Witness to Mission
ArtistKenny Irby, Larry Kirkland
Porcelain enamel panels fabricated by Winsor Fireform (Tumwater, Washington)
Witness to Mission is a work of art composed of 49 photographs mounted on 22 rectangular pieces of white Georgia marble. The stone is the same used in the headstones throughout the cemetery.
This installation is a photographic survey of the military experience since the Civil War. The arrangement of the photographic markers is in harmony with the rows of headstones, with all of Patriot Plaza, and its focus on the American flag, the symbol of the mission to country, at the heart of the veteran experience.
More than 1,000 photographs of military subjects recorded since the advent of the camera were reviewed to arrive at this collection. The 49 pictures depict military life through the experiences of ordinary people — soldiers, sailors, wives, and children, each of whom served and sacrificed.
Each visitor who spends time with these images will become a witness to the mission of the U.S. military to protect and defend our country and our democracy.
Witness to Mission features 22 Georgia white marble plinths, measuring 6’6” tall by 34” deep by 6” thick. They are arranged at rhythmically regular intervals that allow the visitor to step between them, as if stepping into a small alcove where the photographs can be contemplated. Together they form a historical procession that leads the visitor into the center entrance where the flag at the center of Patriot Plaza comes into view.
The main themes that are addressed within the installation are:
- Conflict — action before, during, and after
- Military life and work
- The changing profile of the military through time
- Technology through time
- U.S. military across the globe
- The family circle of support
- Rituals of burial
The design elements that comprise Witness to Mission are:
- Its arrangement on the perimeter of Patriot Plaza leading into or out of the central entrance
- The white Georgia marble that matches the headstones in the cemetery
- The photographic images that capture many experiences of soldiers and their families from the Civil War to today
- Captions that recognize the photographers and provide historical information and context for the image
A final, important design element is the arrangement of the images in relationship to each other. The placement of photographs on both sides of a marble plinth, and across from each other on opposite plinths, is carefully thought through and is a key method of expressing the themes or stories of the military throughout the history of the United States.
Capturing Compelling Stories
On the face of each plinth is a mounted photograph that is printed in fired enamel on metal plates, a process that ensures archival longevity.
A committee and curator selected the photographs from more than 1,000 images found documenting the military since the advent of the camera during the Mexican American War in the 1800’s.
The Civil War, Spanish American War, World War I and II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are all represented by compelling images taken by photojournalists, artists, and fellow service personnel. Many behind the camera are well known: David Douglas Duncan, Larry Burrows, and Alfred Eisenstaedt — and others not at all — but all the images capture compelling stories.
A Union engineer sitting afloat in an odd raft faces an image of a tarmac at night in Afghanistan shown in the green glow of night vision technology — this shares the story of how technology has changed the military.
An image of a navy officer clutching his young daughter while his wife covers her emotion-filled face as he is welcomed home in 1943 faces the image of another young boy, gleeful in the arms of his dad who is returning from Afghanistan 2012. This story repeats from generation to generation and conflict to conflict — it is the relief of returning to the family after a mission away.
The photographs are arranged and juxtaposed to allow the actions of Americans in the military to “interact” and “speak” to each other, through time. This approach to the installation allows comparisons, poses questions, and tells stories. It is striking to perceive the huge changes since 1860, but even more to understand how many aspects of the military experience are remarkably similar.