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Art installation 'Battlelands' takes audiences into the mind of war veterans struggling with PTSD

Meiro Koizumi

Meiro Koizumi

In Battlelands, a video installation currently at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, artist Meiro Koizumi takes audiences into the experience of PTSD through the use of body cameras. It’s a disquieting piece that runs on a loop.

The one-hour installation features seven American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but you never see them beyond their hands and occasionally their feet. The camera is strapped to their head, and they’re blindfold so they can’t see as they walk around and attempt to describe their homes and neighborhood. There are also audio clips where each veteran describes traumatic things that happened to them while they were serving.

Born in Gunma, Japan, and now working in Yokohama, Japan, Koizumi has dealt with the subject of war previously in his films, including pieces where he has worked with Kamikaze pilots and Japanese survivors of bombings during World War II.

“Sometimes I think, 'Maybe I want to work with something nice, something lighter, something more beautiful,'" he says. "But somehow I always come back to this theme. It’s something that I cannot escape from.”

Battlelands is Koizumi’s first project working with American subjects. He began the process by first interviewing a group of veterans, discussing their lives and some of their struggles.

“The people who were in the video were recovered enough to do this kind of project,” he says. “They are not the same person as before, but they found a way to somehow reconnect with society… They understood what I wanted to do, so they were like, ‘Oh that’s cool, let’s do this.’”

Once Koizumi edited the film, he showed his work to the veterans, allowing them to decide if they still wanted to be part of the project. So far, none have backed out.

The trust Koizumi has built up with the veterans has gone beyond just making the video. “I think he does a very good job staying in touch with them and keeping them abreast with what’s going on [with the project and exhibition]," says Gabriel Ritter, curator and head of the department of contemporary art at Mia. “It’s an ongoing situation with the participants.”

Sound plays an important role in the film. That includes the use of silences, and also breathing. “Breathing is really important, especially when you want to describe something psychological,” Koizumi says. “More than half the editing is about editing the sound.”

At one point in the film, the sound of fireworks act as a trigger, not just for the veteran hearing it, but also to help bring the audience into the experience of what a PTSD episode might be like.

Koizumi is an artist, not a therapist, so he doesn’t know for sure what impact participating in the project had on the veterans he has worked with. However, one veteran, who is also a therapist, told him that participating in the film was helpful for him.

For the audience, Koizumi hopes the piece offers a window into what it might be like to suffer from PTSD. “The state of PTSD or the state of difficulty -- it’s never tangible,” he says. “If you don’t have a leg, it’s tangible. Something with psychological scars; it’s not easy for us to grasp or visualize their difficulties or state of mind. My hope is that artwork like this will help visualize the invisible complexity of this psychological state so that it will create the opportunity to understand what is really going on.”

Koizumi’s work helps present a clearer picture of the aftermath of war. “In normal, everyday life, we are not allowed to kill anyone,” says Ritter. “But somehow in war this is sanctioned. Because this is sanctioned, you are allowed to exist and operate outside of normal moral codes. [Koizumi] is interested in what that means to then come back to daily life and switch back, because the switch doesn’t go on or off as easily for individuals.”

Rather than depicting veterans as the stereotypical hero, Koizumi shows them as human beings who are fragile. "This way he gets you into another person’s shoes," says Ritter. "That’s quite powerful and important to share with a general audience.”