Dinh Q. Lê is one of the world’s best-known contemporary Vietnamese artists. His signature “photo weavings” – which he creates by weaving photo clippings together using traditional Vietnamese weaving techniques – explore his Vietnamese-American identity and the Vietnam War. Lê has received fellowships from the Aaron Siskind Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and his work has been exhibited at galleries and museums across Asia, Europe and the United States. In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art exhibited (and purchased) his three-channel video installation, “The Farmers and the Helicopters.” A New York Times critic calls his art “the product of sharp, complex critical thinking, about an Asian war whose history had been written almost exclusively by the West, about an Asian culture with which the West was for a time intimately and violently engaged, but about which it knew almost nothing.”
Lê, whose family fled war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s, grew up in Los Angeles and studied fine arts at UC Santa Barbara and the School of Visual Arts in New York. In 1996 he moved from New York to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), and in 2007 he co-founded Sàn Art, an artist-run exhibition space and reading room in Ho Chi Minh City that promotes young Vietnamese artists. Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party censors domestic artists, but Lê – who was born in 1968, at the height of what Vietnamese call the “American War” – openly defends free expression and challenges the Party’s version of Vietnamese history.
The Days of Yore visited Lê’s airy Saigon studio last summer and later spoke with him by telephone.
Have you always thought of yourself as an artist?
I was good at making stuff, but not “art” – more like craft stuff. When I was growing up in Vietnam the idea of being an artist wasn’t really an option – it wasn’t something I thought of – and when I moved to America being an artist was definitely not an option!
So how did you get started?
When we migrated to southern California, and I was going to school, I was just starting to learn English, and that definitely had some effect – I think it helped me develop a visual sense. Also, I didn’t have any friends, so I ended up at the library most of the time looking at picture books of old master paintings. That’s kind of how my interest in art began.
Was anyone in your family creatively inclined?
Definitely not on my mom’s side. On my father’s side, my father played instruments, and my grandfather was a poet, and my aunts and uncles were all into music, literature, writing… So they were all creative, but not in the visual arts.
Your signature “photo weavings” are inspired by traditional Vietnamese grass mats. Tell me about that.
At that time [when I was growing up], a lot of people were doing grass-mat weaving. My aunt was doing it to earn extra income and maybe partly to relieve the boredom of being a housewife. She would do grass-mat weaving pretty much every day, so I was just around, talking to her while she worked, and along the way I picked up the technique.
How did your style develop from there?
[In high school], I was on a computer science track, and I was pretty bored, so I started taking art classes. Later on, near the end of my undergraduate years at [The University of California] Santa Barbara, I was interested in making work about my very problematic experience as a Vietnamese – as an Asian – living and going to school in America, being enamored with these paintings which come from Europe which had nothing to do with my past.
Early on I was conscious of trying to make something that had some part of who I am and where I came from, and so when I was thinking about the first weaving project I was thinking of this idea of interweaving my past – who I am as an Asian, as a Vietnamese – and where I was at that time, which was America learning Western art history. At some point I figured, “I can literally weave everything together using the techniques I learned as a child.”
How did your creative process evolve in Santa Barbara and later New York?
The weaving started in 1989 [in Santa Barbara], and when I moved to New York to go to graduate school, I just continued with that exploration I’d begun as an undergraduate. The change came later, when I moved to Vietnam – that’s when my work changed dramatically.
What was it like to live in New York as a young artist?
I moved to New York when I was 21 to go to graduate school at the School of Visual Arts, and as soon as I arrived, a gallery on Greene Street [Bernice Steinbaum Gallery] was interested in my photo weavings. So during my first year in graduate school in New York, I was actually showing in SoHo. It was a strange, wonderful and complicated time… Vince Aletti from the Village Voice saw and loved the work. All this happened when I was 21 in my first year in graduate school. I was getting a lot of attention, but at some point, I realized that I was really too young for it. I didn’t have a developed sense of who I was or what I wanted my work to be about.
What were your early photo weavings like?
