In Benjamin Bellas’ show at Flashpoint, “Losing Something You Never Had,” the idea of loss is conveyed, paradoxically, with tangible objects. It includes artifacts belonging to the artist’s uncle, who was lost at sea during the Vietnam War, alongside Bellas’ own work, which was inspired by his uncle—-or rather, his ongoing presence in Bellas’ life.
Though born a decade after his uncle’s disappearance, Bellas witnessed the struggle his family went through to get the soldier’s name inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His uncle had been disqualified from the wall due to confusion over the classification of the mission he was on during the war. It was an error the Bellas family had been trying to correct since the memorial was unveiled in 1982. On Memorial Day of 2012, his name was finally added. What came, for Bellas, was a sense of “vindication or relief, or something of that nature.”
But 20 years of red tape, complications, and rejection left a deep mark. “The distinction just felt really hollow to me in a way,” Bellas says. “It made me question how it is that the government decides who is a hero and who isn’t a hero, and maybe collectively as a culture, how we decide those things as well.”
Some of the documents he found while researching his uncle’s history are included in the exhibition, along with some of his uncle’s personal belongings, like a Navy peacoat and an old typewriter. He says the show’s goal is to merge those objects with his own work, to blend documentation with art. It represents a melding of two experiences similar to what some might find at the Vietnam memorial, which Bellas still considers the single greatest monument in the United States. “If you don’t have a particular connection to it or a particular name you’re looking for, you’re simply overwhelmed by the number of names,” he says. “But when you can go there and see a name that has meaning for you, it’s a completely different experience.”
The show at Flashpoint aims to find that difficult and sometimes unplaceable feeling of absence, and harness it to draw people together. He recalls a man he met at the show’s opening reception at Flashpoint on Nov. 9: “There was a gentleman who had lost an uncle in World War II before he was ever born,” he says, “so he and I could talk about what that thing is—-about missing something, but not missing it in the sense of pining for it or knowing what exactly it is, but just simply knowing there’s an absence.”
While the show encompasses video, sculpture, photography, and other media, Bellas constructed the different pieces simultaneously. That choice lends a sense of cohesion to his works—-which are all labeled “Untitled” with a corresponding number. “They’re all operating under this same thing, they’re all points on a globe, they’re all electrons circulating around a nucleus,” Bellas says. “They’re linked to the same central idea of loss, but are doing so from different locations outside of it.”
The exhibition is on view at Flashpoint Gallery to Dec. 21.