For most Americans, war remains an abstraction. We may hold heated discussions about our country’s ongoing military campaigns in the Middle East, but the reality of these campaigns remains divorced from our lives.
In her 2011 exhibition Nothing Left Here But The Hurt, Israeli photographer Inbal Abergil explored this disparity by juxtaposing American public war monuments with the citizens who walked by them, utterly unaffected. In her current exhibition Next of Kin, on view at Baxter St Camera Club of New York through March 26, Abergil moves in the opposite direction, depicting the humble, personal objects belonging to fallen American soldiers, which their families preserve in remembrance of them.
Contextual awareness is central to our engagement with Next of Kin. Though a few objects – a Ziploc bag filled with gold stars, an army jacket hanging on a wall – explicitly declare their subject matter, a majority are things that anyone might own: toy trucks, a watch, a slim stack of letters, Christmas decorations. Indeed Abergil shoots these objects in bright light and stresses their primary colors, without bathing them in sentimentality. It is the exhibition catalogue, which contains testimonies from family members of the fallen, that gives these objects their terrible, visceral meaning – Abergil’s real subject. Since the testimonies aren’t included on the wall labels, the catalogue is an important part of this show.
None of the things Abergil photographs, army jacket included, are intended to serve as symbols of abstract concepts like courage, bravery, and sacrifice. Rather, they are presented for their innate physical expressiveness. Putting ourselves in the families’ shoes, we realize that these objects are like magic lamps: they conjure the memories, and even perhaps the presence, of fallen loved ones.
Cortes (all the photographs in the exhibition are named after the family whose possessions they depict), for example, shows two pale brown army t-shirts stuffed with an army pillow. This is how the two shirts and the pillow came back, the mother of deceased soldier Isaac T. Cortes tells us in the catalog, “and that’s how I sleep with them. I pretend that it’s him. It’s not him but I pretend.”