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Crossing the Farther Shore: An Interview with Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Lê

In Carol Ann Duffy’s War Photographer, the Scottish poet writes ‘The reader’s eyeballs prick with tears’ when they see horrific images of war-torn countries in the papers. But while photos of Vietnam in the past focus almost entirely on the Vietnam War, Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Lê seeks to do something quite different from evoking feelings of sympathy in his work Crossing the Farther Shore, instead highlighting and celebrating the beauty and joys of pre-war Vietnam to show an alternative side to the country.

Presented as part of the ongoing Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia exhibition at National Gallery Singapore, Lê was also personally in town recently to deliver an artist talk, and discussing his work, and how it has paved the way for other emerging Vietnamese artists. Speaking to Lê, we found out more about his artistry, his history, and the Vietnam he used to know and now inhabits. “It’s an honour to have my work in the museum, especially as part of a show that examines the history of the region’s photography, and for the curators to consider me an important enough part of that history,” says Lê.

The work itself sees Lê incorporating photographs taken in Vietnam during the 1940s-1980s, curated from his own personal collection of abandoned photos he’s been amassing for years, with the majority dating to the pre-Vietnam War era before 1975. The images are those that might fill a family’s photo album: portraits, scenic vistas, birthdays, and holidays. For Lê, these are important records documenting the everyday lives of Southern Vietnamese people – how they dressed, looked, and felt. Such photos are one of the few records of South Vietnam that have escaped from the Northern Vietnamese communist government’s systematic effort to erase the pre-1975 existence of the South. The photographs, some facing out and others turned inward, have been stitched together to form fragile-looking, rectangular structures, like mosquito nets.

“This work is partially inspired by my mother and our journey out of Vietnam. I remember there was this one night we were in a refugee camp, and families there would cluster around these mosquito nets for safety, and this work almost recreates that experience,” says Lê. “My mother is 90 and has Alzheimer’s disease, though she doesn’t realise it. She lives with me in Ho Chi Minh City, and nowadays, her memories keep flashing back to her life growing up, and she rarely remembers anything about her life in America. That’s why the images I chose are all about pre-war Vietnam.”

Like many other Vietnamese of his generation, Lê was a refugee, alongside his parents, as they fled during the Vietnam War for greener, safer pastures in America in 1978, where the family relocated to southern California. “The idea of the journey is important to me, and I think shows up across so much of my work,” says Lê. “For a long time, I felt cheated of a normal childhood, but through working on my art, I’ve grown to work through some of these feelings, or moving back to Vietnam, I’ve been able to confront and move past such feelings. This work also represents the thousands of happy moments in Vietnam the world didn’t get to see when they were presented with the Vietnam War. And seeing all this, you can see it’s a very joyous piece of work, as we look back on the past and remember happier days.”

On the visible backs of the photographs are handwritten texts that derive from a variety of sources including the epic poem, The Tale of Kieu, by Nguyên Du (1766-1820). The poem, considered to be the most significant work of Vietnamese literature, tells the story of Thúy Kiêu, a beautiful woman who sold herself into a loathsome marriage in order to save her family from ruin. After many trials and much suffering in far away places, she eventually makes it home and is reunited with her family. According to Dinh Q. Lê, it is a poem for which most Vietnamese people can recite the first four lines, and one with which many Vietnamese people who fled the country can identify.

“Comparing my journey with my siblings, some of them chose to stay in America, while I chose to return to Vietnam. We all have very different perspectives and experiences as refugees and migrants, each on our own paths,” says Lê. “When I was in America, I never really fit in, and kept harbouring this romanticised image of Vietnam. When I went back, it was completely different from my memory, but somehow deep down I knew it’s where I’m supposed to be. To date, I am still too Americanised to be Vietnamese, and too Vietnamese to be American. I sometimes question what in the world I’m doing in Vietnam. But maybe now that I’m older and more confident about my identity, the idea of belonging to a place is no longer as important to me, and I accept that I am a product of two worlds.”

“There are still so many stories of Vietnamese women during the war whose stories haven’t been told yet,” he adds. “I’m curious about these stories and thinking about how I would be presenting them. Like Madame Nhu, the First Lady of South Vietnam whose husband was assassinated, and who a lot of people hated at the time. Maybe it’s time to re-examine figures like her and see them in a new light.”

For Lê, time is constantly moving forward, and photography, it seems, captures the fragility of temporality in a single moment. Lê started off with a film camera, which to him, featured a magical process of development in the dark room, where simply dipping them in chemicals would cause an image to emerge, almost like an alchemist. But even the camera itself is subject to changes over time – with the revelation that such chemicals were potentially toxic and harmful to the body, and the rise of technology, film cameras are but a thing of the past.

“While it’s a pity the current generation won’t really experience the magic of film photography, they have so many tools at their fingertips now, with digital photography and photoshop to help them manipulate the medium,” says Lê. “Imagine what it’s like for me to feel amazed by how we can just send an image from your phone to your laptop, and that image can be stretched and warped however you like, and represents a new era for photography. And for me, I feel like I’m evolving and moving forward in my artistic practice along with that.”

Lê applies that same sense of positivity and optimism looking towards the future of Vietnam as well. “The future of Vietnam seems to be similar to Singapore, where now that we have such a long period of peace, we’re rapidly moving towards building up and urbanising, and working towards greater economic prosperity,” says Lê. “The Vietnam of today is no longer seen as a place of war, and it’s so much more welcoming to tourists, from the beaches to the food to the mopeds. My work is a snapshot of Vietnam of the past, and I hope that across these photos, visitors can stop to take a closer look as they tell countless stories of ordinary people going about their everyday lives.”

“Growing up as an immigrant, you were always told to study something that was viable in order to earn a living. Art didn’t fall into that category, and as much as I tried, I never saw any other Vietnamese artists out there as a role model to aspire to be,” Lê concludes. “Now I guess I’ve become the role model to the next generation of artists, and to show them that if I can do it, they can somehow make a career out of their art too. These days, even with COVID-19 slowing down some of those processes, things are picking up again and it’s a very good time for Vietnamese artists now.”

Crossing the Farther Shore is on view at Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia, at National Gallery Singapore’s Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, which runs from 2nd December 2022 to 20th August 2023. More information available here

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