Dinh Q. Lê Finds Beauty in Tragedy

Viewing an artwork can be a very powerful experience and the memory may stay with you for a long time. The impact can be even greater for the artist who created it. One of the most powerful works for Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê is a series he first created in 1997, shortly after returning to Vietnam—the homeland he had fled when he was 10 years old.

Titled “Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness,” the series comprised photographic portraits of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime woven together with shots of the exquisite wall carvings at Angkor Wat.

“There are certain bodies of work you’ve done, you feel it’s completed and you let it go, and some others that stay with you. I think this body was kind of, maybe haunting is not the word, but I always felt it was not complete; for a variety of reasons. At the time, I was only using photography, which had a lot of limitations; I really hate the glossy surface of photography, its plastic feel, and I always felt this body of work needs to be completely matt, because matt surfaces have a more tactile feel,” the artist explains.

With “Monuments and Memorials,” a new exhibition currently showing at STPI Creative Workshop in Singapore, the artist is revisiting this series, bringing it to a new level with the use of matt and silver paper, while also breaking new ground with mural-sized prints and his first paper sculptures.

“I wanted to use silver paper because in Cambodia there is this very interesting practice of offering (pieces of) gold and silver leaf in temples, and there is also a Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh inside the Royal Palace, which has silver tiles inlaid and many objects in silver,” he explains adding that working at STPI he has been able to print his photographs on a silver surface that gives the work an interesting holographic aspect that he had not expected.

While the works have a beautiful aesthetic, the subject matter is highly complex and only slowly emerges as the viewer studies the details. “With Lê’s works, it’s not about the first impression. One has to really look closely to be able to read and understand his work. It’s a lot more than the surface and his beautiful use of silver foil and Cyanotype,” explain Emi Eu, Director of STPI.

Issues of identity, memory and history are central themes in the Vietnamese artist’s practice which digs into his own cross-cultural and past experiences to find inspiration, weaving these into his photomontage tapestries, as well as more recent videos.

With their hometown under attack from the Khmer Rouge, Lê’s family fled South Vietnam and spent a year in a Thai refugee camp before finally being able to migrate to the US, first to Oregon, then California. His father died before Lê made his escape and his three older siblings were arrested while trying to flee, so Lê spent much of his adolescence trying to suppress many tragic memories: “We kicked in survival mode. It was very much about forgetting as much as we could, so we could move on, adapt,” he recalls.

Years later, in his third year at the University of California in Santa Barbara, he switched to art (having found computer sciences boring) and it was while he was still an undergraduate that he first started to use weaving in his work. As a young child Lê had observed his aunt weaving grass table mats that would be exported to Eastern Europe, and while he was reflecting on his own identity in relation to the USA and the notion of interweaving cultures, he created his first series weaving his self-portraits with images of Renaissance paintings that he was studying: “What I like about weaving is that it’s not something that meshes perfectly, you force the strands together, so they exist together, but separately at the same time; as opposed to the technique of superimposing, which is often used in photography and makes different photos blend perfectly.”

Over the years, his technique of cutting photographs into strips and then weaving these strips together to compose a new picture has evolved to become freer and more spontaneous: “The pattern dictates how to work with the image, but you basically have to control two images and it’s important to keep some of the key features of the portraits, like the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the outline of the face, then for the rest it’s how the two interact,” the artist explains.

Lê created “Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness” after visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh — which was once a gruesome prison where 17,000 people were incarcerated, tortured and killed under the Khmer Rouge regime — and then Angkok Wat. He was struck by the sharp contrast between the enlightenment of the Khmer Empire when Angkor Wat was built and the darkest age of Cambodia’s history eight centuries later. “I found it hard to reconcile the two eras. There was such a contradiction that it really became something I was obsessed about. At the same time I was reading a book that talked about how we have a tendency to build monuments but rarely build memorials. So for me weaving the Khmer Rouge’s victims into the monuments is a way of undermining these monuments, while remembering this most recent past,” he explains.

The beautiful aesthetic of the work is deliberate. “We have a tendency not to look at things we don’t want to see or we don’t want to think about, like war images, death, destruction — not something you would want to hang on your walls and live with. So how do you make people remember, make people live with it? I think it’s important that the work has a certain kind of beauty. Also, I’m somebody who came from so much ugliness, I did not want this to take over what I do and let it control it.”

One of his other successful weaving series, “From Vietnam to Hollywood,” wove photographs from Vietnam, some by photojournalists, with stills from Hollywood films — Apocalypse Now, Born On The 4th of July, The Deer Hunter — allowing Lê to reflect on the differences between reality and fiction, trying to reconcile his own memories of his native land with those inherited from popular culture he had experienced living in the USA.

Since the mid-2000s, Lê moved away from photography to focus on video work and installations – such as his 2006 “The Farmers and the Helicopters” installation which was shown at the Singapore Biennale then at MoMA in New York and comprised a three-channel video interlacing Vietnamese recollections of the war with clips from Western films, along with a model helicopter hand built from scrap parts by a Vietnamese farmer and a mechanic.

The latest works for STPI have reignited his interest in weaving photographs and encouraged the adoption of new techniques such as his first 3D weaving created over a rattan form and using images of protests from around the world, a work Lê points out was inspired by the plight of migrants trying to enter Southern Europe by boat, which is a tragedy that brings back painful childhood memories. Suspended from the ceiling the pieces look like asteroids floating in space, “I think that we are all sitting on a rock and floating in this dark universe,” he says.

“I’m definitely going to continue with this. I love this direction,” Lê says, adding “For this project the rocks are hanging, but for the next project, I’d like to have rocks on the floor. I’m visually imagining a room full of these rocks; I think it would be very beautiful.”

First published in PRESTIGE SINGAPORE (May edition)