War is hell.
For the first time, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is opening its mysterious, decaying pre-Civil War hospital to an artist.
“When We Were Soldiers … once and young” is German-born conceptual artist and social activist Bettina WitteVeen’s site-specific installation of devastating war photos she found in historic archives and sculptures shaped like crosses. There is also an altar room with Bach playing on the sound system.
“We need to understand war in order to abolish it,” she told reporters at a Thursday preview of the poignant exhibition — which affords Brooklynites a rare opportunity to go inside the stunning shuttered hospital building.
“I want to show the long-term suffering war causes,” WitteVeen said. “We are not hard-wired for war.”
WitteVeen, who grew up in Mannheim, Germany, lives in the West Village.
The art installation’s name echoes the title of best-selling book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” by retired Lt. General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway about the Battle of Ia Drang during the Vietnam War.
She told reporters she chose the title for her exhibition because of the “aspects of loss” implied in it.
A photo of famed Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman is included in the exhibition, next to a photo of the Civil War battlefield of Antietam.
“Walt Whitman is my favorite poet,” WitteVeen told the Brooklyn Eagle. Whitman was the editor of the Eagle before the Civil War.
WitteVeen explained a bit of her creative process to the Eagle. She found photographs of soldiers, refugees and war victims in historic archives, took pictures of the photos and reprinted them from negatives. Then she retouched the photos for “a very, very long time to take out all the visual noise,” she said.
The exhibition, which is free of charge, opens on Saturday and runs through Oct. 24.
See bettinawitteveen.com to make reservations, which are required to gain entrance to the hospital.
It was America’s first Naval hospital, constructed of Tuckahoe marble in 1838. The building is part of the famed former shipyard’s Naval Annex in waterfront Wallabout, a cluster of nine historic buildings that’s going to be renovated and turned into Steiner Studios Media Campus.
The historic hospital was used to treat soldiers from the Civil War through World War II.
“If the walls could talk, this is what they’d say,” Douglas Steiner, speaking of the art installation, told the Eagle. “The message is profoundly good.”
The hospital had to be stabilized and cleaned up, and handicapped access had to be added, to get it into good shape for visitors, Steiner said.
Some of the first-floor rooms in which the installation is installed were patient treatment rooms, WitteVeen said.
There are fireplaces in the rooms, and tall windows to let in light muted by shade from towering trees. The white walls are a little crumbly. The entrance to a beautiful staircase that’s too fragile to be used has been glassed-in so visitors can see it but not enter.
The hospital basement has also been opened for the art installation. One of the most heart-wrenching of the photos hangs in an underground room — of a soldier’s corpse caught in a barbed-wire fence.
Nevertheless, WitteVeen reminded reporters that though there will be scars, the wounds of war can heal.
“I’m an optimist,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t do this stuff.”