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In 1966, during the Vietnam War, Richard Hunt was on a top-secret mission, flying over the South China Sea. It was a routine mission, until suddenly, the plane runs into mechanical failure, and begins to drop altitude. The pilot signals for everyone to bail out of the plane, to check their parachutes and jump.
Hunt and three other men bailed out into the ocean. The Navy later recovered one of the soldiers' bodies, but the rest were never seen again.
Eastern Shore based artist Benjamin Bellas wasn't born for another 10 years after that. During his childhood, he was told simply that his uncle had disappeared at sea. It confused him. "I don't think as a child you understand death, but you don't you understand someone vanishing as well." It's something, he says, he's been thinking about for a long time.
In his new exhibit, losing something you never had at CulturalDC's Flashpoint Gallery, Bellas digs through maps, slides, and his uncles old uniforms to create a sense both of forensic investigation and loss.
Some of the pieces of art are made using his uncle's belongings, like the standard issue pea coat that Hunt got when he enlisted. It's sitting upright on the floor, filled out by bunched up paper. But not just scrap paper. It's stuffed with the article that ran in the newspaper after he went missing.
Bellas says he's interested in how context changes the way we see an object. He puts everyday items on the floor of the gallery, like the pea coat, suggesting we see them as both everyday and fraught with emotion.
Not only did Bellas's uncle disappear during the war, but also 20 years later, when the Vietnam War Memorial was unveiled, his name wasn't on it. He was omitted because of a clerical mistake, says Bellas. "The flight he was on was recorded as an operation flight, when in fact it was a combat flight. They got the code wrong."
Bellas's sister recently took up the cause, and worked for a year and a half to have Richard Hunt's name added, which finally happened in May 2012.
In a nod to that memorial, Bellas created his largest piece in the Flashpoint exhibit — a 35-foot long blue rectangle. It mimics the scale and shape of the Vietnam Memorial. Only this wall is blank.
"What I did is I took the latitude and long coordinates within the incident report, and placed them in Google maps and it located that point." He then zoomed in, took a screenshot and printed the image to scale.
The result is an image of the exact point in the ocean where his uncle bailed out in 1966. There's nothing there now, Bellas explains, but it's easy to imagine what might have been there the day Hunt disappeared. And in that way, the plain blue rectangle is a canvas for the viewer's imagination. Leaving us to create stories, draw personal associations and like Bellas, and lose something we never had.
"losing Something You Never Had" runs through December 21, 2012 at Flashpoint Gallery in Chinatown.
[Music: "Enjoy The Silence" by Tanghetto from Buenos Aired Remixed]