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Frances Dorsey: Saigon

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The Soldiers Daughter
by Pat Hickman

“Where is the soldier’s daughter?” Bhakti Ziek, an artist colleague and friend, asked Frances Dorsey this critical question after looking at her sophisticated, computer- assisted, Jacquard-woven e-textiles, Soldiers and Gun and Gun and Diagram (1999). Dorsey has answered by producing a body of work in which she gives herself a central place.

Until 1954 Saigon was the capital city of the French colony. Thereafter, until 1976, it was the capital of South Vietnam. The name, the place, instantly takes most of us to the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese call the American War. Three decades after its divisive, messy, costly end, we in the United States still ask, What has healed, what have we learned?

Saigon, from 1955-1959, was home for Fran Dorsey. Drawing on her childhood memories, both word and image, her work asks us to imagine, to think differently about a place so loaded, so burdened with historic reference. Her words provide a narrative for the exhibition. Typed on an old Olivetti typewriter and printed on Mylar, they are displayed in the gallery and available in the catalogue.

While nostalgia is probably inevitable, Dorsey is doing much more. She is attempting to understand, to question, to make sense of this early period in her life, to put it in place and authentically claim her place—what’s real for her. Like the characters in Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried, we see by looking at her cloth, what Dorsey holds close, what she carries.
As for Dorsey, so for all of us. Early surroundings mark us; write on us, surface again and again in word and image. Vietnam evokes beauty: in its people, its lush landscape, its bamboo forests heavy with humidity and the sound of insects. Water and plants ripple and seem to blow in the wind in tropical rice paddies, in fields where something terrible happened. In both Saigon and Rice Paddies, Dorsey prints images of rice plants, different sizes visible underwater, through water, planted in water, creating an illusion of recession into space. They float; dye flows down fibres. There is a liquid sensation in this watery cloth world. There is depth through layering, taking us further off into space, seeing imagery tossed around, bubbling up, sometimes bobbing below or beneath an upper layer.

It brings to mind the work of Joanne Segal Brandford (American, 1933-1994), an artist in weave and dye, both ikat and silkscreen, who built up colour slowly, tentatively, like quiet watercolour washes. As with Brandford’s process, Dorsey’s colour mysteriously seems to come from inside the material, becoming part of the fibre, sea-green subtle and glowing.

Through her knowledge of cloth and dye and her expertise in textile techniques, Fran Dorsey moves easily between control/out-of-control, order/disorder, back/forth, tool dependency/tool free. She masterfully creates logical, complex loom-woven structure integrated with skillful, spontaneous impulses of print and dye—all going on simultaneously, colliding, creating tension between expressive surface and restrictive structure. Most artists working in the fibre medium are hesitant to violate work they’ve woven, fresh off the loom. Dorsey does not hold back, does not keep separate remarkably opposite ways of working. Her layering provides ways of seeing; she invites us in, to go deeper. Shadowy soldiers emerge as do embroidered red scar lines, which serve as reminders of war, of hurt, of that war, of other wars.
Dorsey was in Saigon for four years, aged seven to ten, leaving before it exploded. Her father, attached to the United States Embassy in Saigon and a World War II veteran, hoped that war could be averted. But it was hovering, somehow part of that time for her, which seemed in some ways idyllic, the quiet before the storm.

Dorsey has said, “Generations pass on to one another the impulse to wage war, or peace, or something in between.” Her family’s roots are in the American South, memories of the Civil War a part of her heritage. An oak tree still stands on her family’s farm in Alabama where Creek Indians, whose land had been taken, tied a Dorsey ancestor up by his thumbs. Dorsey’s work has consistently confronted such conflict, including and going beyond World War II, beyond Vietnam, beyond Iraq.

Dorsey uses both natural and synthetic cloth—bleached linen, absorbent cotton, reflective silk, shiny rayon, poly-organza. The cloth has raw, irregular, torn edges with threads frayed, unraveling. Her cloth is distressed and tortured, with repetitive taking away and adding—clamp resisted, tie-dyed, discharged, printed, over-dyed, cut, stitched back together, recombined. Acts of addition and acts of subtraction slowly build surfaces.

Her personal narrative becomes public, becomes political, as it draws on her father’s World War II diaries and journal entries and images of war, but it speaks now, too, of Iraq, the ongoing horror and obscenity of war in another setting. Imagery of confrontation permeates the fibres, the cloth, in a kind of timeless, slow-motion stillness, as if the work would speak of everyman/everywoman/everywar.

Fran Dorsey’s work, in the breadth of her interests and exploration and in what captures her imagination, reminds me of the work of Lillian Elliott (American, 1930-1994) who delighted in a complexity of layering and structure, of modulations in colour and textural dialogue between vibrant hues in warp threads, crossed by a broad range of differently coloured weft threads. She was not a purist in materials or techniques, but experimented, believing there was no right way to do anything but to see what worked and go ahead based on that. What interested her was the idea, much more than the technique or materials.

