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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, August 15

Gapers Block

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On Veterans Day, the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum will open Aaron Hughes' solo show, "Shifting Memories," a collection of mixed-media work that metaphorically comments upon the complex realities of war. "Shifting Memories" represents the NVVAM's first exhibit by a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. On Jan. 30, 2003, Hughes was pulled out of the University of Illinois and called to active duty with the 1244th Transportation Company Army National Guard out of North Riverside, Illinois. There he supported combat operations by transporting supplies from camps and ports in Kuwait to camps in Iraq. After serving three extensions totaling one year, three months and seven days, Hughes returned to the University of Illinois in the spring of 2005 to major in painting and harboring a great desire to express and share his experiences with others. In the past year Hughes has worked with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) and OPENSOURCE Art as a co-curator for "Spectacles of the Real: Truth and Representation in Art and Literature"; had his first solo show, "Dust Memories...," at the IPRH; and led a curatorial team for an exhibition at OPENSOURCE Art called "In War/At War: The Practice of Everyday."

The opening reception for "Shifting Memories" will be held Nov. 11 from 3pm to 5pm at the NVVAM, 1801 South Indiana Ave. The show will remain on view through May 2007.

Q: I am generally opposed to the involvement of politics within art, but then again I cannot begin to fathom how an artist who has experienced war can possibly ever ignore that experience. Which direction do you believe your experience in Iraq has led your imagination? Do you find your work as an artist feeds off a spiritual sense of humanity, or off a political obligation to humanity? Is there even a separation between the two?

Hughes: This is my struggle. How do I make space for meditation and poetics when I long for activism and politics? The pain, suffering, dehumanization, oppression and guilt of Iraq left me only with a space for meditation. I had no claim to a comprehensive understanding to communicate the experience and changes I went through. I felt all my preconceived understandings of life, God, culture and humanity had been deconstructed. Therefore, I attempt to express these ambiguous experiences through abstraction, and a "spiritual sense" to art-making.

Yet with my return to civilian life came awareness to a cultural and political complacency that left me enraged. The shift from desert dust convoys with deprived children lining the roads asking for food to privileged college bars full of overconsumption was too much. Why had nothing changed? The war runs through my head and meditation is lost. Why do these people not stop [to think]? Do they not need this to change? Do they not understand what war is? And my ego has taken over and politics and activism arise out of my rage. But telling leaves no room for thought, meditation, or the "spiritual sense of humanity." So, I reflect on my own hypocrisies and settle back into a making process that creates a space for thought. This space for thought is my hope to foster communications, bring about revelations, and inspire change that should reflect a political obligation to humanity.

Q: I do imagine the experience of war can dramatically situate an individual's politics. I don't want to get into any of your personal business, but I'm wondering if you — a young man with an artistic sensibility — might have felt any pull towards the center (the radical, or the moderate center) through your experiences? After all, common sense cannot be polarized — so, doesn't rationality, and ultimately peace, lie somewhere in the middle ground?

Hughes: I explicitly frame my work to reflect an individual daily experience to avoid polarizing. I see my work as a testimonial to my deployment. As a testimonial, the work is vulnerable and unsure at every step as it attempts to construct meaning out of an experience that is not fully understood. This positioning does not lend itself well to ideological and political rhetoric. The work at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum brings to the forefront the over-complex personal realities of the war through a series of personal critiques, metaphors and narratives. This framing is attempting to deconstruct any epic narrative to focus on the value of individuals and their experiences. Hence, the work functions to veer away from ideologies, and pointing instead to the complexity of daily experiences, practices and tactics. Inherent in this frame is the suggestion that personal expressions and independent alternative communications can deconstruct the social, cultural and political walls that foster dehumanization.

Q: Feeding off of the first two questions: Do you envision a point in time when your art will not refer to your experiences in Iraq? Do you ever envision a time when your art will turn its back on memory?

Hughes: Yes. I see the shift away from the war is already apparent. However, the shift perhaps is not a shift at all. The focus of my work is to express a need to break down walls that allow dehumanization. I am attempting to do this through personal testimonials or narratives that do not inherently fit into any one preconceived narrative. Instead, I'm presenting narratives that challenge an individual to reflect on his or her own positioning to the social, economical, political and cultural walls that allow for dehumanization.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to

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