September 17–December 31, 2011
Dinh Q. Lê
Dinh Q. Lê: Saigon Diary is an incisive commentary on the radical changes taking place in Vietnam as it rapidly moves away from socialism to embrace capitalism, giving birth to a new generation of consumers and their attendant waste. Over the course of a year, Lê documented in video the activities of twelve recycling women, who travel throughout the city collecting waste, to create a vivid portrait of their lives as they are interwoven into the fabric of the city.
The problem of trash is a global issue keenly felt at the local level. As one of the fastest-growing economies, Vietnam is uniquely situated to address the future of worldwide consumption. Most of the recycling women featured in Saigon Diary have migrated to the city from farming communities around the country. With few skills and little money, they frequently become itinerant shopping keepers, selling caste-off materials. Existing on the fringe of society, these women perform under-appreciated services that have a tremendous impact on the environment in Vietnam by keeping reusable goods from being dumped into ever-expanding landfills. Typical of his collaborative practice, Lê worked with people in Vietnam who represent different professions and viewpoints, to create sculptures made from items purchased from the recycling women. These objects, for instance, a boat constructed out of plastic bottles and empty medicine packages, speak to such pressing issues as high health care costs for the poor and the vulnerability of the wetlands on which Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) is built.
Women play a particularly important role in Lê’s art either through the literal representation of their lives, as in the devastating impact of Agent Orange on pregnant women alluded to in Damaged Gene (1998), or their craft. Lê’s monumental quilt, Mot Coi Di Ve (2005), is comprised of over 1,500 found photographs of ordinary Vietnamese citizens taken from before the Vietnam American War. Written on the back of these photographs are excerpts from the Tale of Kieu—an epic poem about a woman who becomes a prostitute to save her family—and stories from the Vietnamese American Diaspora. The Texture of Memory (2000-1) series was inspired by a remarkable case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder experienced by two hundred Cambodian refugees living in Southern California who simultaneously experienced a sudden onset of hysterical blindness. To honor these women and the horror they witnessed, Lê commissioned skilled Vietnamese craftswomen to embroider portraits of prisoners held at Tuol Sleng, a former high school in Cambodia, which was transformed into a prison and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s. Stitched with white thread on white canvas, viewers are invited to touch the Braille-like textiles, a process that darkens the surfaces to reveal individual faces.
Through metaphor and manipulated documentary footage, Lê’s work speaks to contemporary global conditions and speculations about the future by interweaving imagery of sacred iconography, recent natural disasters, twentieth- and twenty-first-century warfare, ubiquitous brand labels, and present-day living conditions in Vietnam as seen from within and without. His work also relates to issues of recycling and women’s labor. The malleability of fact, fiction, and personal recollections and how they interpenetrate to shape memories from wide-ranging perspectives has influenced Lê’s work for over a decade. Prevalent themes explored in his thought-provoking video, sculpture, and signature photo-weavings are memory and mythology, especially in relation to the way in which the Vietnam-American war and the Khmer Rouge regime has been represented in the media, government propaganda, historical records, and by individuals.
Dinh Q. Lê was born in Ha-Tien, Vietnam in 1968 and immigrated to the United States when he was eleven. He received his BA in studio art from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1989 and his MFA in photography and related media from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1992. In 1993, Lê returned to Vietnam for the first time and has since relocated to Ho Chi Minh City. Lê’s work has been exhibited worldwide, including solo exhibitions at the Bellevue Art Museum, Washington and the Asia Society, New York. He was featured in the 50th Venice Biennial in 2003 and in 2006 participated in both The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia and The Gwangju Biennial, Korea. His work is included in numerous permanent collections such as The Ford Foundation, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, and The Museum of Modern Art, who recently acquired The Farmers and The Helicopters, 2006, a three-channel video installation and a helicopter hand-built from scrap parts by Le Van Danh, a farmer, and Tran Quoc Hai, a self-taught mechanic. Lê also co-founded Vietnam Art Foundation (VNFA) based in Los Angeles, an organization that supports and promotes the artistic activities of cultural workers from Vietnam. With funding from VNFA, Lê and three other artists co-founded San Art, the first nonprofit gallery in Ho Chi Minh City. He is currently a member of the peer committee for Art Network Asia, and a member of the Asia Society’s international council.
The Saigon Diary project was made possible through an Art Matters grant.
Generous support for the exhibition and publication provided by the Robert Lehman Foundation.