Dorsey, like Elliott, asks the viewer to be involved in her work. In Saigon and Rice Paddies, through the use of silver leaf, she finds a way for the viewer to participate in creating what is perceived. Metallic leaf, an exotic, reflective material with overlapped edges, provides a gridded surface, little window panes, which actively respond to a viewer, to light bouncing back, not statically absorbing light. Vietnam is like that for us—it’s restless and alive—not a quiet place of memory. We engage in dialogue with Saigon and Rice Paddies, as those works talk across the gallery space to each other.

Rising from a scar in the earth in Washington, D.C., Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial comes to mind—that simple, polished black granite wall which reflects back through the list of fatalities a viewer’s reflection in those names. Art about Vietnam made before, made now, made later, remains painfully relevant.

The scale of Dorsey’s work is neither overwhelmingly enormous nor miniature. When lined up in series even her small works, as in Sky and Water, read from a distance and also demand a closer, intimate look. Dorsey’s quiet, thoughtful attention to the long view, the horizon line, encourages one to think about the reflective quality of fibres, about what is happening in each piece of the series. Is day coming? Is it dying? Is that nuanced line of weaving childhood innocence crossing into adulthood? Has fog descended, so we strain to see where sea ends and sky begins? Have the sea and the sky changed places? Are we looking outward? Looking inward?

Kimsooja uses video instead of cloth to present horizon. Her Bottari—Alfa Beach, makes its statement by violating ordinary perception. The beach is in Nigeria, the site of a major departing area for slave trafficking ships in the 17th century. Within the frame, beach and sky are reversed in a total, gigantic dislocation. The waves, above the sky, are breaking, but in a distorted way, as if they are in fact receding. Ships come to mind, and the people on the ships for whom there was no coming back. 1

With Dorsey, we consider the connections between the weave structure, the subtle value shifts and changes, the faint line that is there then disappears, and we wonder about time and change, this liminal space between worlds, between water and sky. We want to stand quietly in the gallery and pay close attention to her use of space-dyed indigo colour, dyed space imagery (or lack of it) and horizon line. This experience of the long view, the linear focus, seems appropriately placed alongside Saigon and Rice Paddies—part of the larger, expanded theme.

We go with Dorsey on her introspective journey from there to here, from then to now. Fran Dorsey is giving us a different take on this place, on Saigon. She goes beyond drawing on her father’s experience, though still including it through use of his written text and photographic images of his war buddies. There is innocence in her stories, told with playfulness and the wisdom of a child. She uses an economy of words, a pared down-ness that says so much in both the verbal and the visual, the stories serving as a source for her woven and printed pieces.

Drawing on her written Saigon stories, Dorsey inserts herself squarely into the imagery of her Nostalgia Series, accepting her childhood, her resurrected memories, her known world—a sewing machine, a DDT molecule, a krait snake, a hotel key, her scar, a catfish or two. Through printed and embroidered motifs, writing with thread, these innocent references get all jumbled, juxtaposed, cut up, recombined, filtered through her artist’s imagination. They give us a glimpse into her world, allowing us to peek inside this artist’s rich memory bank transformed into art. Her layering, stitching together, piecing and patching, express an attitude toward art and life and cast a new light on Saigon.

In 1990, in A Different War, Lucy Lippard cites a few women artists who confronted Vietnam in art. Nancy Spero in 1966 was one of the first “who expressed the obscenity of war with unbridled vehemence and lyricism. The almost pretty washes on rice paper erupt into some of the angriest art ever made.” Lippard notes other women artists who had similar experiences in which a submerged and subversive imagery was released by the war. “In 1981 Michele Oka Doner made a unique war memorial in Franklin, Michigan—a large silvery Fallen Leaf, lying on the earth. In 1969 Martha Rosler made a series of witty photomontages called Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful—making her collages invade American homes, raising questions of inner and outer, race and gender, power and powerlessness. May Stevens in the early 70s in her work got it that many of ‘those who supported the war were my people, my relatives. I understood them. I loved them and hated them.’ ” 2

Fran Dorsey, part of this sisterhood and a soldier’s daughter, has ambitiously taken on Vietnam, directly facing this personal history in her work. She exists in her cloth, through her cloth, not as an outside observer. From her perspective as a child, Dorsey, nudging memory, has jogged our recalling and remembering, asking us to share in the responsibility of war, going way beyond Saigon.

1 Kimsooja videos, The Project Gallery, New York City, November 2006.

2 Lucy Lippard, A Different War: Vietnam in Art (Bellingham, WA: Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1990): 42-43.

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