• Issue
  • Sep 01, 2005

Dinh Q. Lê: Vietnam Memories

Vietnam Memories
by Quan M. Duong


Three decades after the end of the Vietnam War, that event is so far removed from the consciousness of those too young to have lived through it that it has attained an almost mythical status, accessible only through forgotten news clips and faded photographs. For artist Dinh Q. Lê, however, memories of Vietnam's past continue to resonate. Lê, who is well known for his photo-based montages that utilize a Vietnamese grass-weaving technique, was born in 1968 in Ha-Tien, a South Vietnamese seaport village near the Cambodian border. Lê and his family survived the Khmer Rouge's invasion of Vietnam and immigrated to Los Angeles in 1979.

Much of this personal history informs his work, which reflects on the instability of memory and the contradicting histories created by his two homelands: Lê’s photo-weavings, conceptual works and installations compel the viewer to investigate and even safeguard the past histories of these two countries.

DINH Q. LE, Plastic figurine from the Damaged Gene project, 1998.

For many in the US, prevailing conceptions of Southeast Asia are strongly shaped by popular Hollywood war films such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. "Hollywood and the US media are constantly trying to displace and destroy our memories about the Vietnam War to replace it with their version, I must keep fighting to keep the meanings of these memories alive,”1 explains Lê, referring to the Vietnamese victims whose personal accounts are often overlooked by Western interpretations of the war. His works are not meant to be critical of any political ideology. Rather, they underscore the human condition above all else. His recent series "From Vietnam to Hollywood" is comprised of ten works in which digitally enhanced color film stills are intertwined with black-and-white found images taken during the war. In The Characters (2002), the glaring presence of Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is juxtaposed with quiet portraits of Vietnamese civilians whose faces fade in and out of the weaving. In Russian Roulette (2002), gut-wrenching imagery (from Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter) of an American prisoner of war being forced to play Russian roulette parallels the powerful iconic photograph of General Loan executing a Viet Cong soldier during the Tet Offensive.

DINH Q. LE, Personal Memories, 2003, C-print and linen tape, 33.5 × 67.5 inches.

What we see in his photo-weavings is not the cinematic glamour of heroism, but the horrific nature of war and human conflict. Interestingly, the more subtle black-and-white images of the real Vietnam provide a poignant counterpoint to the larger-than-life Hollywood color depictions.

The devastation of war extends beyond the battlefield, as conveyed in Lê’s Damaged Gene project installed in a public kiosk in Ho Chi Minh City in 1998. He created and sold Siamese-twin figurines and children's clothing for conjoined twins imprinted with the names Monsanto and Dow Chemical, two of the companies that created Agent Orange. The wide-eyed and innocent expressions of the "disfigured" dolls lessen the austerity of the subject, yet provide a reminder of those afflicted by the defoliant. Presently, Lê is raising money to set up more kiosks whose profits will go to support medical facilities that treat children with dioxin-related diseases. Lê admits that Damaged Gene was the "scariest" art project he had undertaken due to its political agenda.

Constructing satellites for military purposes is a classified activity undisclosed by the Vietnamese government. Fortunately, under the country's policy of Doi Moi, or economic restructuring to a "socialist 'free' market" Lê is able to use artistic license to create his latest installation regarding satellites. A Higher Plane, Lê’s work in progress, is an installation that consists of several low-orbiting satellite replicas presented in a clark room. Mirror-tried walls and spotlights on the flying objects result in an astronomical depiction of satellites in outer space. As Vietnam joins the global economy, the need for communication satellites is constrained by lack of resources, technological infrastructure and expertise. "Still, these machines represent our highest hope and dream at this moment" explains Lê.

DINH Q. LE, Mot Coi Di Ve, 2000, black-and-white and color photographs, thread, linen tape, 10 × 20 feet.

Lê’s personal hope is that one day he will find some of the family photographs he was forced to abandon when he and his family fled Ha-Tien. Threading together 1,500 photographs he collected at second-hand shops while searching for his own, he created a "quilt" of images that is not only a surrogate family album, but also an album of Vietnam itself. The inscriptions on the backs of these images are taken from The Tale of Kieu, a Vietnamese epic poem about a prostitute, from Vietnamese stories from the diaspora who return home and from letters written by soldiers to their families. Called Mot Col Di Ve (2000), this photo-tapestry translates as "Spending one's life trying to find one's way home." For Dinh Q. Lê, weaving personal memories into the fabric of cultural history is both a journey forward and a return home.

1. Moira Roth, "From Vietnam to Hollywood," in Dinh Q. Lê. Marquand Books in association with Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 2003, p. 20.

Dinh Q. Lê's work will be exhibited in two venues in New York City. Asia Society will present his photo-based works in September 2005 and The Drawing Center will show his war drawings in October 2005.

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