Dinh Q. Lê

The work of Dinh Q. Lê was referenced in my feedback for assignment 1 as being relevant to the work I had produced.

Lê is a Vietnamese artist who works in various media but is best known for applying the grass mat weaving technique that was taught to him by his aunt as a child to produce photographic collages. Lê, his mother and younger sibling, escaped Vietnam in the late 1970s, eventually settling in the US in 1978 after time in a refugee camp in Thailand. Many members of his family were not so fortunate and were either imprisoned or killed for trying to leave. His photo weavings, which often use both Vietnamese and Western war images, can be read as a comment on the duality of his American upbringing and Vietnamese heritage and show a desire to both remember and leave the past behind.

The introductory text from Lê’s exhibition ‘True Journey is Return’ at the San Jose Museum of Art says this about his practice:

“[Lê] explores themes of departure and return, the role of the artist during times of war, and reimagining symbols of American imperialism and recent histories of Vietnam through documentary videos and multichannel cinematic presentations, delicate watercolours and abstract paintings made by his artist/subjects, and architectural structures that compromise thousands of photographs abandoned by families fleeing from the ravages of war. Engaged with other Vietnamese voices and perspectives, Lê reshapes and generates new memories and images of the conflict by giving voice literally and metaphorically to those marginalized by history.”

Luong (2013) observes that identity, memory and history are the concepts that permeate Lê’s work and installations, describing him as an “artist-historian hybrid”. Much of Lê’s work is driven by a desire to preserve first hand knowledge of the Vietnam war – something that he believes the Vietnamese prefer to move on from. The current government also exert strict control on information from the war which often distorts the truth to fit its own version of past events. Tran (2015) sees Lê’s photo weaving technique and choice of source material as the antithesis of the simplistic and one sided narratives about Vietnam:

“the traditional weaving techniques act as a counter to reductionism by valuing ambivalence, being provocative but not judgemental, and both physically and intellectually breaking up the internal cohesion of the journalistic and cinematic gazes.”

Lê’s use of abstarction in his work is commented on by curator Rory Padeken:

“I’m a big fan of abstraction because I think it can speak to may issues, particularly difficult ones like loss, trauma, death. There’s no one image that’s dominating. It’s always in flux, because that’s how memory functions in the human mind.” (Myrow, 2016)

Lê is a fascinating artist and I am glad Wendy made me aware of his work in her feedback for assignment 1. It is frustrating however that he does not have his own website as I suspect there is much about his work I am missing. Lê is clearly driven by a personal desire to understand his personal history as well as explore his identity as a refugee from Vietnam. His desire to do this in a way that refutes the idea that there is a simple narrative is appealing to me as is his use of multimedia and physical presentation in his projects – this is something that can often seem superfluous but is an integral part of understanding Lê’s work.

Mot Coi Di Ve (1998):

The title of this work translates as “spending one’s life trying to find one’s way home” and was borne by Lê’s vain search to find photographs of his family when he returned to live in Vietnam in the 1990s. Unable to locate any, he instead used images of other families he acquired to produce a huge hanging quilt installation. The back of each image has either a literary quote or text taken from interviews with Vietnamese-Americans about the war.

From Vietnam to Hollywood (2003-5):

In this series of photo-tapestries, Lê juxtaposes images by photojournalists with stills from Hollywood films about the Vietnam war resulting in a composite that challenges and confronts fictionalised depictions of the war versus the reality. In an interview, Lê has this to say about his motivation to make the series:

“As a child growing up in Simi Valley, California with the distant memories of a country whose culture and imagery was being fed back to me via mainstream television and film, it was at times difficult to pinpoint which memories were mine or popularly inherited…I chose to return to Vietnam – to determine for myself my own memories and contexts of I was as a Vietnamese.” (Butt, 2010)

The Imaginary Country (2006):

‘The Imaginary Country’ is a three channel video installation which deals with Lê’s recurring concern about how the desires and fears he feels as a refugee from Vietnam is shared as a collective experience. These themes are approached metaphorically with portraits of Vietnamese clam diggers walking into the sea visualising notions of forced departure and dreams of return. (Seikaly, 2016)

Erasure (2011):

Using the same source material used by Lê to create ‘Mot Coi Di Ve’, this multimedia installation scatters the images through a bleak recreation of a shipwreck.

