Those familiar with the art of Dinh Q. Lê might think Saigon Diary—the artist’s twelve-channel mixed-media installation now on view at the UB Anderson Gallery—represents a radical departure. Lê is best known for his photographic-based work in which he literally weaves together diverse images relating to his native country, Vietnam. These large-scale photo-weavings look like complex geometric patchworks interlacing Eastern and Western cultural perceptions. Yet, while UB’s premiere of Lê’s trash-based sculptural assemblages and accompanying video documentation differs dramatically in method and appearance from his earlier work, the artist hasn’t really left the weaving business. Now Lê metaphorically interweaves various concepts, influences, media, and styles into an installation so conceptually layered it demands some preliminary orientation to help unravel the threads.
Lê and his family emigrated from Vietnam to the United States to escape the Vietnam War when the artist was a young boy. He became an American citizen studying art in the United States, all the while maintaining an emotional connection to his homeland. His most noted work revolves around this cultural duality. Fifteen years ago, Lê relocated back to Ho Chi Minh City—which most residents still call Saigon. What he found was a city in the throes of a radical transition from an agrarian socialist economy to Western-influenced capitalism, complete with the mounting waste and debris associated with consumerism. This spawned a new occupation in the old city, that of the “recycling women” who peddle bicycle carts around Saigon’s twelve districts collecting recyclable materials for a living.
This is where Saigon Diary begins. Collaborating with three of his relatives, Lê documents a day in the life of twelve recycling women, one for each of Saigon’s districts. The resulting video-documentaries play on monitors distributed throughout the gallery. Lê and his collaborators repurchased some of the materials the recycling women collected and sold, and used them to create sculptures that are arranged in the gallery near their corresponding documentary monitors. Though the assemblages are made largely of cast-off Vietnamese products, they consciously and unconsciously reflect a number of well-established Modernist art traditions. Drawing from sources as disparate as minimalism and political art, with generous dollops of Dan Flavin light sculpture and Robert Rauschenberg Neo-Dadaist assemblage thrown in for good measure, Lê and associates transform a wide assortment of junk into metaphoric signifiers reflecting the social concerns facing Vietnam today.
One deliberate art reference, for instance, grew out of a discussion with one of Lê’s collaborators, Minh Hao Ngo, who admired a picture of Piet Mondrian’s well-known final unfinished painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie. Lê and Ngo discussed the nature of the makeshift shantytown homes common in poorer parts of the city and how their builders improvise walls and partitions using scavenged materials. Lê knows a good metaphor when he sees one, and the upshot is a standout work titled Shanty Town Composition. It’s a suspended flat rectangular assemblage composed of a variety of materials including corrugated sheet metal, fans, cots, and beverage containers (apparently Lê’s go-to material). All of this is organized into a surprisingly delicate, almost lacy, vertical and horizontal geometric arrangement reminiscent of Mondrian’s work. There’s a nice correlation between Mondrian’s abstract rumination on the layout and bustle of New York City streets and Lê’s reference to shantytown innovation. A side note: the work was designed to hang against white gallery walls, but here it’s suspended in the center of the Anderson’s second floor glass atrium, so outside trees merge visually with Lê’s airy assemblage—adding a layer of complexity or distraction, depending on your point of view.
Much of what’s known about Lê’s thinking comes from detailed wall-mounted accounts that accompany each work. He and curator Sandra Firmin leave little up to interpretation, choosing instead to guide visitors through the content and process of each work. Gallerygoers preferring the pure experience of encountering art without having its meaning explained might want to avoid the wall text. I wouldn’t, though. The dichotomy of much contemporary art is that to fully appreciate it, the pleasure of parsing out its meaning must at least partly be surrendered to some sort of guided access.
A good example of this dependence on a back story is illustrated in Revolutionary Fervor, created in collaboration with Quang Quan Le. The work is comprised of bound bundles of Vietnamese newspapers, some stacked on the floor next to a lawn chair, others piled on the chair itself. A refillable drink bottle is attached to the back of the chair next to a glowing florescent light tube. On its own, this might be mistaken for a work by pioneer shaman-activist, artist Joseph Beuys, but the accompanying text tells us that in Vietnam, newspapers signify government control of the media, and the lawn chair represents the armchair politics that replaced revolutionary fervor among the weary inhabitants.
In the accompanying video, a neatly dressed woman—these entrepreneurs aren’t homeless or visibly indigent—heaps materials onto her bicycle cart. All the recycling women wear the traditional conicalnón lá hat as they gather the discarded byproduct of a new age. The industrious women sort through heaps of recyclable materials, in the process leading viewers through winding side streets and alleys revealing seldom-seen aspects of traditional Vietnamese life—now at risk of being overtaken by Western ways.
Speaking eloquently of a different type of risk, The Maladies of a Floating City is a flat rectangular plane, hovering above the floor and festooned with colorful plastic beverage bottles. It represents a raft, symbolic of the regular flooding of the Mekong Delta in a city endangered by rising sea levels. (The neatly arranged empty medical boxes below the floating portion speak to the rising cost of medicine.) The complex assemblage is simultaneously over-laden, yet doggedly buoyant. The High-rise of the Future is another apt metaphor for Saigon, representing the BITEXCO Financial Tower as a vertical roll of corrugated metal towering above a hefty-looking rock, a minimalist homage to the mighty and the humble. Other works in the show address the rise of Christmas in a largely non-Christian culture as a holiday of consumption, alcoholism, and obesity; the influx of youth-enticing electronics; and the global economic slowdown that hinders Vietnam’s forward momentum.
Much of the work in Saigon Diary feels a bit didactic and constrained by its own elaborate framework. These limitations are largely offset though by the modernist-like earnestness Lê and his collaborators bring to the work. And when was the last time you saw unaffected sincerity in Western contemporary art?
Bruce Adams is an educator, artist, writer, and Spree’s art critic.