I was interested in master paintings from Europe, so I started to cut them up and weave my self-portraits into them… At that time “identity politics” was very common in the art world, and my work fit right into that whole movement. It was an interesting time: The work was very personal, and I was really young, and I felt a lot of pressure to put my work in the “identity politics” context. And that was kind of stressful.
How did you support yourself in New York?
For a while I was as an assistant to Charles Traub, who was the director of the graduate program for photography at the School of Visual Arts… I also did some work as a freelance assistant to some photographers, mostly commercial photographers – that’s how I survived when I was in graduate school.
After graduate school I was very lucky: I got a fellowship from the Asian American Arts Center, and that helped, and then I continued working as a freelance photography assistant to commercial photographers and trying to focus on making work. But being in New York was really difficult. I was living in small apartments, and it was really hard to make anything.
My photo weavings take a long time to complete, so it was really difficult to find a place to keep the work. And at that time I didn’t have enough money to rent a studio, so I was working out of my apartment – and that really was not a good mix! It was hard to be productive.
Did you have roommates?
I shared my first apartment – a loft – with three dancers, but during that time I had a studio at SVA, so that was okay. When I was done with school I moved to another apartment with a roommate, and I lived with one roommate for a long time.
And what did that roommate think about your working at home…?
[Laughs.] Well, he was very sweet and supportive, and he was a writer, so he didn’t need a lot of space. I just paid a little bit more, and we were good friends, so it worked out – but it still wasn’t an ideal working situation.
Why did you move back to Vietnam?
A variety of reasons. One was that America never felt like the place I should be. It always felt kind of temporary, and I was curious about Vietnam. I left [Vietnam] as a child, so for the next fifteen years, Vietnam was this place inside my head, and I always wanted to go and see what it was like. The first time I went out of curiosity. I was hoping to find something that would connect me, somehow, because in America I never felt like I connected to New York or LA.
When I went to Vietnam for the first time in 1993, I sensed a deep connection, but at the same time, I was so Americanized that it was difficult to really imagine myself living in Vietnam. I was so conflicted… it took a while to work that out. I kept going back and forth between ‘93 and ‘96, and that helped with the transition.
Within those three years a lot of things happened in terms of my work. When I left Vietnam as a child, a lot of experiences that I lived through – whether the Vietnam War or the war between Vietnam and Cambodia – were sort of put in the back of my mind: I tried to not think about them, and I was trying to start this new life in America. So when I visited Vietnam for the first time, all of these memories came forth, and I felt that I had to start exploring them as a way to understand what took place…
As a child, you don’t have control, and you don’t understand why things happen, so I needed to find out what happened in order to understand it and, in some way, have control over it. That triggered a lot of projects – Cambodia: Splendour and Darkness, The Quality of Mercy, The Headless Buddha. It took me a couple of years to work through those three projects.
Also, living in America was interesting because I was an immigrant. One of the big issues was this idea of my relationship to America: “How do I engage with this place? How do I assimilate?” That was a very big concern – and it sort of stopped [me] from seeing anything else. It was a problem that became very apparent when I moved back to Vietnam and realized there was a whole world out there…
When I moved back [to Vietnam], a lot of memories had shifted and mutated over the years, so I was interested in how some memories stay the same and some change. Now that I’ve been back to Vietnam for 16 years, I feel comfortable speaking about contemporary Vietnam… I see there’s a desire to move on from war and create new memories. But going back to the wars, the Vietnam War or the war between Vietnam and Cambodia: Vietnam hasn’t really dealt with those memories on an honest level yet, in part because the Vietnamese government has their own version of the Vietnam War, and Vietnamese cannot deviate from the version dictated by the government.
A lot of people decided to not deal with it and move forward with building new memories, and it’s interesting how they bypass the history of dealing with the Vietnam War and move onto something else. But I think a lot of people – particularly people who were part of the war and are older now – are really interested in talking about the war and trying to understand it, but the environment is not really conducive. Once in a while you see flare-ups… Many times books about the Vietnam War are banned [in Vietnam] because they deviate from the version the Vietnamese government wants people to hear… The Vietnamese government is trying to figure out what to allow and what they think the people are not ready to hear… Many of the new memories are so connected to that past history that you can’t talk about new memories without talking about the war. It’s an interesting dilemma that Vietnam’s going through at the moment.
