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Jeanne Cooper | Photo: Courtesy of the Artist & P.P.O.W | September 13, 2018
An artist explores perspectives of Vietnam through videos, weavings and prewar snapshots.
Artist Dinh Q. Lê shares the dramatic experience of many Vietnamese Americans his age: He fled his homeland with his family in 1978 when he was just 10 years old and spent a year in a refugee camp in Thailand before immigrating to California. That legacy of early exile—and his life in Vietnam for the last two decades—underlies Dinh Q. Lê: True Journey Is Return. The exhibition, the largest solo presentation of his work in the States in more than a decade, is coming to the San José Museum of Art, Sept. 14 through April 7.
Lê first returned to his homeland in 1994, a few years after earning an MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he had quickly established himself as an artist. Cruising secondhand shops in Ho Chi Minh City, he discovered caches of vintage black-and-white snapshots. He later incorporated thousands of these portraits and pictures of everyday life in his large-scale installation “Crossing the Farther Shore,” which, along with multimedia installations and videos about Communist artists in wartime, postwar farmers and today’s diaspora Vietnamese, forms the heart of the SJMA show. Also on view will be Lê’s abstract Tapestry series, based on traditional grass-mat weaving techniques and referencing floral wreaths seen at Vietnamese celebrations and funerals.
With “Crossing,” while some of the photos “appealed to me for aesthetic reasons as a photographer, some of them appealed to me because they reminded me of my childhood, the Vietnam that I grew up in before 1975, and because I thought maybe, somehow, I’d be able to find my family photographs that we left behind when we escaped from Vietnam,” Lê recalls in a video made for the work’s debut at Rice Gallery in Houston in 2014. “I started collecting them, and eventually they sort of became a surrogate family album.” The images also reveal a side of Vietnamese life overlooked in American war narratives, he notes: “Yes, there was a war, but we also continued with our lives, and there were many happy moments. I’d like the world to see a different Vietnam.”
SJMA associate curator Rory Padekan says he hopes local Vietnamese Americans also “see themselves” in the exhibition, which he and Lê designed to embrace multiple perspectives on the war and its aftermath. “It can be a place for reflection and dialogue, and a better understanding of what happened and what the future might hold.”
Originally published in the September issue of Silicon Valley