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I have been working on this series for over 5 years. Unlike my other work made from 1992 onward, this group of pieces was meant to be shown in the U.S.
Every time I returned to California from Vietnam I would ferry back a handful of new Zippo portraits. Gradually, over the years, I explored all the mediums that I felt were the most appropriate and resonant for expressing the essence of this object called the Vietnam Zippo. Now that the series is completed I feel that all the individual pieces reflect a singular concept or in the current Saigon/English vernacular: "same-same but different".
All the artwork in this exhibition was made in collaboration with Vietnamese artisans. I worked closely with a wide variety of people in an attempt to visually communicate my intensely focused and obsessive fascination with a simple stainless steel-plated brass lighter.
This American icon, the Zippo, provided millions of soldiers with a small, but very powerful, surface on which to express their feelings about fighting a war in a small country called Vietnam. These lighters contain poetry, phrases, criticisms, endearments, illustrations, drawings, emblems, decorations and cartoons that were etched with unselfconscious sincerity and direct emotion.
They are vulgar, hilarious, insightful, poignant, sad, bitter, scandalous and vitally alive. They are documents that were made by men who literally might die the day after their Zippo was engraved and put into the pocket of their fatigues. These lighters are packed with information and expressions of a specific time and place Ñ the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War).
They cut through all the bullshit.
They were the definition of "unofficial", a free zone to vent frustrations and desires. The soldiers could, and did, put on these Zippos strong statements and drawings denouncing their own government, celebrating drug use and depicting a wide variety of sex acts. These engravings reflected their feelings of fear, hope, outrage and longing.
This series is a documentation of the Vietnam Zippo, using artwork as the medium. This series is also, more importantly, a celebration of how the human spirit is expressed, even under the most arduous of conditions. I believe that these lighters are a perfect example of how art is not an option, of how it is an irrepressible and crucial vehicle for human expression. These coded objects move me deeply and I feel certain that other people will also find something meaningful in these portraits of the "Vietnam Zippo".
Bradford Edwards July 2000 Santa Barbara California USA
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