Light and Belief: Voices and Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War (2012):

This installation piece compromises a video documentary which is presented alongside over 100 drawings made by Vietnamese artist-soldiers during the war at moments of rest between battles. Butt (2013) reads the work as an attempt to explore the complex relationship between art, history and society using a methodology that both builds a collective memory and questions the purpose, structure and interpretability of cultural archives while probing the stereotypes generated by popular media and national myth. Myrow (2016) describes the work as simultaneously documentary and fiction – the resulting narratives that are built from the work being as fictional as Hollywood films such as ‘Apocalypse Now’. The the difference however is that these are not fictions from a Western perspective but depictions of how the men and women shown would want to be remembered in the event of the death in war – a genuine, if contested, version of history.

Crossing the Farther Shore (2014):

Video of Dinh Q. Lê discussing ‘Crossing the Farther Shore’ here.

This installation strings together thousands of found vernacular Vietnamese family photographs from the 1940s-1980s into structures that resemble mosquito nets. Seikaly (2016) has this to say about the work:

“Candid snapshots of tourists in front of monuments mingle with baby and wedding and school photos, all portraying relatable everyday events and underscoring the misery through which Vietnamese people lived as the conflict ground on. One armature is constructed of woven images that face inward. The “absent” images are all the more alluring when compared to other structures in which images facing outward and inward are woven together. It’s a visual experience akin to hearing a fragmented conversation; it leaves one wanting more, and the want is never satisfied.”

The Colony (2016):

This video installation explores the trade and colonial history of the guano trade – the practice of mining bird excrement to be used as fertiliser. Lê presents a number of different stories with the overarching theme of the battle for the worlds resources: guano covered islands are filmed by drones with grim evidence of how this was mined in the past being shown through abandoned areas and physical evidence; online footage showing disputes about territorial rights between Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats are presented in small screens laid on the floor; the work is soundtracked with a cacophony of squawking birds, shouting sailors and arguments between American air crews and Chinese officials.

Links:

Bibliography:

Butt, Z. (2010) Interview with Dinh Q. Le, artist and co-founder of San Art, Ho Chi Minh City. POST: Independent Curators International. Available at: https://curatorsintl.org/posts/interview_with_dinh_q_le_artist_and_co_founder_of_san_art_ho_chi_minh_city [accessed 24th November 2019]

Butt, Z. (2013) Dinh Q. Lê in conversation with Zoe Butt. Guggenheim website. Available at: https://www.guggenheim.org/blogs/map/dinh-q-le-in-conversation-with-zoe-butt [accessed 24th November 2019]

Luong, R. (2013) Where I Work: Dinh Q. Lê. ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, Sep/Oct 2013. Available at: http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/85/DinhQLe [accessed 24th November 2019]

Myrow, R. (2016) Dinh Q. Lê and the art of weaving memory. KQED Arts. Availble at: https://www.kqed.org/arts/13850950/dinh-q-le-and-the-art-of-weaving-memory [accessed 24th November 2019]

Searle, A. (2016) Dinh Q Lê: The Colony review – a messy meditation on the Pacific guano trade. The Guardian, 2nd September 2016. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/02/dinh-q-le-the-colony-review-rich-messy-melange-history-technology [accessed 24th November 2019]

Seikaly, R. (2016) Memories shape a possible future in Dinh Q. Lê’s ‘True Journey is Return. KQED Arts. Available at: https://www.kqed.org/arts/13841461/memories-shape-a-possible-future-in-dinh-q-les-true-journey-is-return [accessed 27th December 2019]

Tran, L. J. (2015) Dinh Q. Le’s art of nuanced criticism. The Japan Times, August 4th 2015. Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/08/04/arts/dinh-q-les-art-nuanced-criticism/#.XdrB9C-caFU [accessed 24th November 2015]