On Tuesday, March 4, artist Dinh Q. Lê lectured students and community members in Kresge Theater at Carnegie Mellon University about his artwork in the final “Artist Talk” of the 2013 Carnegie International.
Lê, a Vietnamese-American artist, is one of 35 artists represented at the Carnegie International, and one of five to have been represented in the “Artist Talk” series.
“Over the past 20 years, I’ve been committed to the artistic process as a way of uncovering history,” he said.
His Carnegie International work, “Light and Belief: Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War” (2012), includes an exhibit of drawings and paintings by Vietnamese artists depicting life during the Vietnam War that were curated by Lê, and a documentary about some of the artists who made the works.
Lê was born in South Vietnam, but he and his family escaped by boat and relocated to southern California in 1979 when he was 11 years old to avoid the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
“America was never home,” said Lê. “When I [went back to Vietnam for the first time] in 1994, even though I was totally Americanized, I knew that this was my home.”
He has been living in South Vietnam since 1997.
Lê’s art career began in 1998 with his work “Mot Coi Di Ve”, a quilt-like curtain of old family photographs abandoned in Vietnam.
Lê had begun collecting old family photos in hopes of finding the ones his family had left behind when they fled their home. “These photographs became surrogate family photographs for me,” Lê said. “They remind me of my childhood.”
Although Lê has not found any of his own family photos, he felt it important share his collection with the public. “Most of these are happy moments,” said Lê. “I want the world to see this side of Vietnam.”
Another of Lê’s major works is “Damaged Genes” (1998), a commentary on the effects of Agent Orange used by US troops in the Vietnam War on civilians. The chemical Agent Orange can cause deformities in people who are exposed to it. It affects people on the genetic level, and health problems can be passed down through generations.
According to Lê, the United States and Vietnamese governments have almost entirely ignored the issue, and Vietnamese citizens treat the topic as taboo.
“We keep moving away from all these very ugly subjects that we don’t want to deal with,” Lê said.
Lê opened a kiosk in a Vietnamese shopping mall and sold souvenirs (including disturbing two-headed baby doll figurines and clothing for two-headed people) to start a conversation about Agent Orange’s damaging effects.
According to Lê, about half of the passersby ignored his kiosk. One-quarter stopped, looked, and walked away. The rest stopped, looked, and began asking questions about his work.
Lê’s is also concerned by Hollywood’s depiction of the Vietnam War. “I had always felt that Hollywood had left us out in their films,” said Lê. “Over the years, I started to insert regular [Vietnamese] people into the Hollywood history.”
Lê has done so in his work “From Vietnam to Hollywood” (2003-2005) by “weaving” imagery from popular Hollywood films about the War with images of Vietnamese citizens, many of which came from his collection of abandoned family photos.
Another of Lê’s works deals with the perception of Vietnamese emigrants. “Erasure” (2011) is a response to Australians’ general disdain for “boat people,” or refugees who flee their country by boat and seek asylum in more stable countries.
“These people are people, and most of the time they don’t want to leave their country,” Lê said. “In the discussion about the boat refugees, a lot of people forget about that. I want people to look at this on a more humane level.”
This work is set up like an excavation site, with pits brimming with family photographs that people can pick up and examine. Archivists are in the process of logging the photos on a website so they can be viewed around the world.
Lê’s main goal as an artist is to give a voice to his home country through his art. He said, “I’m trying to understand each perspective [of the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam], and at the same time preserve some aspect of the southern side of the War.”