For the Love of Two Rivers: An-My Lê’s Fluid Gaze
Read an excerpt from the Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières exhibition catalogue.
Oct 31, 2023
As Saigon was “falling,” captured by armed Communist forces in April 1975—an attack known to the North Vietnamese as the Liberation of Saigon and to the anticommunist Vietnamese as Black April—15-year-old An-My Lê was lifted out of the city on a cargo plane that took her to Camp Pendleton, in California, via United States Air Force bases in the Philippines, Wake Island, and Guam. It was a decisive moment in history, one that would later inﬂect Lê’s art.
For the past 30 years, the conﬂicting ideals of American politics, as informed by her Vietnamese heritage and her experience of war and dislocation, have been at the center of Lê’s creative practice. Her photographs, ﬁlms, textiles, and sculptural installations powerfully explore the complex ﬁctions called upon to represent, legitimize, and mythologize warfare. Lê does not take a conventional photojournalistic approach to real-time combat; rather, with poetic attention to politics and landscape, she focuses on military exercises (“pre-enactments” of future combat) and war reenactments (wistful restagings of past conﬂicts), and on how these simulations collapse the distance between past and present actions and perpetuate a mental state of war—what she calls the “Vietnam of the mind.”1 “I’m more interested in the precursor to war and its psychic aftermath,” Lê observed in 2005. “There is something about addressing the preparation for war or memory of war itself that allows one to think about the larger issues of war and devastation.”2
From left: An-My Lê. Untitled, Central Highlands, Vietnam, from the series Viêt Nam (1994–98). 1998; Untitled, Bac Giang, Vietnam, from the series Viêt Nam (1994–98). 1995
Two photographs from the Viêt Nam series present untold stories about a nation in transition. An image from the Central Highlands region (above left) shows a funeral home surrounded by totemic fertility figures from the diverse ethnic groups who settled there during the large waves of postwar migration from 1976 to the late 1990s. An interior shot of a mayor’s home in Bắc Giang (above right), a province in northeastern Vietnam, includes a painting of a visit to the village by the Communist statesman Hồ Chí Minh, who led the struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule and served as the country’s prime minister and president from the 1940s through the mid-1960s. These byways into ancestral beliefs and more recent political history reflect coexisting versions of Vietnam and encourage more nuanced perspectives on a land and culture that many Westerners know only through narratives of war.
An-My Lê. đô-mi-nô (detail). 2021
As a child growing up in Huế and Saigon during the war, Lê was aware of the ecological destruction being produced by the onslaught of the US military; for her, "any discussion of Vietnam takes place over an open wound.”8 Swaths of land were contaminated by Rainbow Herbicides—the chemical agents sprayed over forests, rivers, rice paddies, and farmland to hinder agricultural production and destroy the foliage that provided tactical advantages to enemy combatants. Lê’s mother weathered food shortages and prepared for frequent shelling attacks and political coups by stocking their pantry with grains and canned foods. Lê summons that pantry to evoke the mentality of scarcity and vigilance that remained long after the end of the war in the installation đô-mi-nô (2021, above), in the form of a corner shelving unit which she filled not with groceries but with jumbo Zippo-style lighters like those carried by American GIs. The work’s title nods to domino theory, a justification for the United States’ entry into the war: it asserts that a country coming under Communist control will quickly lead to similar takeovers in neighboring countries, each falling like a perfectly aligned row of dominos. Lê engraved some of the flip-top lighters—American- and Japanese-made novelty items that she sourced on the Internet—with inscriptions reminiscent of those made by soldiers, such as “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” and “Black Cats, Fuck Communism”; she wrapped others in hand-woven cozies inspired by the weaving of the Bauhaus artist Anni Albers and by the potholders that are an arts-and-crafts staple for small children. The lighters functioned as both talismans of protection and emblems of protest, but they were instruments of violence as well: soldiers brought them to Vietnam to light their cigarettes but went on to use them to burn down huts and whole villages in seek-and-destroy missions. Conceived in the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, during the political uncertainty that gave rise to malicious anti-Asian sentiment and heightened xenophobia, đô-mi-nô connects the spectral nature of personal memories with the haunting physical legacy of war.
Want to read more? Pick up a copy of An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières.
An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières is on view at MoMA November 5, 2023–March 16, 2024.
Lê, interview by Roxana Marcoci and Xueli Wang, August 23, 2022. In the art and literature of the Vietnamese diaspora, this idea is powerfully summoned in the phrase “Việt Kiều,” which is translated as “Vietnamese sojourner.” The term refers to Vietnamese people living overseas, and it was used pejoratively following the war.
Meeting the Devil Halfway: A Conversation on Photography, Writing, and History
Artist An-My Lê and writer Lynne Tillman discuss the psychological impact of inventive images and text.
An-My Lê, Lynne Tillman
Oct 27, 2023
Wanting to Get Closer: Traveling through History with a Bolex
Two filmmakers explore the connections between their work decades apart in Vietnam and Puerto Rico.
Sofia Gallisá Muriente, Lynne Sachs
Aug 9, 2023