Dinh Q. Le says he’s not angry about the American war in Vietnam anymore. This makes our interview a lot easier; we are both of Vietnamese descent and there is a chance that talking about the war could polarize us very quickly, even though we are one generation removed from those that fought.
About the same time that I thought I was being traumatized by having to play rugby and cricket in the English home counties, Le, his mother and one younger sibling were escaping from Vietnam, which included a year in a refugee camp in Thailand. Some of his family didn’t make it out and were imprisoned for trying to leave.
Arriving in the U.S. in the late ’70s, first in Oregon — which seemed like a paradise after what he had been through — then moving to southern California, Le tried to fit in and leave Vietnam behind. He refused to watch movies about the war, until his friends asked him what he thought of on-screen portrayals of the conflict so many times that he decided to catch up on the numerous Hollywood films that came out in the 1980s and ’90s.
With a few exceptions, he did not like what he saw. The simplistic and one-sided narratives prompted Le to find out more about the country of his birth and gave rise to a way of working with photography that, to a certain extent, cemented Le’s reputation as an artist.
His technique was to weave images together, literally, using source material that included iconic examples of photojournalism, such as the image of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong suspect in the temple point blank, or stills from movies that symbolically negate the Vietnamese by focusing on the white man’s hero’s journey. He learned the traditional weaving technique from his aunt, and the resulting pieces act as a counter to reductionism by valuing ambivalence, being provocative but not judgmental, and both physically and intellectually breaking up the internal cohesion of the journalistic and cinematic gazes.
In the context of post-colonialism, such work performs manoeuvres that are not uncommon: reviving a subaltern traditional craft within the field of contemporary art, and repurposing the tools and language of a historically dominant culture. The former is appealing to a first-world art viewership who would like to think themselves not racist — that is to say most people who look at art — while the latter has a long and venerable track record in guerrilla warfare, Vietnam’s national sport, so to speak. For the many supporters of Le’s work the total is greater than the sum of the parts. He is also one of very few voices that promote a nuanced and critical appreciation of events that have been successfully rewritten by a sore loser with deep pockets.
Le says the social impact of his art work, whatever that may be, is a separate issue to what that art does for him. He’s been living in Ho Chi Minh City for the last few years, and the production of pieces is now only part of what occupies his time. He cofounded the San Art Foundation in 2007, is active as a collector and now sees daily life as an aspect of creative practice. His mother has apparently come to accept that he will not be a computer engineer and that he “doesn’t have a proper job.”
In Vietnam, at least some of Le’s time is spent dealing with a communist bureaucracy that seems unsure what to do with him. He’s invited to official functions from time to time, but there is still regular pressure to defend and explain what he does. There is a counter-intuitive satisfaction in this for Le: While colleagues abroad may be plagued with doubt as to the value of their work in a postindustrial society — besides a price tag — contemporary art still has the power to fundamentally change society in Vietnam.
What about Japan? 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam and also the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. It’s no coincidence that Le has a major show in Tokyo this year, and he knows that his work is being used as a surrogate medium for commemorating 1945. After visiting the Yasukuni Shrine war museum in the run up to preparing his show at the Mori Art Museum he came upon a crowd of war re-enactment buffs, some of whom get a kick out of doing Vietnam ’65-’75.
A new video piece was created especially for “Memory for Tomorrow,” which features one of the re-enactors changing in and out of his many different uniforms, giving his opinions on war and acting out his fantasies of combat. Le’s filming and editing conveys very little in the way of comment or judgement, but nonetheless resonates with critical energy.
“Dinh Q. Le: Memory for Tomorrow” at the Mori Art Museum runs until Oct. 12; daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tue. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. until Sept. 22). ¥1,800. www.mori.art.museum. It then travels to various museums across Japan.