Art of war: Long-empty naval hospital displays conflict photos

Art of war: Long-empty naval hospital displays conflict photos
Photo by Jason Speakman

It’s not your typical hospital art.

A new exhibit of war photography is on display inside of a long-decommissioned, 19th-century hospital at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The artist behind “When We Were Soldiers once and young,” on display until Oct. 24, says that the brutal images on display will echo the scenes of horror that were once treated on the site.

“My work deals a lot with atrocities of war and I find it problematic that people see these images, but feel no emotions — they feel detached,” said German artist Bettina WitteVeen. “So what I do is seek out spaces that convey that what I’m showing happened in this space.”

The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s hospital was built in 1838 and has treated veterans from every major US conflict from the Civil War to World War II, but it closed amidst the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s decommissioning in 1966. This exhibit is the first chance visitors have had to see inside since then — and it’s also the last.

“It’s the last time this will be seen,” said WitteVeen. “After my exhibition it will go back into private use.”

It took WitteVeen five years to secure use of the hospital, which is owned by the Steiner Studios production complex, but she says that the memories contained in the old peeling paint of the surgical rooms and the cracked beams of the treatment center made it all worth it.

“When you’re there and you see the hospital in its ravaged state, the visual message of the building itself correlates with the images on display,” she said.

The Naval Hospital’s aging patient rooms play host to horrific images of brutal war wounds, along with pictures of the nurses and doctors who treated them, arranged in visual formations that WitteVeen refers to as “Crosses of Suffering.”

In the hospital’s hallway, WitteVeen juxtaposes images of combat with landscape imagery of former battlefields in order to express the healing power of nature.

“I tried to photograph former battlefields as beautifully as I possibly can,” she said. “I’m trying to bring out the healing and redemptive aspect of nature.”

WitteVeen is not a war photographer in the traditional sense, instead curating images from wars past and present. She painstakingly restores old photographs using traditional, analog methods, which gives her images a startling effect.

“If you take the regular image you’ll see an incredible amount of visual noise,” she said. “I touch this all up, but I do it by hand, and so what you end up seeing looks almost three-dimensional.”

“When We Were Soldiers once and young” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital [Off Flatbush Avenue between Reyerson Street and Grand Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 907-5992, www.bettinawitteveen.com] Open daily until Oct. 24, noon–6 pm. Free tickets available online.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Old wounds: Photography exhibit “We Were Soldiers… Once and Young” is on display at the hospital within the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which has been closed since the 1960s.
Photo by Jason Speakman