Detail of Crossing the Farther Shore, 2014. Found photographs, thread, and linen tape. (Courtesy of Nash Baker)
Dinh Q. Lê was born in Vietnam. He lives there now, since moving back there in 1997. But he also grew up a refugee in Simi Valley, California after the end of the Vietnam War. His memories of the Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese call the American War, are as much informed by American news and movies as his life experience.
As Lê told Western Washington University students a couple of years ago (about 22 minutes in to the video below), it came as a shock to him to realize he “remembered” helicopters he never saw.
"From Apocalypse Now! It’s not my personal experience! So where is my memory of the Vietnam War today?” he said.
He's working on it, literally. The Vietnamese American artist has made a career weaving together photographs using a technique his aunt taught him to make grass mats. He pairs disparate images to highlight the argument or conversation between disparate views of history and culture.
True Journey is Return on view at the San Jose Museum of Art offers a wide-ranging collection of Lê's work, perhaps none more striking than Crossing the Farther Shore.
Lê strings together Vietnamese family photographs taken in Vietnam during the 1940s-1980s into structures resembling mosquito nets.
They aren't Lê's family photos, but they might as well be, abandoned by families like his, fleeing South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. The images depict weddings, vacations, first days of school: the quotidian stories that constitute history as much as any war.
Those who read Vietnamese will also recognize passages from the epic poem, The Tale of Kieu, by Nguyên Du (1766-1820). The poem tells the story of Thúy Kiêu, a beautiful woman who sold herself into a grim marriage to save her family from ruin. After trials and tribulation, she makes it home to reunite with her original family.
"Lê honors the past. He honors all of those lives that were lost. But he also celebrates those that are living and are thriving," says Associate Curator Rory Padeken.
This show also celebrates Lê's more abstract works. "I'm a big fan of abstraction because I think it can speak to many different issues, particularly difficult ones like loss, trauma, death. There’s no one image that’s dominating. It’s always in flux, because that’s how memory functions in the human mind," Padeken says.
The exhibition also features documentary work by Lê, including Light and Belief, a survey of the work of Communist Vietnamese artists who drew bucolic tableaus and portraits of soldiers in moments of rest between battles. The illustrations seem ripped from a children's book, and collectively, they build a narrative as fictional as Apocalypse Now and other Hollywood films.
But unlike American fictions, typically focused on white men working out their psychological travails in a country foreign to them, these paintings served a practical purpose: depicting men and women as they might want to be remembered in the event of their death at war. Lê is drawing attention to their work as a genuine, if contested, version of history.
Lê co-founded a collective called San Art in Ho Chi Minh City, one of several institutions launched in recent years as young Vietnamese educated abroad immigrate back and breathe new life into the fine art scene in Vietnam.
There's local benefit but a lot of the work travels, too. Lê and the other artists of San Art, including Tiffany Chung and Tuan Andrew Nguyen of the Propeller Group, are crafting new narratives of Vietnam's past and present for consumption at home and abroad.
'Dinh Q. Lê: True Journey is Return' is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through April 7, 2019. Details here.
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