Artist's work grapples with the Vietnam War's effect on soldiers and civilians
August 21, 2013 4:00 PM
MGM (From Vietnam to Hollywood series) by Dinh Q. Le,
Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Le.
'Untitled' (Columbia Pictures) by Dinh Q. Le.
Helicopter by Truong Hieu, 1972.
Woman Gun by Vu Giang Huong, 1965.
Untitled (From Vietnam to Hollywood series) by Dinh Q. Le.
By Gabrielle Banks
SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- In the summer of 1998, an acclaimed Vietnamese artist approached a vendor at the indoor marketplace in Ho Chi Minh City. Dinh Q. Le asked the woman, who worked 11-hour days, seven days a week, if she would be willing to vacate her stall for a month and let him pay the rent. She agreed.
At the time, Mr. Le, a repatriated war refugee and one of 35 artists from 19 countries who will be featured in the Carnegie International this fall, could not get his politically charged work past censors at the culture ministry.
The marketplace installation he envisioned was not, technically, art. He stocked the kiosk with handmade children's clothes, dolls and colorful trinkets like nothing seen there before. His merchandise included double-hooded knit sweaters, two-headed kewpie dolls and pairs of pacifiers melded together at the handles. Each item sold for the equivalent of $1.
The items in Mr. Le's "Damaged Gene" series were meant to spark discussion about the mushrooming rate of birth defects and conjoined twins born after Agent Orange penetrated the soil and groundwater of Vietnamese villages. Despite Mr. Le's cachet in the international art world, the souvenirs were a tough sell.
"I couldn't give them away," Mr. Le recalled in an interview with the Post-Gazette last month here at the Bergamot Station galleries.
"Birth defects are a taboo subject," he said. "Vietnam hasn't dealt with the war. ... We don't have shrinks. We don't have the luxury to think about it. We have to put food on the table."
The kewpie dolls were a hit with Japanese tourists, however. They said the pieces brought to mind their country's own environmental scars, in particular, the neurological deformities that resulted from 30-plus years of industrial mercury poisoning in the city of Minamata.
By contrast, Mr. Le said, half the Vietnamese patrons passing the kiosk did not want to look at the pieces. One quarter looked but didn't engage and another quarter "was willing to engage and start asking questions."
Opening up dialogue has been a motivating force throughout Mr. Le's career, dating back to a poster series he created in response to a class at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Mr. Le was one of 900 undergraduates in the late Walter H. Capps' lecture course on the impact of the Vietnam War, which was profiled several times on "60 Minutes."
Each year Capps, who later served as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, invited Vietnam veterans to speak to these juniors and seniors about their memories of the war. Mr. Le said these testimonials were "very emotional" and he recalled that "more than half the class was crying." Few students of color were enrolled in the class in the mid-'80s, Mr. Le recalled. He felt something elemental had been forgotten.
"Looking back now, it stirred a lot of things in me," he said.
Mr. Le, 44, had experienced the war and its aftermath in his hometown of Ha Tien on the Mekong Delta near Cambodia before fleeing with his mother and three younger siblings in 1978. During their escape, his three older siblings became separated from the group and ended up in a government prison. Mr. Le lived in a refugee camp in Thailand along with his mother, young siblings, his grandfather, two aunts and two cousins. He passed through Hong Kong, Seattle and the tiny mill town of Banks, Ore., before settling in the squeaky-clean Southern California suburb of Simi Valley. But postwar Vietnam remained fresh in his memory.
Mr. Le went to see his professor and asked, "Where are the Vietnamese veterans who fought this war?" Capps told him he could not find any Vietnamese Americans willing to share their perspective with his students. Mr. Le was thus inspired to create a series of public posters on the war, comparing American and Vietnamese casualties.
Questions U.S. viewpoint
He had avoided seeing films about the war, but when he ultimately did, he discovered that Hollywood kept trotting out the same trio of stock Vietnamese characters: "We are either the shadow in the jungle, the farmer who doesn't say anything or the prostitute who is always horny," he said.
In terms of press coverage alone, the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, was "the most heavily documented war ever," he said. "There is so much belief in those images. I question that. I'm always taking the images apart, examining how those meanings are constructed," he said.
Mr. Le, whose media include photography, video, sculpture and installations, became famous for bringing opposing cultural vantage points into dialogue through photographic tapestries. He makes them by digitally manipulating found photographs, news images and Hollywood representations of the war. He cuts these into long strips and weaves the contrasting strands together in the style of traditional grass mats, a handicraft his aunt taught him as a child.
One weaving, from his "Vietnam to Hollywood" series, combines a still of Tom Cruise and Willem Dafoe from the 1989 film "Born on the Fourth of July," arguing on a barren road in wheelchairs, with Nick Ut's Associated Press shot of a naked girl running down a street after a napalm attack. Another tapestry melds an image of the gun-toting Playboy Bunny from "Apocalypse Now" with Eddie Adams' photo of a South Vietnamese general firing at a Viet Cong prisoner, with the MGM lion roaring at the center of the frame.
During two decades living in the U.S., Mr. Le found that "Americans still had not grappled with the complexity" of the war and its aftermath. Some Americans declared upon meeting him that they were proud the U.S. had tried to help the South Vietnamese topple communism. Others said they were proud to have opposed the imperialist intervention in his country's civil war. Mr. Le focuses, instead, on the nuances overlooked by both camps.
Settling in Ho Chi Minh City
Moving from New York to Ho Chi Minh City in 1997, Mr. Le gained a more global outlook on his experience and how memories are preserved. At one point he split his time between Vietnam and the U.S. but has now lived in Ho Chi Minh City full time for 10 years in a four-story townhouse he built with his longtime partner. He uses the ground floor for his studio and top floor as storage space for his works.
In 2007, he and several colleagues established San Art, an exhibition and discussion space there that nurtures young independent artists, absent the influence of government.
He also forged on with new work and solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, England, and in Santa Monica's Shoshana Wayne Gallery at Bergamot Station.
His multimedia and sculptural installation "Erasure" at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney examined the experience of refugees and asylum seekers, drawing on a December 2010 tragedy involving a boat carrying Iraqi and Iranian refugees who traveled by way of Indonesia to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Their vessel slammed into the shore and broke into pieces, killing nearly 50 passengers.
An installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 2010 through January 2011 juxtaposed a helicopter built from scrap parts with a three-channel video about Vietnamese farmers and their thoughts about helicopters during and after the war.
Mr. Le is also a prolific collector of Vietnamese antiquities and war drawings. His installation for the Carnegie International, "Light and Belief," features documentary interviews with 11 surviving war artists. These men and women explain why they answered the call of "Uncle Ho" Chi Minh to serve as "warriors on the battlefield of ideology and culture" as soldiers and/or field chroniclers in the North Vietnamese army, as one recruit, Duong Anh, puts it.
Mr. Le began collecting these made-on-the-fly works from the notebooks and packed filing cabinets of artists whom he interviewed and from the collections of their fallen peers. He learned that the works were less nostalgic war propaganda than intimate portraits of individual lives.
His film "Light and Belief" shows more than 100 drawings, sketches and watercolor paintings these elderly artists created as youths. Sometimes, he animates the artists as they describe their memories; sometimes he animates their works.
The war-era paintings depict soldiers tramping single file through the jungle and sacked out in hammocks tied between trees. There are portraits of mothers gazing into the distance with rifles slung over their shoulders, soldiers bathing in a river, fixing a ship, and singing around a campfire with a guitar.
The artists of the Vietnamese resistance recount how they would hang paintings on clotheslines or pass them around in the trenches to steady themselves before heading into a skirmish. A portrait the size of a cigarette pack would get tucked into a soldier's shirt pocket to be discovered when the soldier who had posed for it died in battle.
None of the villagers had cameras then. Some of the sketches helped soldiers identify a corpse. Others lived on in the homes of the soldiers' surviving relatives, a war artist, Phan Oan, recalls.
"The drawings would be sent to their families ... . because the soldiers had died and those portraits would be sent back with their belongings. And they would be placed on the family altars," he says in the film, which will appear in the Carnegie installation.
"When they died, their families didn't have any photographs of them. So they used the portraits as mementos to pray to on the altar. I was very moved when I saw them."
Countdown to the International is an occasional series focusing on artists and issues leading to the Carnegie International, an exhibition of contemporary art last held here in 2008. It runs from Oct. 5 to March 16 and features 35 individuals or groups from 19 countries. For more information, go to ci13.cmoa.org.