A Last Look at Bettina Witteveen’s Haunting War Images at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

The abandoned Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital becomes an art venue for the first time.

Bettina WitteVeen, Altar of Redemption and Resurrection,
Bettina WitteVeen, Altar of Redemption and Resurrection, "When We Were Soldiers... once and young," Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital. Photo: Sarah Cascone.
Bettina WitteVeen, <em>5.War Invisible Drone</em>, "When We Were Soldiers... once and young," Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.<br>Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, War Invisible Drone.
Photo: Sarah Cascone.

This coming week marks your last chance to see “When We Were Soldiers… once and young,” Bettina WitteVeen‘s ambitious photography installation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital. The show, just extended to October 28, is the first art exhibition ever held in the space, where injured American soldiers were treated from the Civil War until World War II.

The now-crumbling building serves as a fitting home for the installation (recalling JR‘s Ellis Island hospital exhibition), conceived of by the German artist and social activist as a gesamtkunstwerk, or complete work of art. WitteVeen has collected over 100 historic images that capture the emotional, physical, and spiritual suffering of war, pairing them with her own poignant photographs.

“Warfare is a tragic aberration of the neurotic aspects of a society,” WitteVeen said in a statement. “I am an abolitionist of warfare. Like the abolitionists of slavery who published painful images to show the inhumanity of slavery and to rally support, I show the reality and ravages of war.”

Her haunting work effectively highlights those horrors, from grotesque historical amputations to eerie, Big Brother-esque shots of surveillance drones. Unlike Trevor Paglen‘s work, where the drones can be easy to miss at first glance, WitteVeen’s photos spotlight the machines that are a major part of modern warfare.

Bettina WitteVeen, <em>2.Injuries to the Upper Torso, Cross of Suffering IV</em>, "When We Were Soldiers... once and young," Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.  Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, Injuries to the Upper Torso, Cross of Suffering IV.
 Photo: Sarah Cascone.

It’s a chilling reminder of the devastating violence wrought by drone strikes.

The exhibition begins much earlier in history, with a misleadingly bucolic triptych of a field of poppies, an important symbol for veterans, shot by WitteVeen on a Crimean War battlefield. The artist touches on a number of hot-button issues, including rape, refugees, and post-traumatic stress disorder, in images that trace the history of war as captured by the art of photography.

Bettina WitteVeen, <em>Altar of Redemption and Resurrection</em>, "When We Were Soldiers... once and young," Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.  Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, Altar of Redemption and Resurrection.
Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Remarkably, WitteVeen’s overall message is a hopeful one: one of the final rooms in the exhibition is titled Altar of Redemption and Resurrection. The artist has placed a number of chairs before a group of photographs framed in the shape of a cross: illuminated stained glass windows from a Berlin church, an x-ray of an injured skull, and a full moon hovering above the Martyrs’ Memorial in Brooklyn’s Fort Green Park.

The space invites reflection; a place to process the exhibition and look toward a more peaceful future.

See images from the exhibition below.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital, home to Bettina WitteVeen's "When We Were Soldiers... once and young."  Photo: Sarah Cascone.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital, home to Bettina WitteVeen’s “When We Were Soldiers… once and young.”
Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, "When We Were Soldiers... once and young," Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.  Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, “When We Were Soldiers… once and young,” Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.
Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, <em>School Girls</em>, "When We Were Soldiers... once and young," Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.  Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, School Girls, “When We Were Soldiers… once and young,” Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, <em>5.War Invisible, War Fighter</em>, "When We Were Soldiers... once and young," Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.<br>Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen, 5. War Invisible, War Fighter, “When We Were Soldiers… once and young,” Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.
Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Bettina WitteVeen’s “When We Were Soldiers… once and young” is on view at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital at Flushing Ave and Ryerson Street in Brooklyn, September 19–October 28, 2015, 12:00 pm–6:00 pm.


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