Last August, Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times that your MoMA video installation, “The Farmers and the Helicopters,” was “very much a woven thing” – i.e. that it recalled your earlier photo weavings. Do you agree?
I completely agree with Holland Cotter. [My] “From Vietnam to Hollywood” is basically a series of found photographs – everyday snapshots from Vietnam, Hollywood film stills of movies about the Vietnam War and images taken by photojournalists during the Vietnam War – and the three are cut up and woven together to create this landscape of images that are neither fact nor fiction. That structure translated to “The Farmers and the Helicopters”: The three video channels wove together images [of Vietnamese speaking] about their memories of the helicopter and documentary footage of a helicopter in Vietnam.
In relation to the photo weavings, the video went a couple of steps further: For the first time, Vietnamese voices are heard. Whether in documentary footage or in Hollywood movies, the Vietnamese are always on the side and they barely say anything; most Hollywood movies are really about American soldiers in Vietnam. I was interested in giving the Vietnamese a platform to speak about the Vietnam War for the first time.
You’re also giving young Vietnamese artists a platform to express themselves at Sàn Art, your artist-run exhibition space in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon). Tell me about that.
After I moved back to Vietnam, young Vietnamese artists would come to my house, and they were so hungry for information about what was happening in contemporary art. They didn’t know anything about it. So we started out with the idea of introducing them to what artists in America and Europe and elsewhere were doing. The fine arts universities in Vietnam don’t teach anything about contemporary art: Students’ knowledge of art ends around 1950 – and that’s being generous! There was a gap we needed to fill.
We started out by inviting artists and curators and writers to come and talk and do workshops. For the first year we set up the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts, and after a year, we realized [young artists] needed a space to explore and experiment with these new things they learn. So we opened Sàn Art about three years ago. We exhibit young local artists and international artists, and it’s been very successful. A lot of artists who have shown at our place have at least a regional presence, and many of them now show abroad in Asia and some in America and Europe.
We’re thinking of taking the place to the next level: We’re thinking of opening up a residency where young artists can come in and work with us. It will function almost like a graduate program. We’ll identify promising artists and work with them for six months, nurture them along, push them with their ideas. And after six months they’ll have a show with us, or something like that. This is a new model we’re thinking about. We’ll have to look for funding. Hopefully we’ll be able to find it.
What advice do you give young Vietnamese artists?
I think being hungry and curious, having the desire to ask questions all the time, is very important. I tell them that today, it’s possible to have an international career starting in Vietnam. Curators come through all the time. Today, actually, a curator from SF MoMA [Apsara DeQuinzio] will come to Saigon to do a series of studio visits… Young Vietnamese artists don’t have to be in New York or LA anymore.
But if they ask too many questions in Vietnam, they may run into trouble with Vietnamese authorities.
Yes, that’s the condition they grow up with, and that’s a problem: They self-censor even before being censored. Sàn Art is trying to make them aware of how self-censored they are and help them break that barrier. It doesn’t matter if the government censors you; your imagination, your desire to know, to learn and to create should always overcome censorship. Even if the work is censored, just knowing that you made something is enough… Even if it sits in the closet in your house, the satisfaction of knowing that you made something regardless is very important.
Interview by M.I.
Images courtesy of the artist:
1.) Cambodia: Splendour and Darkness, 2004
2.) Cambodia: Splendour and Darkness, 1998
3.) From Vietnam to Hollywood, 2006
4.) The Headless Buddha, 1998
5.) Born on the 4th of July TC, Persistence of Memory Series, 2007
6.) The Farmers and the Helicopters, 2006
7.) The Farmers and the Helicopters, 2006
8.) The Quality of Mercy
9.) The Quality of Mercy, detail