Kenyon College

Dinh Q. Lê (Vietnamese-American, b. 1968)


Vietnamese conceptual artist, Lê was born near the Cambodian border, but fled with his family when his hometown was invaded by the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Lê moved to Los Angeles and studied photography at the University of California, Santa Barbara and received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York in 1992. In 1989, while at the University of California, Lê enrolled in a class on the Vietnam War (1955–75) that emphasized American hardship. This sparked Lê’s earliest public art project, Accountability, a series of posters that Lê put up on his college campus (reproduced in 1992 for Creative Time, New York., Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles). These posters juxtaposed American media images of the Vietnam War with explicit pictures of Vietnamese suffering, accompanied by captions detailing the damage done to Vietnam. The desire to intervene in dominant perceptions of the Vietnam War propelled Lê for much of his artistic career.

Growing up in Vietnam, Lê watched his aunt weave grass mats. As an art student in southern California, Lê used these memories of weaving as a metaphor for his hybridized identity. In 1989 Lê began his first photo-weaving series, combining large-scale images of himself with photographic reproductions of paintings from the Italian Renaissance. Cutting the photos into strips, Lê wove them together by modifying the patterns he had learned as a child. While Lê produced works in a myriad of different media, this inventive photo-weaving technique became the hallmark of his oeuvre.

Lê returned to Vietnam for the first time after receiving his MFA. He travelled to Cambodia in 1994, visiting both Angkor Wat and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located on the site of the brutal Khmer Rouge execution centre. Shocked by the contrast between the county’s beautiful temples and the horrific cruelty of Tuol Sleng, Lê began work on Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness (1994–9), a series of photo-weavings that blend images of the temples’ elaborate carvings with the haunting photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims (e.g. 2000; Louisville, KY , Speed A. Mus.).

Trying to raise public awareness about the residual effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, Lê organized Damaged Gene (1998), a temporary public art project in Ho Chi Minh City’s central market. The project comprised a small shop selling evidence of atrocity, such as specially produced clothing and pacifiers for conjoined twins and T-shirts informing people about the dangers of Dioxin. Lê later returned to the photographs taken at Tuol Sleng and created The Texture of Memory(2001; Santa Monica, CA, Shoshana Wayne Gal.), a series of approximately 20 large white panels embroidered with the faces of the prisoners. Stitched in a specially treated white thread, the faces are meant to be touched by viewers, slowly darkening through this interaction.

In his series From Vietnam to Hollywood (2003), Lê contrasted photojournalistic images of the Vietnam War and its Hollywood depiction. Deploying his photo-weaving technique, Lê fused together iconic images of the war, from found and personal photographs, and film stills to create large-scale works (e.g. 2004; New York, PPOW Gal.). The series makes viewers aware of how their ideas about the war have been shaped by Hollywood depictions. In 2003, six works from this series were included in the 50th Venice Biennale.