Dinh Q. Lê’s four-story home-studio is a 25-minute drive from the center of Ho Chi Minh City. It also happens to be a five-minute walk from the home of his aunt—the same aunt who taught Lê the grass-mat weaving techniques that he still uses today in his woven photographs. The area used to be controlled by communist forces at night, before the end of the American-Vietnam War in 1975, and was one of the most dangerous areas in which to live. Fifteen years ago, it was wetlands and rice fields, but a boom in construction has led to new residential areas trickling in from wealthier neighboring districts. Lê purchased two lots in the area nine years ago and worked with an architect to design the basic structure of his home. The other buildings on his street are colorful and have open balconies; the front facade of Lê’s home is streamlined and minimalist, with clean, vertical window panels and a limestone-tiled exterior.
It rained heavily the night before I arrived, flooding the front gate and leaving the morning hot and muggy, typical of the rainy season in July. Entering the narrow outdoor foyer, we are flanked by exotic planters and ancient statues of deities, which seem to follow us as we walk into the garage. Buddha statues, in particular, inhabit every corner. To my right is a kneeling stone pair, carefully draped with regal Chinese scrolls. But the remainder of the garage is an extensive hodgepodge of stockpiled boxes and strewn supplies. Buried beneath the clutter are antique side tables, ornate urns and other unexpected treasures.
Lê’s studio is located in an adjoining room, the door to which is obscured by the heap of paraphernalia. But before we take a closer look at his workspace, Lê is eager to show me his vast collection of antiques upstairs. As we climb, he warns me that it’s a bit chaotic everywhere. He’s been busy getting his current works ready before he leaves to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday in California, where he and his family moved in 1978. Lê, ten years old at the time, has always been at a crossroads, given his American upbringing and his Vietnamese heritage, prompting the elaborate photo weavings combining evocative Vietnamese and Western war images that he produced as a graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Identity, memory and history are concepts that continue to permeate Lê’s works and installations, but perhaps with a greater urgency since his homecoming to Vietnam in 1996. Of six siblings, he is the only one currently residing here. Meanwhile, he’s been collecting as many Vietnamese artifacts as possible, perhaps to better reconcile with his past. What began as a simple endeavor to find everyday furniture for his home soon became a borderline hoarding and antique-collecting habit, turning Lê into the artist-historian hybrid he is today.
At the top of the stairs, we arrive at the central parlor that connects Lê’s sleek kitchen to his living-room space. Hanging there is a framed photo weaving from his famous series “From Vietnam to Hollywood” (2003–05). In the series, Lê juxtaposes images by photojournalists with those from Hollywood movies about the American-Vietnam War, confronting and challenging very different depictions of the conflict.
Leaving the parlor, we pass through French doors and enter the spacious living room, where Lê likes to read and research. It is a museum of Vietnamese relics—a rooftop centerpiece from a demolished Vietnamese-Chinese pagoda rests on a side table near the entrance, while two dark-wood curio cabinets displaying an elegant menagerie of more than 200 ancient ceramics line the left wall. Lê speaks with particular reverence of the deceptively contemporary-looking pieces created during the Ly dynasty that flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries. He reveals that he spends hours scouring an antique shop on Le Cong Kieu Street in the city center for these bygone treasures. Then, crossing to the other side of the room, he tells me the story behind the three wooden Buddha statues standing against the wall, which were buried after the Funan kingdom of southern Vietnam was ransacked by the northern Champa kingdom 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, adding earnestly that he loves to work surrounded by beautiful objects.
Lê’s ability to trace the memory and history of each object indicates a narrative ingenuity, which is reflected in his installations. Stacks of books and papers are sprawled out on one end of the long antique table, including three piles of faded black-and-white photographs from before the American-Vietnam War. When Lê moved back to the land of his birth, he searched in vain for his own family photos, but later purchased eight boxes of stray ones. He used 1,500 of these to create a huge hanging quilt, Mot Coi Di Ve (1998). On the back of each lost photograph appears a quote from Vietnam’s famous literary work, Nguyễn Du’s The Tale of Kiềue, or from interviews with Vietnamese-Americans about the war, or from letters written by soldiers and their wives. More recently, photos from these same boxes were used in Erasure (2011), a multimedia installation in which the images were scattered throughout a bleak re-creation of a shipwreck.
Some of Lê’s other antique finds indicate that his works are increasingly documentary in nature. For Light and Belief (2012), he helped produce a film featuring interviews with Vietnamese artists sent into battle. To accompany the film, he exhibited charcoal and watercolor sketches by these artist-soldiers. He delicately lays out the drawings for me, which are protected between layers of dilapidated Vietnamese newspapers from the 1990s. There are poignant scenes of militia activities in caves and youthful portraits of Vietnamese soldiers—the drawings will be displayed again at the 2013 Carnegie International, in Pittsburgh, beginning in October. Both Erasure and Light and Belief are testaments to Lê’s commitment to preserving firsthand knowledge of the war. He explains that most Vietnamese are too fatigued to study it, preferring to move on, while the current government’s strict control of information often distorts the truth to fit its version of past events.
These are ideas and issues that Lê consistently ponders whenever he’s photo weaving in his downstairs studio, a plain, concrete-tiled room with a low platform built for these projects. Weaving can be a long process, depending on the complexity of the work. He has no assistants—he says that he is allergic to managing people—so his studio is very quiet, allowing him to meditate on future projects. He works in the evenings, from half past eight to three o’clock, or sometimes four o’clock, in the morning. The neighbors used to think he was crazy when they heard him closing his rickety automatic shutter gate so late at night.
In his studio, Lê is in the process of weaving glossy photographic paper to test the effect for his current project. He throws down a woven mat directly in front of fastened black-and-white strips of paper, plops down and pulls the strips through roller-coasters of loops by hand and then tapes them in place. For this new project, Lê is creating a series that involves different treatments of four iconic war images direct-printed on large-scale Fuji photo paper. He spent the previous evening selecting the final images—including Malcolm Browne’s famous photograph of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk immolating himself in the street in 1963—which he will transfer to a USB drive for processing at a local print shop.
Later, we look at the four images on his computer. The first of the treatments, Lê explains, is to weave the photos with RGB strips, breaking down their physical structures and rendering the basic colors of the images. The second treatment is to stretch the proportions and component colors of each of the four photos using Adobe Photoshop, afterward printing them on 50-meter rolls of photo paper that will cascade and oscillate from the ceiling. Lastly, he wants to expose rolls of light-sensitive photographic paper to the actual site of at least one of the original photographs. The paper will capture the light of the area and eventually turn black, but nevertheless manifest the physical memory of the original image at its exact location in Vietnam. These works are destined for an exhibition at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, Oregon, at the end of September.
Lê’s project is so cerebral that he almost struggles to articulate it. But it’s precisely this kind of research and conceptual thinking, derived in part from his artistic education in the United States, that he wants to promote among young artists in Vietnam who have not had such opportunities and struggle with self-censorship.
In 2007, he co-founded Sàn Art gallery in Ho Chi Minh City to support budding local artists. The gallery later rolled out a residency program that recruits three young artists every six months to help them develop exhibitions. Lê mentions that one of the current resident artists has made an appointment to meet him here at his home this same week, in order to help flesh out an art proposal. These days, young artists are lucky to get mentorship from an artist of Lê’s standing. Visiting his home-studio, they’ll find inspiration in his words, and also, perhaps, from the many Buddhas at his side.