At the Mori Art Museum, Artist Dinh Q. Le Confronts the History of the Vietnam War

08/20/2015 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


Dinh Q. Lê, The Farmers and The Helicopters, 2006. Installation view, Dojima River Biennale, Osaka, 2009. Photo: Fukunaga Kazuo.

Interweaving of History: Dinh Q. Lê at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

"When dragonflies fly low, rain will fall. When they fly high, the sun will shine. When they fly in between, it will drizzle."

A haunting voice gently repeats this refrain, a percussive and melodic Vietnamese proverb, as a gathering of dragonflies begins to accumulate across the three screens of Dinh Q. Lê's video installation, The Farmers and The Helicopters (2006), on view in "Dinh Q. Lê: Memory For Tomorrow" at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. The metaphor slides away as the dragonflies give way to the eponymous subject of Lê's film, another beast of flight, one with a notorious reputation in Vietnam. The harsh roar of blades slicing the air accompanies archival footage of helicopters in flight over the Southeast Asian countryside.

Dinh Q. Lê, Persistence of Memory #10, 2000-01. Collection: Joy of Giving Something, Inc., New York.

"Once, I was in the field and a helicopter flew by. It started to hover above my head..." An old woman describes her encounter with an American Chinook helicopter, a strange machine that she knew could shoot her down. "So I decided to look up and smile at it. After that it just left," she says. One by one, various Vietnamese people recount on screen their experiences with helicopters during the war. Helicopters, while provoking fear, were not unilaterally perceived as evil, but their intentions could never be taken for granted. Observations of their behavior gave rise to predictive systems to judge whether the helicopter was benign or threatening. One man's parents advised him never to run from a helicopter, "They said to walk slowly, do not hide. Walk like usual...So I never dared run." One woman describes her theory of helicopters, an account that verges on the superstitious, echoing the dragonfly proverb from the beginning of the film: "If it stayed and circled three times, I would run... If it just flew by, I would keep an eye on it until it flew away. If it flew back a third time, that meant trouble and it would shoot rockets."

Dinh Q. Lê, The Farmers and The Helicopters, 2006. Installation view, Mori Art Museum, 2015. Courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Photo: Nagare Satoshi.

The mythos of the Vietnam War helicopter has largely sprung from the consciousness of Hollywood: swooping Valkyries in attack formation, raining down fire from above. Images of helicopters from Hollywood war movies like Apocalypse Now are interspersed with archival footage in Lê's video installation. "Looking at the Hollywood movies over the years," Lê says, however, "the Vietnamese, they don't say anything in these films. So I want to provide a platform for the Vietnamese to speak about their own experience." The only people to speak in The Farmers and The Helicopters are the Vietnamese interviewees; the war is told from their point of view, in effect silencing the voices of the dominant narrative.

Dinh Q. Lê, installation view, "Dinh Q. Lê: Memory for Tomorrow," Mori Art Museum, 2015. Courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Photo: Nagare Satoshi.

But Lê's work is not a simple representation of alternative voices confronting the dominant view of history--it is more transformative than that. The second half of The Farmers and The Helicopters revolves around the story of a man determined to build his own helicopter, to appropriate it as a tool for use by ordinary people in Vietnam. "When I was young, I thought that the helicopter was a magical machine," says the man, a self-taught mechanic obsessed with helicopters from a young age. Undeterred by the sheer cost of a helicopter ($870,000, an unimaginable sum in the farming community where he lives), he set about building his own helicopter from scrap metal, gleaning information from physics textbooks and the internet. One of his self-constructed helicopters stands on view in the gallery, a physical symbol of what the man identifies as "our national identity, our capacity, our ability."

Dinh Q. Lê, Untitled (Paramount), 2003. Courtesy Bellevue Arts Museum, WA.

The Farmers and The Helicopters offers a microcosmic view of Lê's entire oeuvre, which is presented at the Mori Art Museum, from his early photo-weaving works to a brand new video, commissioned by the museum. Throughout his work one finds an interweaving of history, personal experience and identity, set to a backdrop of mass media and Western images. Like the video installation presenting footage from divergent sources, his early photo-weavings are comprised of multiple images--from pop culture and promotional images, to photos of the atrocities of the War--physically woven together. These photo-tapestries force the eye to reckon with images within images, while simultaneously asking the eye to regard the object itself, its surface and significance: two photographs woven together like a traditional grass mat. With competing narratives sharing the same plane, Lê has said that his photo-weavings reflect not just history, but also the duality of his own personal identity, being of Vietnamese descent in but raised and educated in the U.S.

Dinh Q. Lê, Come Back to Saigon (from the series "Vietnam Destination for the New Millennium"), 2005. Courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland.

His most recent work, commissioned by the Mori Art Museum, involves a Japanese man who collects military uniforms and enjoys participating in war re-enactments in his spare time. In a single-channel video, the 40-year-old man changes into his various uniforms, eventually ending up in a field of tall grass, mimicking/re-enacting a Vietnamese foot soldier crawling through the underbrush. Lê understands the man's actions as a certain way to come to terms with the effects of WWII; by "understanding other wars" he comes closer to understanding Japan's own history of war. The artist relates to this way of viewing the world, adding, "I took a very long journey in order to get to Vietnam in my work." This year marks both the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam as well as the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of WWII. Lê's exhibition, chronicling the many layers and effects of war, offers an opportunity to reflect upon the way war touches countless individual lives.

Dinh Q. Lê, Everything Is a Re-Enactment, 2015. Commissioned by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2015.

Lê's works explore the splintering and fracturing of narratives, from the public discourse and mass media representations, to the artist's own perspective and the myriad and multiple personal interpretations of many other people's actual lived experience. Each of his works contains these many levels, interwoven in the warp and weft of history and memory.

Dinh Q. Lê, Light and Belief: Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War, 2012. Installation view, "Dinh Q. Lê: Memory for Tomorrow," Mori Art Museum, 2015. Courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Photo: Nagare Satoshi.

"Dinh Q. Lê: Memory for Tomorrow" runs from July 25 to October 12, 2015, at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo and will then travel to the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, where it will be on view from March 19 to May 15, 2016.

--Natalie Hegert