Installation view of DINH Q. LÊ, Empire, 2017, digital print on Awagami bamboo paper mounted on dibond, laser cut acrylic and Saunders paper sculptures, 1,000 × 150 cm, at “Monuments and Memorials,” STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore, 2018. Photograph Toni Cuhadi. All images courtesy the artist and STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore.

Monuments and Memorials

Dinh Q. Lê

STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery
Vietnam Singapore Cambodia

In his solo exhibition at Singapore’s STPI—Creative Workshop & Gallery, titled “Monuments and Memorials,” multidisciplinary artist Dinh Q. Lê pursued the cultural and political trajectories of Cambodia through distinct moments in its history, interweaving lovely imagery of stone friezes from the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex with stark photographs of victims taken at S-21, a notorious prison run by the Khmer Rouge during its genocidal regime. Pondering this rift between the magnificent and the monstrous, Lê investigated the notion of monuments and memorials as two extremes of humanity—one glorifies the victors, the other the victims—and how they ordain not just what, but how, we remember.

Born in Vietnam near the Cambodian border, Lê’s family fled the invading Khmer Rouge when he was ten years old. He came of age in the United States and studied art in California, eventually returning to Vietnam in 1996, where he is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City. Lê’s idiosyncratic practice has evolved from his own oblique recollections of war, home and identity to focus on portrayals not always of the war per se but, as he has explained, of “the lives we had to abandon.”

Installation view of DINH Q. LÊ’s “Monuments and Memorials,” at STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore, 2018. Photograph Toni Cuhadi.

The substance of “Monuments and Memorials” evolved from this multiplex past, and recalled Lê’s earlier practice of “photo-weaving,” though the muted palette of his new series is a departure from his previous vivid, pop-culture-laden works. Referencing the patterns of traditional Vietnamese woven grass mats, Lê’s technique involves cutting disparate photographic imagery into strips, and literally reweaving them into canny narratives. He has described photo-weaving as an exercise in both texture and layering that invokes an essence “beyond the visible surface of an image.” Lê burns the edges of most weavings, which not only seals and stabilizes the piece, but imparts a physicality reminiscent of loss, or violence.

DINH Q. LÊ, Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #32, 2017, foiling and screen print on Stonehenge paper and archival print on Awagami bamboo paper, 350 × 221 cm.

During his STPI residency, Lê revisited his 1998 series “Cambodia: Splendor & Darkness,” which wove figuration from Angkor Wat into portraits of Khmer Rouge prisoners—a synthesis of myth and documentary, beauty and barbarism. While that older series was printed on C-print semi-gloss paper, the STPI reboot involves cyanotypes, sculpture and screenprints in weavings of matt paper, into which warp and weft are injected with glints of silvery foil—a nod to traditional silver joss paper burned as offerings to ancestors. Atmospheric and melancholic, Lê’s 35 new, original works (all 2017) at STPI include large-scale wall mural weavings in which he again elides Angkor Wat’s bas-relief elephants, kings and gods with the more infinitely fragile figures of genocide victims.

Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #32 interlaces this imagery into a gorgeous construct spangled with silvery pixel-like squares. Intricate temple motifs dovetail with vague human faces in irregular intervals of pattern and value, conveying a profound sense of dimension. Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #16 depicts multiple stone doorways: dark and shimmery pixel-patterns render this work into baroque abstraction. Unexpectedly, Lê’s intricacies of reflection, texture and design generate a painterly sense of gesture.

DINH Q. LÊ, Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #28, 2017, cyanotype on Stonehenge paper, 157 × 70 cm.

DINH Q. LÊ, Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #31, 2017, cyanotype on Stonehenge paper, 157 × 70 cm.

As further reminders that these are crafted works, several cyanotypes are half-woven, reminiscent of textile wall-hangings. As unwoven “threads” of paper dangle from Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #28, both medium and image—that of a young man—falter in the act of disintegration. Some hangings are woven so tightly that, as in Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #31, elaborate stone imagery virtually fuses into a portrait. Mythical motifs hover around faces like halos, subsuming features, leaving only eyes visible, while lights shining through looser cross-hatched weavings bestow starry specks onto the walls behind them. Splendor & Darkness (STPI) #30 plays with broad woven strips of paper which merge lustrous silver with grey, beige and black contours in a moiré effect. STPI gallery lights ignite reflective silvery glare on certain works; only if viewed indirectly do shattered facets of faces emerge.  

DINH Q. LÊ, Adrift in Darkness, 2017, digital print on Awagami bamboo paper, laser cut and woven onto three cane structures, 118 × 102 × 90 cm, 50 × 40 × 51 cm, 104 × 125 × 74 cm.

The outlier in this show was the installation Adrift in Darkness, Lê’s foray into sculpture. Inspired by the current migrant crisis, Adrift serves as analogous narrative to the exodus of “boat-people” refugees, including his own family, after the Vietnam War. Three ambiguous woven forms are suspended in a darkened gallery; although they resemble rough asteroids “floating in the middle of a dark ocean,” careful inspection of their basket-like facades reveals a profusion of minute, digitally imprinted faces.

Lê deliberately makes visible his craftsman-like processes and manipulations as a way of challenging the authenticity of collective memory. His commentary on Cambodia’s current “landscape” is the 10-meter-long photocollage Empire, a monochrome panorama of temple ruins which dominates STPI’s main gallery. Delicate laser-cut forms of notable Cambodian monuments and memorials are mounted along the work. These low sculptural reliefs hover, ghost-like, above Lê’s imagery of crumbling stone, and cast frail shadows over the debris of what was once a kingdom. 

Dinh Q. Lê’s “Monuments and Memorials” is on view at STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery until 12 May, 2018.

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