Project Series 6: Dinh Q. Lê
Meshing the personal, the historical, and the mythological, Dinh Q. Lê's new work addresses the devastating impact of Vietnam's recent history on the people of that country. Although intensely personal, Lê's work also addresses universal issues of loss, memory, death, the dislocation of forced migration, acculturation, and the impact of historical events on individual lives. Born in Vietnam, Lê emigrated with his family to the United States in 1979. He now divides his time between Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge's brutal invasion of his hometown in Vietnam and a refugee of the Vietnam War, Lê's work reflects this horrifying and emotionally wrenching experience. The combination of his family's personal stories, broader social and political issues, and a unique aesthetic vision creates a body of work that resonates powerfully.
Lê's exhibition includes a photographic installation, Mot Coi Di Ve, and a two-channel video installation, Snake Juice. While the pieces created for this exhibition represent a new direction for the artist, they also demonstrate his commitment to many of the issues and ideas he has explored in the past. Lê's earlier work raised questions about his identity, becoming almost a documentation of his explorations into the different cultures in which he lives. His two most recent series of work include both distinctive woven photographs and public actions, videos, and a sculptural installation that examined the impact of the chemical Agent Orange on the Vietnamese-years of exposure to this defoliant resulted in an alarmingly high rate of birth defects, specifically congenitally united twins. Lê constructs his hauntingly beautiful woven photographs by cutting the original photographs into strips and weaving them together using a traditional Vietnamese method of grass-mat weaving he learned from an aunt. The subject matter of the photographs is also a weaving of the personal, historical, and mythological. Lê splices images of the stone carvings from Angkor Wat in Cambodia with both self and family portraits and with the devastating portraits of the men, women, and children killed by the Khmer Rouge (from an archive compiled by the Khmer Rouge).
Lê, in this exhibition, again links the personal with the historical and mythological. Over the last several years, He visited many second-hand shops in Ho Chi Minh City hoping to find the photo albums that his family abandoned when they escaped from Vietnam to Thailand in 1978. In his search, he looked through thousands of old photographs and family albums. Lê remembers that when they escaped, his mother was able to take only a handful of family photographs. Realizing that the previous owners of the family albums were similar to his own family in that they also had to abandon their personal possessions and escape from Vietnam, Lê feels an affinity with these found albums. In many ways, these photographs are the photographs of his family, and raise questions for him about their fate: are they alive, where are they now?
Lê bought thousands of old family photo albums. Attaching the photographs together, he created a curtain-like story-quilt about the people of Vietnam. He titled it after his favorite Vietnamese song, Mot Coi Di Ve, which means spending one's whole like trying to return home. He inscribed the back of all the photographs with three different sources: the text of Vietnam's most famous literary work, The Tale of Kieu, written by Nguyen Du, Vietnam's greatest poet; excerpts from interviews with Vietnamese-Americans about their experiences, from the book Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives; and excerpts from letters from soldiers and their wives during the Vietnam War. The piece hangs from the ceiling to the floor, and allows the viewer to walk around it, looking at the thousands of mostly black and white photographs, while reading the texts in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, and French. By appropriating these family photographs almost as if they were his own, he both intensely personalizes them but also generalizes their content, allowing every viewer to share in the heartaches and remembrances and to see in them their own experiences. In addition, Lê brings to the surface the death that resides underneath the photographic moment. These images act as momento-mori-the people frozen in portrait are anonymous and unidentified, and yet, through Lê's own experience, each image testifies to an individual and unique existence.
There are about three to five million Vietnamese scattered around the world, and probably close to a million in the United States alone. Many escaped from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to the Communists in 1975 (and the later rise of Ho Chi Minh City). As conditions worsened in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, additional waves of refugees attempted to escape. Living in exile, many refugees experienced devastating losses-of relatives, friends, homes, personal possessions, social status, and a meaningful source of identity. James Freeman, in the book Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives, compiles the personal stories of fourteen people whose lives were devastated by the war and the refugee experience. He explains how the personal losses, as well as the terrifying ordeals as prisoners in reeducation camps and jails or as "boat people" fleeing Vietnam, led to an underlying similarity in the Vietnamese refugee experience-that of the profound sorrow in knowing there is no homeland to return to and a way of life is gone.
Vietnamese refugees are often referred to as "Viet-Kieu," which means essentially "overseas Vietnamese" (however, not all Viet-Kieu are refugees; many may have migrated before the war or left Vietnam in statuses other than refugee) and stems from The Tale of Kieu. Freeman discusses the impact and importance of this epic poem on the Vietnamese. Written in the early nineteenth century, this long narrative poem tells the story of a heroine, Thuy-Kieu, from a good family who had to turn to prostitution but was eventually redeemed. Due to tragic events, she was forced to leave her home and country. Over many years she retained her positive outlook and purity while being betrayed, dishonored, and subjected to terrible ordeals and suffering. Eventually, she was able to return to her homeland and be reunited with her family.
In the introduction to The Tale of Kieu, translator Huynh Sanh Thong states how many refugees, often psychologically and socially estranged from their host country, derive spiritual comfort from Kieu's story. He explains how, for many Vietnamese-especially those born and raised in Vietnam, this poem defines the core of the Vietnamese experience. The story, through Kieu's trials, addresses them intimately as victims, refugees, and survivors. Her forced prostitution to save her father is often interpreted as a metaphor for the betrayal of principle under duress and the submission to the force of circumstances. Most generally, Kieu stands for Vietnam itself, a land well endowed with natural and human resources, but often doomed to see such riches go to waste or being destroyed. Particularly during and after the Vietnam War, many people identified with Kieu. Between 1965 and 1975, the United States's crusade to free the world of communism had tragic consequences in Vietnam. The traditional society was torn apart and the coming of war bred unrest, crime, and prostitution on a vast scale. The country was devastated with fighting, bombs, and Agent Orange. Despite the difficult ordeals the Vietnamese, and Kieu, endured, Kieu's story conveys a message of hope for both the individual and the country.
In contrast to the poignancy and heartbreak reflected in The Tale of Kieu and in the story-quilt, Mot Coi Di Ve, Lê's new video installation, Snake Juice, focuses on contemporary life in Ho Chi Minh City and the links between past and present, myth and reality. In the video, there are two elements. One is the traffic scene on the extremely crazy streets of Ho Chi Minh City and the other is the making of the traditional "Snake Alcohol." Lê says that to make the alcohol, nine different snakes and one blackbird are killed, they are all then pickled in rice wine and herbs. After one hundred days, the alcohol is ready for consumption. According to Lê, "Snake Alcohol" is a curative that makes one stronger: it heals both physical and psychic aches and pains. Lê uses the metaphor of the making of the alcohol as the perfect way to talk about the violence, the war, that Vietnam had to go through in order to heal and make the country whole again. In Snake Juice, the traffic scene represents for Lê the moving forward of Vietnam into the future.
With two, very different, new works, Lê thoughtfully explores Vietnam's history, his own role in that history, and the impact on Vietnamese worldwide. The curtain-story-quilt examines these things on a very personal level, but the repetition of his family's story in hundreds of other families' photographs moves this work to a universal realm. These found, appropriated, photographs personally affect us as if this was our own history. The tragedy of loss and the haunting impermanence of personal and cultural memory pervades this work, and suggests the inevitability of death for everyone. Individual family portraits become archetypal images, familiar signs in our culture that trigger associations for all of us-they represent a collective memory of loss. The video work looks to the future, and affirms life in the rush of urbanity and in traditional cures for strength. Ultimately, Lê's work, while broaching devastating themes of loss and death, also evokes life itself by presenting us with reflections of ourselves and our world.