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Visualizing Loss: Jane Hammond’s Fallen

December 17, 2009

This article is adapted from the author’s “Collecting Leaves, Assembling Memory: Jane Hammond’s Fallen and the Function of War Memorials” (c 2008), which appeared in the Archives of American Art Journal 47 nos. 3-4 (Fall 2008), and is reprinted with permission of the Archives of American Art Journal, Smithsonian Institution.

Jane Hammond’s Fallen (2004–ongoing) is a memorial commemorating American soldiers killed in the Iraq War. Unlike most war memorials, however, it was not commissioned. No acts of Congress were involved in its making. No fundraising drives enabled its creation. No committees have weighed its merits or demanded revisions. Instead, it is the work of a single artist, an aesthetic response to current events that is not intended for placement in a town square or on the National Mall in Washington. As a reaction to an ongoing conflict, Fallen is a recognition of the urgent need for healing and a respite from divisive rhetoric. Hammond has acknowledged this, stating that the work “has at its heart our collectivity.”

Fallen departs in many ways from the conventions of traditional memorials. Instead of stone or bronze—heavy, durable materials that connote permanence and solemnity—Hammond has used paper and ink to create more than 4,200 unique reproductions of leaves that she places on a low rectangular platform. On each leaf is written the name of an American soldier killed in Iraq. Rather than tower over the viewer, literally elevating the deceased or the cause for which they died, the work spreads out below the viewer on a determinedly human scale.

As the number of leaves has grown, the length of the pedestal has increased, but the breadth has not increased proportionally. Hammond designs a new pedestal for each exhibition site, favoring a design that is “rectangular and processional,” so that the viewer walks alongside the work and is always able to read the names that appear in the center. As a work of art, Fallen is unique because the artist does not ultimately control its completion or its dimensions; Hammond has committed herself to making a leaf for every soldier killed in Iraq as long as the war continues.

The inspiration for Fallen came to Hammond in a dream in which she was walking through a grove of trees with brilliant foliage. As the leaves fell from the trees, she saw that each was printed with the name of an American soldier. She soon began collecting real leaves and has continued to do so all across the country each autumn since beginning the work in 2004.

Hammond quickly scans the leaves to preserve their appearance, precisely aligns images of both sides, and digitally prints them onto an archival paper. She then cuts each leaf by hand with painstaking care to reproduce its unique contour, including any holes or blemishes. Hammond next thickens the stem and paints it, and the edges, by hand, at which time she writes the name of the deceased on the leaf with Sumi ink and a brush-pen. Last, she molds and shapes the leaf to give it a realistic three-dimensional presence.

As they are added to the low platform on which Fallen is displayed, the leaves form a blanket. Although every leaf has a name on it, many are overturned or covered by other leaves, so only a portion of the names of the dead are visible at any time. In this way, Hammond intends that each viewer first experiences the piece as a familiar encounter with the beauty of nature and only after connects it with loss, a sequence that is aligned with the dream that inspired the work.

The metaphor of a fallen leaf as a symbol of a life lost is not new, nor is it especially complex. Indeed, its simplicity and clarity made it an attractive symbol in propaganda for both the Germans and the British during World War II. But the power of Hammond’s work lies in part in this immediate legibility. The leaf metaphor is an elegant, deceptively simple response to the ongoing public struggle between abstraction and realism in memorials. This debate reaches far back into the twentieth century, but can be seen most clearly at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the unease felt by some at the minimalism of Maya Lin’s design led to the addition of Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers and an American flag to the memorial site.

From a distance, the leaves in Fallen form a vivid field of intense color, not unlike an unstretched Jackson Pollock painting on the ground. Up close, the eyes quickly differentiate them as extraordinarily realistic individual objects, unique and vibrant, like the lives they commemorate. At the same time, leaves have no overt connection to the symbolism of patriotism or protest, and thereby avoid making an explicit political statement on the war.

An accumulation of ordinary objects that symbolizes a great loss and tries to convey its dimensions is an increasingly common motif in a variety of recent memorials. Anyone who has visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum can attest to the devastating experience of encountering the mounds of shoes left behind by Holocaust victims. At the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the Field of Empty Chairs depicts exactly the tragedy’s scale while simultaneously creating 168 separate memorials where visitors can mourn the bombing’s individual victims. The practice of gathering everyday things can also be seen in the informal memorials, explicitly imitating cemeteries, that have sprung up in various communities in response to the Iraq War—a field of crosses in Lafayette, California, for instance, or groups of flags flown in various cities around the country, one for each soldier killed.

Fallen is a particularly subtle and disarming example of this approach, because, unlike a mound of shoes, the sight of a blanket of fallen leaves is not uncommon. Even so, the experience helps us to make concrete the sum total of our loss, a number that, when written or spoken, is, strictly speaking, precise, but nonetheless seems woefully uncommunicative.

The labor-intensive process of creating the leaves is in itself an evocative metaphor for the shaping and preservation of a collective experience that is the primary function of any war memorial. At the same time, Hammond’s artistic choices are an admission that memory is fragile and, like autumn leaves, is shifted and rearranged with the passage of time. Her re-creation of the organic and the ephemeral in a more stable material is a moving attempt to stop time, to preserve something at a moment of particular beauty, just as the families of those killed in Iraq and society at large wish to remember these fallen soldiers.

Amanda Potter is Educator for Public and University Programs at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in Columbus, Ohio, which exhibited Fallen in spring 2008. Amanda has a master’s in art history from Williams College, and an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College.

All images:

Jane Hammond (b. 1950)
Fallen, 2004-ongoing

Color ink jet print, printed from digital file retco and verso, on archival paper, cut, with matt medium, Jade glue, fiberglass strand, sumi ink, and additional handwork in acrylic paint and gouache, dimensions variable.

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Sarah Ann and Werner Kramarsky, Mr. and Mrs. David Schiff, Melissa and Robert Soros, Marion C. and Charles Burson, Toby Devan Lewis Foundation, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Nora and Guy Barron, Pam Joseph and Rob Brinker, Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom, Ted and Maryanne Ellison Simmons, 2007.6

3 Comments
  1. Melanie Lincoln Potter permalink
    December 17, 2009 2:16 pm

    I have seen this quiet, mesmerzing, and inspired creation of Ms. Hammond with my daughter, Amanda, the author here. It is as moving and memorable as any war memorial or monument, despite its colorful display and unusual medium. There are many, particularly in our government, who should see the work and reflect upon the gravity of it.

    Melanie Lincoln Potter

  2. OxfordV permalink
    December 18, 2009 11:13 am

    This is amazing- thank you for posting.

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