Quang Đỉnh Lê, better known under the name Dinh Q. Lê, is a Vietnamese-American artist. Most of his work focuses on the Vietnam War and the Cambodian genocide, in the fifteen-year period between 1965-1978. Although photographs are his primary material, he is not a photographer. Rather, images become something to question, to be deconstructed and reconstructed into something else. He specializes in taking apart well-known images and reassembling them as photographic montages. In this way, the reconstructed images introduce new narratives. Without words, Lê’s art exposes the multiplicity of point of views. In the exhibition Photographing the Thread of Memory, the Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris displays the works of an artist who is not often shown in France. Accordingly, the twenty pieces showcase Lê’s way of working, an inherent part of his art.
Personal Story and Global History
As history and current affairs obviously shape the fate of all mankind, this is even more the case for those who were born in conflict zones. The exhibition makes it clear that the artist’s story, and global events are intertwined.
Lê was born in Vietnam in 1968, during the war, in a province near the Cambodian border. A decade later, following the withdrawal of the Americans and the genocide in neighbouring Cambodia, fighting continued in his native region between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces, So he fled the country with his family. After a brief stay in Thailand, he immigrated to the United States, where he pursued an art degree. In the 1990s, he moved back to Vietnam and opened one of the first contemporary art centers in the country.
Lê’s art speaks about historical events, but ones which the artist also experienced first-hand. The works chosen by the exhibition retrace the main strands of his work, and the links he makes between current affairs, individual stories and world history. The personalising of the political is a commonly-used technique when telling stories of war, and among myriad others, in her autobiographical comic Persepolis, the Iranian-born French author Marjane Satrapi uses her personal experiences to talk about the events shaping her country.
Weaving multiple viewpoints
Photographing the Thread of Memory opens with From Vietnam to Hollywood, a series that puts together different representations of the Vietnam War. The artist takes stills from Hollywood movies and historical photos, cuts them in small strips and weaves them into each other. This photo-weaving technique, for which Lê is best known, is inspired by the way his aunt used to weave mats. This method embodies the idea that there are multitudes of points of view.
Memory is one of the main themes of Lê’s art. His work delves into the different ways it evolves and shifts. As a Vietnamese-American, he is well aware of how the same event can be remembered differently. The title of the exhibition is a reference to this exploration. In his pieces, the artist weaves together different threads of memory. The images become a medium that leads the viewers to question their perceptions. He deconstructs a story, inserts other narrative threads, and recreates a nuanced version. A series focusing on the four-year Cambodian Genocide, from 1974-78, puts into perspective diverging themes. For instance, Cambodia Reamker #11 merges a portrait taken from the Genocide Museum and frescoes from the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. The frescoes depict the legend of Reamker, a mythological epic that exalts the values of courage, loyalty, and justice. On the other hand, the portrait serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed. By associating these pictures, the piece encourages the viewers to remember this painful history while taking inspiration from the legends.
Time-based art that can resonate universally
Although his art is based on specific events, Dinh Q. Lê’s works can resonate with current affairs. His piece Adrift in Darkness portrays three rock-like volumes, made from images woven together, hovering in the air. Images of people packed on shabby boats, floating in the middle of the ocean are what inspired the artist. The pictures used depict refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, but they can also remind the viewer of the of the so-called Vietnamese and Cambodian people escaping war and genocide.
The fact that Photographing the Thread of Memory takes place at the Quai Branly Museum is not insignificant. Focusing solely on non-European artists and artworks, the museum displays different representations of the world, shaped by other cultures, with the purpose of challenging the viewers’ biases. In this way, Lê’s and the museum’s objectives are similar.
Although war correspondents had been filming combat footage since the middle of the Second World War, the Vietnam War was the first fully-mediatised conflict, where film and photographs became instantly well publicized and inspired numerous pieces of music and films, from The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Despite its abundant representation, the Vietnamese point of view is often lacking from the more mainstream depictions. By reintroducing it into the narrative with his photo-weaving technique, Lê’s pieces create choral artworks. Photographing the thread of memory thus invites the viewers to take into consideration every perspective in a story.