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Dinh Q. Lê presents hundreds of pre-1975 South Vietnam snapshots in new installation at Rice Gallery
Crossing the Farther Shore. Photos: Nash Baker ©

HOUSTON, TX.- Vietnamese American artist Dinh Q. Lê is known for his work in photography, video, and installation. He often splices, interweaves, and distorts photographs to explore his own relationship to Vietnam’s complicated cultural and political history. Lê’s family left Vietnam when he was 10; he has returned and now lives in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

In Crossing the Farther Shore, Lê incorporates photographs taken in Vietnam during the 1940s-1980s, with the majority dating to the pre-Vietnam War era before 1975. The images are those that might fill a family’s photo album: portraits, scenic vistas, birthdays, and holidays. Lê has collected pre-1975 Vietnam photographs for years, finding them in antique stores and second-hand shops and wondering, why are there so many abandoned photographs? Lê considers them to be an important record documenting the everyday lives of Southern Vietnamese people - how they dressed, looked, and felt. Such photos are one of the few records of South Vietnam that have escaped from the Northern Vietnamese communist government’s systematic effort to erase the pre-1975 existence of the South.

The photographs, some facing out and others turned inward, have been stitched together to form fragile-looking, rectangular structures. They allude to the mosquito netting under which people sleep, creating what Lê calls a “sleeping, dreaming memory of Vietnam.” He notes, “Most of these photos were taken because people want to remember special or happy moments in their lives. It is an extreme contrast to the photographs that the world saw of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.” On the visible backs of the photographs are handwritten texts that derive from a variety of sources including the epic poem, The Tale of Kieu, by Nguyên Du (1766-1820). The poem, considered to be the most significant work of Vietnamese literature, tells the story of Thúy Kiêu, a beautiful woman who sold herself into a loathsome marriage in order to save her family from ruin. After many trials and much suffering in far away places, she eventually makes it home and is reunited with her family. According to Dinh Q. Lê, it is a poem for which most Vietnamese people can recite the first four lines, and one with which many Vietnamese people who fled the country can identify. The handwritten texts also include snippets of recollections of Vietnam from interviews conducted by the Vietnamese-American Oral History Project that is housed on various university websites, and from a selection of nine interviews from the Houston Asian American Archives at Rice University’s Chao Center for Asian Studies.

Crossing the Farther Shore is inspired by and dedicated to Dinh Q. Lê’s mother and her friends.

Dinh Q. Lê was born in 1968 in Hà Tiên, Vietnam. His family left war-torn Vietnam in 1979 and settled in southern California. Lê grew up in Los Angeles, studied Fine Arts at UC Santa Barbara and holds an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York. In 1996, he moved from New York to Ho Chi Minh City where he now resides, and where in 2007 he co-founded Sàn Art, an artist-run exhibition space and reading room that promotes young Vietnamese artists. His installation, The Farmers and the Helicopters (2006) was the subject of a solo exhibition in 2011 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Lê’s work was included in the 2013 Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany. Dinh Q. Lê was named the 2011 Prince Claus Fund Visual Art Laureate.

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