Acclaimed artist Dinh Q. Lê, the first Vietnamese name to have a solo show at Museum of Modern Art in New York, is well-known as a fine arts photographer whose woven photographs interlace history and memory in a visually complex and emotionally compelling way. Yet for his powerful statements and meditations he uses not only photographs but sculpture, installation, and video— for example, The Farmers and the Helicopters, among many other projects.
Here diaCRITICS contributor BoiTran Huynh-Beattie — a researcher, curator and art historian in Australia — reviews Lê’s first solo show in Australia, Erasure. By chance, the exhibit occurs just as Australia is revisiting its relationship to the many ‘boat people’ who have emigrated from Việt Nam. Compellingly, the exhibit also gestures to Australia’s history of ‘boat people’ immigrants from Europe, who colonized Australia. And photographs, again, play a significant part in the meaning of the show. We truly wish we could be in Sydney for this!
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On entering the installation, the DVD projection of a burning sailing vessel flickering on a huge screen immediately grabs the viewer’s attention. A timber path meanders through the dimly lit space, above thousands of abandoned photographs scattered face down on the floor forming a ‘sea’. On top of this sea of photographs floats an old wooden fishing boat, broken in half among some rocks. The viewer must stroll along this path, intuitively avoiding the sea but there’s no fear or panic, just an uncanny silence from the lost identities in the photographs. The viewer’s curiosity is aroused to pick up and turn over some photographs; and in doing so, participate in an interactive component of the project.
In Erasure, Dinh strings many of Australia’s political issues into his own personal history. The video of a burning nineteenth century vessel refers to European settlement in Australia; prompting the notion that Australia’s colonial history and the arrival of migrating Europeans as “boat people”. The wreckage of a small fishing boat lends reference to the tragedy off Christmas Island in December 2010, evoking memories of a familiar nightmare for many Vietnamese boat people in their exodus between 1975-1990. As a boat person, Dinh has been searching for his family’s photographs because they could not be carried during their escape. However, he has failed to find any and instead, has purchased thousands of abandoned photographs, from second hand shops in Ho Chi Minh City, which in his words to Margaret Throsby, “became my surrogate family.” These many thousands of forsaken photographs and their chaotic appearance in this installation represent the lives of refugees who perished at sea during their desperate journey to freedom.
Erasure is Dinh Q. Lê’s first solo show in Australia, and was commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF). When Gene Sherman, Chairperson and Executive Director of SCAF met with Dinh two years ago at San-Art independent artist space in Ho Chi Minh City, she did not think that the opening of Erasure in July 2011 would coincide with the interminable refugee debate that rages in Australia. In June 2011, SBS Television put to air a three-episode documentary, Go back to where you came from, in which six ordinary Australians embarked on a 25 days journey, to experience something of what refugees and asylum seekers have to go through. The documentary put these Australians into refugees’ shoes and widely opened a gate for more compassion. The book launch of Boat People two days before the opening of Erasure was also a good connection to the theme.
The smartly designed catalogue is small but has a wealth of information, with a preface by Gene Sherman, outlining her own family’s migration from Apartheid and her artistic interest in the establishment of SCAF. The interview with Dinh Q Lê by Dolla S. Merrillees, General Manager and Artistic and Educational programs of SCAF answered many questions about Dinh Q Lê and his art practice. An essay in the catalogue by Zoe Butt says it all, about the political circumstances involved with Australia’s “inherited historical phobia of the ‘Other’”, about the ugliness of forced migration as an inevitable consequence of world wars, and about the mapping of collective memories that had already faded into the past.
Viewers who expect to see colourful and exciting images might be disappointed with Erasure. Instead, this installation poses the question again and again, whose “happy moments” in those abandoned photographs, which would take onlookers to phantom the ‘Other’s’ lives. Dinh’s works always reserve space for the audience; everyone can find him or herself in his works. The artist conceptually interlaces various layers of historical accounts with social and current issues, such as migration, consumerism, and collective identities.
Dinh’s works have never been shown in Vietnam. However, he said during his recent discussion with Margaret Throsby, “Sàn-Art independent artist space is part of my work”.
— Dr. Boitran Huynh-Beattie has worked with the Australian National University, Melbourne University, and the University of Wollongong on different projects related to Vietnam’s Diaspora since 2005. She is also an independent curator and art researcher. She was the project curator of Nam Bang! at Casula Powerhouse 2007-2009.
More about the artist —
Dinh Q Lê was born in Hà Tiên in 1968. His family escaped by boat and then settled in 1989 in the US where Dinh completed his education; he obtained MA in photography at School of Visual Arts, New York in 1993. Dinh Q Lê has been included in most prestigious biennales and triennials around the globe, to name a few: the Bienale Cuvée in Austria in 2009, the 2nd Singapore Biennale in 2008; the 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia and the 6th Gwangju Biennial in 2006; the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. Dinh Q Lê is the first Vietnamese name to have a solo show at Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2010. He is the co-founder of The Vietnam Foundation for the Arts in Los Angeles and Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City. For his work and efforts in cultural programs, he was awarded the Prince Claus Award in 2010.
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