There is an urgent need for expressions of collective memory freed from restraint; many people are actively engaged in building these narratives—I chose to do so through art.
Zoe Butt: Over the years, Dinh, we’ve spoken a lot about your interest in history—particularly the complicated story of Vietnam—and about your fascination with objects and images that have become infused with hidden narratives. Much of the time, you collect these things not because you know what you want to do with them, but because you are drawn to them as materializations of memory, a theme to which your work often returns. As a result of this idea of history forming and re-forming in your mind, your house has become a treasury of objects related to Vietnamese epochs—whether it be a Khmer sculpture that refers to the period when Southern Vietnam was dominated by Khmer culture; a piece of Đông Sơnbronzeware, which represents the most internationally celebrated historical period classified as unique to Vietnam; or, more popularly, clichéd potboiler films about the Vietnam War that have brought a cumulative influence to bear on international understanding (or misunderstanding) of this part of the world.
As a curator based in Vietnam, I’m drawn not only to your habit of collecting, but also to the way in which this methodology—the amassing of stories, memories, and memorabilia, and the reframing of conversations around them—has become part of your art. The conscious remaking of memory and knowledge is also reflected in your co-founding of Sàn Art, the country’s most active independent contemporary art space. Considering Vietnam exercises such strict control over the dissemination and analysis of cultural memory—a fact reflected in its poor maintenance of museums, lack of educational resources and expertise, and absence of any financial support for the arts—is this collecting of objects and imagery, and the building of collective memory, something you feel responsible for in the context of your home country?
Dinh Q. Lê: I started collecting with a desire to reclaim my identity as a Vietnamese. It began as a very personal act. When my family escaped Southern Vietnam in 1978, we left everything behind, including our identity as Vietnamese. When I returned to Vietnam to live in the mid-1990s, collecting, and learning the cultural histories that are embedded in the objects I found, was a way of reclaiming my heritage, my identity. If you know a history, you own it. An individual with no knowledge of his or her history is an individual without an identity.
The continued systematic erasure of the history of Southern Vietnam by the current government, the lack of analysis of our cultural resources, strict governmental control of the flow of information, and the self-censorship that is so deeply ingrained in current Vietnamese society have together led us to a point at which we know very little about either who we were or who we are. There is an urgent need for expressions of collective memory freed from restraint; many people are actively engaged in building these narratives—I chose to do so through art.
Zoe Butt: Do you consider Sàn Art to be a part of this practice?
Dinh Q. Lê: Yes, Sàn Art is a part of my practice. One cannot live responsibly in Vietnam, with all its problems and complexities, without engaging with society. Through Sàn Art, I hope some kind of transformation in the community can take place. Sàn Art also has a clear effect on my other work which, these days, contains a strong curatorial component—as you can see from recent projects such as 2012’s Light and Belief at Documenta.
Zoe Butt: Light and Belief, an installation comprised of a video documentary and approximately one hundred drawings, is a wonderful collection of stories and images by soldiers commissioned as front-line artists during the Vietnam War. Your determination to capture these rare and little-known narratives by interviewing the ailing heroes about the purpose of their art reveals your determination to increase awareness of the important and complex relationship between art, history, and society. What strikes me most about your methodology is that in your attempt to build collective memory, you also question the purpose, structure, and interpretability of cultural archives. Your work subtly probes stereotypes generated by popular media and national myth. How can such bodies of knowledge be made publicly accessible in contexts such as Vietnam, where the practice of interpretation is monitored closely by government? Whose responsibility is it to present relevant argument, and according to whose perspective should this be framed? What strikes me in my research into the relationship between artistic and curatorial practice in places like Vietnam and Cambodia is that artists are the initiators and innovators of history, questioning ideas of truth. The value they place on interpretation is evidenced in their seeking-out of curatorial expertise, which in turn creates dynamic new forms of contemporary art infrastructure.
Zoe Butt is Executive Director and Curator of Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City.