New York

Dinh Q. Lê


History is woven of many interlacing strands, whose patterns are distinct from, yet can never wholly efface, the immediacy of their individual contents. Or at least that’s what artist Dinh Q. Lê seems to suggest with his large, rectangular works (all 1998) woven out of thin strips of photographic images—on the one hand, of decorative details from the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, on the other, of faces of people executed by the Khmer Rouge. So much depends on the observer’s viewpoint here. The two registers of imagery can be interwoven so subtly that although one may seem to dominate as the other remains nearly tacit, a simple change in the viewer’s position reverses that perception. Only at the level of abstract, geometrical patterning is there any real spatial stability. Although the photographs used are C-prints, the imagery in these works is primarily black and white or toned, unlike some works the artist has shown elsewhere that used the same technique of weaving but with more dramatic color. The edges of each piece have been burned, fusing the separate strands to some extent and creating a unifying border.

“The Khmer Rouge and Angkor Wat are probably the only two things that most outsiders know about Cambodia,” artist and critic Allan deSouza remarks in the catalogue for Lê’s recent exhibition at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies. Yet to use the faces of these victims as signifiers of Western stereotypes would have been as heartless as it would have been philistine to exploit the sublime artistry of that monument merely to exemplify exotica. Lê’s images promote neither unfeeling aestheticism nor tendentious propaganda.

Though intimately affected by the history his work alludes to, the artist sees himself as an outsider of sorts. Born in Vietnam, now splitting his time between that country and the US, he experienced his own town falling victim to a Khmer Rouge invasion. So rather than pose as a spokesman or an interpreter of Cambodia’s situation, he is its pensive observer, taking as his model the patient handicraft of grass-mat weaving, which in this case yields a surprisingly contemporary-looking, almost “digital” image. These images are not so much accusations as they are reflections on the instability of memory and the contradictions of history.

Also on display was a videotape documenting an action Lê performed last August in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). Years of exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange have produced alarming rates of birth defects in Vietnam, including a ten times greater than normalincidence of congenitally united twins. Le opened a kiosk in the market selling handmade clothing for so-called Siamese twins, some of it bearing the names of the US corporations that produced the chemical. The shop also sold figurines of deformed children, and samples of both the clothing and the figurines were included here along with the (unsubtitled) video.

This action was clearly of a more agitational nature than Lê’s photographic work, but its specifically artistic intention is marked by the decision to stage the piece in the Ho Chi Minh market rather than in a local gallery. In an official artistic venue, the content of the work would have been regulated and, undoubtedly, suppressed, while under the reigning conditions of the “free market” (even in a still nominally Communist country) art could claim a degree of liberty outside its protected zone. So the work not only called attention to a social issue but raised questions about the status of art in the society in which it took place—another kind of deformation, perhaps.

Barry Schwabsky