Brightly painted coconuts with tall, green shoots sprouting from them are dispersed around the 10 Chancery Lane Gallery’s front space. The work, entitled Tropicana Migration (2015), is also the namesake of Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê’s new show, currently on view at the Hong Kong gallery. The coconuts represent humans—floating across oceans, from shore to shore and country to country—germinating new roots in new locations. Lê critically questions migration patterns of resort-goers and his country’s modern development as a result of the tourism industry, as well as the ironic attraction and lasting implications of the Vietnam War (1954–75). In flashy blue neon lights, the words “Welcome back to Vietnam! It’s like you never left” are satirically scrawled across the gallery’s back wall.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by an untitled polymer sculpture of the Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) in the center of the exhibition space. Chilling inside a glass-plated refrigerator, the figure—entirely sculpted in white, except for a colorful flowered wreath around his neck—has his hand raised to the passersby. The installation allows the audience to voyeuristically peer through the glass—like one can do with his real, embalmed body at the climate-controlled Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, which is open to the public.
On one wall hangs three of Lê’s signature photo-weavings that integrate imagery of lavish tourist snapshots and horrendous images of the Vietnam War, highlighting the contrast between the two opposite scenarios. The woven photographs are a result of a grass-mat weaving technique that Lê learnt from his aunt, which he has used regularly in his practice ever since. Each standing nearly two meters tall, Tropicana Fantasy 1, 2 and 3 (all 2015) allude to soldiers trekking through the dense jungles of Vietnam—their faces emerging from a predominantly green palette of collaged images.
Recreating Da Nang beach, a glistening resort area situated on the south central coast of Vietnam, two walls of the gallery are plastered with a floor-to-ceiling image of the oceanfront, complete with a bright blue sky, rocks and white sand and waves. Da Nang beach, now a fast-developing, five-star resort known as “China Beach,” was once home to the busiest United States military air base during the Vietnam War. Hung on one of these walls are three photographs of tourist promotional images, taken from Da Nang’s various resorts, onto which Lê has added black-and-white cutout photos from the region’s wartime history, highlighting the disparity between the two drastically different eras of the same location. Laying Punji Stake Trap, Furama Resort – Da Nang (2015) depicts a luminous blue sky and a white sandy beach with lounge chairs and thatched umbrellas. In the corner are black-and-white cutouts of two women with guns slung across their backs, setting up a Punji stake trap—one of the infamous booby traps of the Vietnam War—which comprises narrow, disguised pits lined with downward facing sticks that caused severe damage to the legs of those who stepped into it.
The sinister meaning behind the show contradicts its cheerful appearance. The dependency on the tourist dollar to drive a developing economy—a harsh reality indeed—means that the country of Vietnam will willingly put up with almost anything to keep the cash flowing in. A video work projected in the back of the gallery brings this darkest of realities to light. Glitter’s Paradise (2015) draws attention to the portrayal of Vietnam as an escape and hideaway site for pedophiles and child molesters from abroad. The title Glitter’s Paradise references the former glam-rock-singer-turned-pedophile, Gary Glitter, who, in 2006, was arrested in the southern coastal city of Vung Tau, and later convicted, for child sex abuse. Lê’s video blithely begins with a bed of colorful flowers. A clenched hand appears and unfurls to reveal a small beating heart. The imagery of the video is uncomfortable to watch, the beating sound of the heart gradually slows down and creates an almost unbearable tension. The heart stops beating. The hand closes and pulls away, leaving the faintest imprint where it had once rested.
For “Tropicana Migration,” Dinh Q. Lê has created a space whose tone, at first, seems humorous and light hearted, but quickly changes to critical and sinister. The darker undercurrent of tourism is emphasized, creating a discourse around the travel industry in the developing economy of Vietnam.
“Tropicana Mirgration” is on view at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, until April 18, 2015.