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Life, Memory, and Legacy: Five Works by Dinh Q. Lê

On April 6, the passing of notable Vietnamese-American contemporary artist Dinh Q. Lê shocked the art world. During his lifetime, Lê created photography, video, installation, and sculpture works that addressed Vietnamese history.

Lê’s practice holds personal significance to me. In 2021, I had the privilege of meeting him in person for an article. Before I learned about his journey and his decision to become an artist, I had very little knowledge of the Vietnam War. His journey and art helped inspire me to pursue a Master’s degree at the LASALLE College of the Arts and write a thesis about his works.

Lê’s works give us a pivotal perspective through which we can learn about war in Southeast Asia in a different light. Let’s take a look back at these memories through visual art and photography. 

Dinh Q. Lê. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, image courtesy of STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore.

A life in art

Lê was born in Ha Tien, a Vietnamese town near the Cambodian border, in 1968. In 1978, he and his family evacuated Vietnam due to the Khmer Rouge invasion. They escaped first to Thailand and then to the United States, where he pursued photography studies in California. In 1993, however, Lê decided to return to Hanoi where he felt closer to home and settled there for the rest of his life.

Focused on issues of identity, history, memory, and war, especially in the Vietnamese context, Lê’s works were renowned and recognised by the art world through international exhibitions and biennales. Through his remarkable dedication to contemporary art in Vietnam and the world, he received prestigious awards including the Prince Claus Fund Award in 2010. Globally, he was co-represented by the galleries P.P.O.W. Gallery (New York), 10 Chancery Lane Gallery (Hong Kong), Elizabeth Leach Gallery (Portland), Shoshana Wayne Gallery (Los Angeles), and STPI (Singapore). Besides his career as an artist, he also co-founded San Art Gallery, based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

To remember Lê’s legacy, I have chosen to highlight five important works or artwork series that illustrate his concerns and approaches over the years.

1. Crossing the Farther Shore (2014)

Detail of Crossing the Farther Shore (2014), found photographs, cotton thread, linen tape, and steel rods, dimensions variable. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image by author.

Prior to this work, Lê had created an installation titled Mot Coi Di Ve (Spending One’s Life Trying to Find One’s Way Home). This artwork title came from famous Vietnamese song lyrics. The work is a compilation of 1,500 photographs taken before the Vietnam War, portraying ordinary Vietnamese families and found in flea markets and secondhand shops. The photographs were attached together with string and then hung on the wall, resulting in a huge quilt of photographs in the shape of a long rectangle.

The selected photographs showed happy smiles and moments between family members from before the war began. The artwork is thus tied to the memories of refugees, who had to leave the place where they spent joyous days in order to save themselves from war.

In 2014, Lê expanded this project into a larger version titled Crossing the Farther Shore. Here, the photo quilts are adapted into cubes of various sizes, resembling the mosquito nets under which he used to sleep as a refugee. Though placed close to each other, the photo cubes communicate the vast distances covered by refugees as they find new places to call home.

Behind the photographs are handwritten texts, including excerpts in Vietnamese, English and French from Nguyen Du’s The Tale of Kieu, one of the most important poems in Vietnamese literature. The poem tells of the journey of Kieu, a woman who must sacrifice for her family’s sake and face various struggles throughout her life. The artwork and the poem are linked, for both tell stories of overcoming hurdles to build new lives and new homes.

2. The Farmers and the Helicopters (2006)

Installation view of The Farmers and the Helicopters (2006), 3-channel video installation, 15 minutes. Image courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

This installation consists of a handcrafted helicopter and a 15-minute, three-channel video. One of the interviews in the video features the Vietnamese farmer Le Van Danh and the self-taught mechanic Tran Quoc Hai, who built the helicopter, recounting their first experiences of seeing helicopters during the Vietnam War. To the video, Lê also adds images and sounds from Western films, portraying American helicopters arriving in Vietnam.

Installation view of The Farmers and the Helicopters. Image courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

The Farmers and the Helicopter expresses how different perspectives interpret the helicopter differently—as a deadly war machine that kills people, but also a mode of transportation that can fly and save lives. Representing these various perspectives, it weaves a conversation between people and technology. At the same time, it also—like much of Lê’s work—shows hope that Vietnam will remember the stories of its older generations, even as many younger Vietnamese leave behind the country’s history.

3. Untitled (From Vietnam to Hollywood) (2002-2005)

Untitled 3 (2004), C-print and linen tape, 85 cm x 170 cm. Image courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

This artwork series employs photo-weaving techniques inspired by Lê’s aunt, who used to weave grass mats. Featuring American movie industry logos, famous war images by photographers like Nick Ut, Eddie Adams, and Horst Faas, and Hollywood movies like Russian Roulette (1975), the series highlights the Hollywood movie industry as a key symbol of Western cultural domination. 

Through these works, Lê grapples with identity, history, memory, and conflicting versions of the Vietnam War. As someone who experienced the war in person, Lê here examines and challenges the American point of view, while also acknowledging that his own memories can be influenced by the dominant narrative. The series reminds us of how movies can function as propaganda, while persuading us to see history from diverse perspectives.

4. Monuments and Memorials (2021)

Installation view of Empire (2017), digital print on paper, acrylic, and paper sculptures, 150 x 1000 cm. Image courtesy of STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore.

This series of large-scale three-dimensional photo weavings can be traced back to a 2018 exhibition of the same name at Singapore’s STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, in which Lê reworked his 1998 series Splendour and Darkness. Inspired by a 1996 trip to Cambodia, Lê depicts disparities between beautiful architectural sites like Angkor Wat and memorials to victims of the Khmer Rouge like the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The works also include images of refugees from Africa and the Middle East to Southern Europe.

Instead of huge monuments symbolising the identity of a nation, the series presents fragmented pieces of memory, contrasting majestic temples from a time of cultural strength with painful, dark times under the Khmer Rouge.

5. Texture of Memory (2000-2001)

Untitled (Texture of Memory #4) (2000-2001), embroidery on cotton, 152 x 102 cm. Image courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

Finally, this series comprises 20 touchable artworks made of embroidered white cloth, for which Lê used interrogation photographs of Khmer Rouge victims from the Tuol Sleng Genocide. Here, Lê was specifically inspired by two hundred Cambodian refugees in Southern California who experienced symptoms of PTSD, including “hysterical blindness,” as they endured trauma from the calamitous past and survived in a new place far from home. 

Lê recruited Vietnamese craftswomen to embroider images based on selected photographs. Audiences were allowed to touch the artwork with bare hands, feeling the stitches like braille. As academic Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in an essay on the artist: “In Texture of Memory, emotions and memories may be intangible and invisible, but they are nevertheless so palpable as to be even more real to us than many physical objects.”

Dinh Q. Lê. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, image courtesy of STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore.

In his work, Lê—who journeyed through the Vietnam War and life in diaspora—makes history more alive through personal experience, also expressing how there can exist multiple perspectives on the same historical incidents. His presence may now be gone from people’s lives, but his legacy and dedication to Vietnamese contemporary art will always live on in memory.


Header image: Installation view of a work from the Splendour and Darkness (STPI) series (2017) as part of the exhibition Monuments and Memorials at the STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery in 2018. Image courtesy of STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore.

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