memory.