Benjamin Busch is a Vassar graduate and two-time veteran of USMC tours in Iraq. Now out of the service, he has proven a dynamo of artistic production, most if it directly and I suspect all of it implicitly related to his war experience. He’s acted in TV series such as Generation Kill and The Wire, directed several short films, and written a memoir titled Dust to Dust. He’s the son of novelist Frederick Busch, whose influence weighs heavy on his mind in Dust to Dust. Father-son relationships get played out in lots of war literature, which I plan to document in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll just say that perhaps Busch gets his amazing productivity from his father, who published at least 16 novels. Or maybe it’s a Marine thing.
I haven’t read any of Frederick Busch’s novels, but Benjamin Busch might get his whimsical yet cerebral style from his father, too. That quality certainly characterizes the photographs in The Art in War, a book of snaps taken during his Iraq tours. In the book, Busch writes short explanations for each photograph. In public performance, as he projects his pictures Busch reads the written commentary in a way that I find mesmerizing. An example of Busch’s one-two image-word punch:
I went into a building near the entrance of an abandoned amusement park to take a picture of Mickey Mouse that was painted on a window from the inside. As I focused the lens on the series of American cartoon characters, a Marine appeared in the missing window that I had come through. There is an innocent wonder in his expression and despite his weapons and combat equipment he seems to be what he is, young and misplaced. An American child grown into armed maturity who still looks into the room, empty aside from me, for something that he expects to recognize. To see an Iraqi interpretation of an American icon next to the reality of American occupation made this photograph important to me. In the window beside Mickey is a cartoon image of an Indian, our Native American. This makes the triptych even more powerful as our own nation, America, began as an occupation of theirs.
Another, not so whimsical, but also reflective of Busch’s sensitivity to the material artifacts that structure and define our lives:
I caught this image in an evidence examination room in the Al Anbar Criminal Investigations Building. It had been abandoned for over a year and these plaster casts of feet from crime scenes had been moved onto a couch as former Iraqi police had sifted the room for valuable items. It is one of the most important photographs that I have ever taken in that, in the absence of a single person, it is completely human. I seek imagery that proves human presence without relying on the presence of people. The recent hand print in the dust on the back of the couch made this image speak to past, present and evidence of what is uniquely human.
The notion of imagery that “proves human presence without relying on the presence of people” returns me to an idea I introduced earlier: that Busch’s art, even when it doesn’t explicitly reflect martial images and themes, is about war. I like toying with this idea in relation to lots of artistic production of the 2000s. For here, I’ll suggest that Busch’s wonderful short film Bright (2011) is one such work that can be interpreted in the context of our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though it doesn’t mention them. In Bright, actor Eric Nenninger plays a young white man so traumatized by an unspecified event that he is not just afraid of the dark but darn near paralyzed in life, too. He lives in a brightly lit house with an older black blind man—played by Robert Wisdom—who seems to do better coping with his disability than his housemate. Their post-trauma issues play out in a plot that evokes a national storyline set in motion by 9/11, and perhaps Busch’s personal journey, too.
Short Bright clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N97HA1hCczs
The Bright IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1798611/
All quoted text from War, Literature, and the Arts: http://www.wlajournal.com/19_1-2/busch.pdf