An artist who captures the weaving of history

February 26, 2016

Dinh Q. Lê was born during the Vietnam War, so it is no surprise that this Vietnamese-US fine arts photographer is often drawn to the plight of the individual who is caught up in war, disasters and drama of other people’s making. His work, which is principally photographic strips woven like a traditional grass mat to make an arresting image, creates powerful images of horror and beauty.

I am interested in the way he combines moods and emotions too: real and imagined anxieties of growing up in a time of conflict are partly driven by memories which have been imposed upon him rather than genuinely recalled. For example, he does not remember hearing helicopters as a child, but the subsequent watching of American movies depicting the Vietnam War have created a memory of whirring noises which invoke fear.

As Haruki Murakami, the contemporary Japanese writer, says of this intermingling: “Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.”

Lê’s more recent work explores this through others caught up in terrible scenarios, where they feel like so much human flotsam and jetsam. This is like his family’s experience: they were forced to flee their home in the Mekong Delta when it was invaded by the Khmer Rouge in 1978.

In 2011, Lê was commissioned to produce a multimedia installation for the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Australia, inspired by the sinking of a refugee boat off Christmas Island. Now in Birmingham at Ikon gallery, he is exhibiting a work called The Colony: newly filmed video footage based on 19th-century depictions of a cluster of islands off the west coast of Peru.

These islands were squabbled over for years by Spain, Chile and Peru, as they were repositories for valuable guano, with bonded Chinese labourers forced to work there under brutal conditions. Lê’s films show modern labourers involved in the backbreaking work of transporting and loading guano on to boats. The unforgiving landscape and drones’ unmanned explorations of empty and abandoned buildings, with their traces of existence from past inhabitants, leave viewers in no doubt of the human suffering and isolation that haunt the area still.

These lonely modern installations, harking back to an earlier age of toil, can be seen as adding to the weft and warp of our understanding of history, much like the strips of photographs Lê weaves into the images that can be hung on our walls.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation