By Elaine Chiew
(1,135 words, six-minute read)
Spectral and iconic, Dinh Q. Lê’s first major solo exhibition in Singapore premieres his Monuments and Memorials series of works, created as artist-in-residence at STPI – Creative Workshop and Gallery. Born in 1968 in Ha Tien, on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam, Lê fled the Khmer Rouge regime with his family to resettle in America, graduating with a B.F.A. in Photography from the University of California and an M.F.A from The School of Visual Arts, New York. His practice tends to deploy the medium of photography and film to reconsider his personal memories of war and childhood trauma.
This exhibition is a reworking of his sold-out Splendour and Darkness (1998) photographic weavings, which Lê embarked on because he was so struck by the disparity between the magnificence of Angkor Wat and the images of Khmer Rouge victims at Tuol Sleng prison during his trip. Monuments and Memorials similarly depicts large-scale photo-montages of victims interspliced with images of Cambodian temples and monuments, including Angkor Wat architecture and carvings. Using a cyanotype printing process, Splendour & Darkness #33 (see image 1) is a frontal shot of a young boy baring his upper torso, his inmate number prominently displayed, his gaze defiant, superimposed on a background of temple carvings, the blueness of the boy’s body a metaphorical comparison with the lighter blue of limbs and the fractured anatomy of Indian mythological characters.
Splendour & Darkness #29 (see image 2) depicts a young girl-victim, again using cyanotype. But this time, Lê has left the splicing strips unfinished at the bottom and has burned the edges as a reminder of the incompleteness of history, the artifice of historical narration, and its inadequacy in representing trauma. Lê’s act of burning finds echo and triage with Michel Foucault’s phrase, “the burning desire”, behind certain ways that artists archive – and the burning gazes of the victims themselves: borrowed, deployed, co-opted, yet remaining singular.
The haunting quality of these works, to me, is best exemplified by Splendour & Darkness #19 (see image 3), where the shadowy figure of a boy-victim emerges out of (or perhaps fades from) the weaving of temple motifs and relics. Instead of the sturdier Awagami bamboo paper or Stonehenge used for the other works, Lê chose to print and weave on delicate rice paper, thus influencing the colours at play. The sepia tonal browns of the work, in contrast to the bold monochromatic schemes of the other exhibition pieces, expresses the evanescence of the past, even as the exhibition ironically seeks to memorialise.
But why revisit a past series – and what’s different? During his residency, Lê was able to optimise what STPI could offer in terms of paper capabilities and collaborations with printmakers, and what is new here is his experimentation with scale, foiling and 3-D weaving. Adrift in Darkness (see image 4), the only and first 3-D weaved work Lê produced for this exhibition, makes use of a rattan structure on which he weaved thousands of Internet images of faces in various social protests. It extends Lê’s beam to encompass global issues of refugee crises, and its form of display – suspended from the ceiling as three meteorite-looking rocks – casts a cosmic pall of metaphysical reflection on the viewer.
Empire (see image 5), the work that spans an entire wall at STPI, showcases scale; amidst the depicted ruins of Angkor Wat, Lê also mounted laser-cuts of temple edifices in plexiglass, the effect of which is a rising out of ruins that signals the temporality and cyclicality of material objects. As to foiling, Lê was never happy with the slick glossiness of past attempts, and his silver foiling at STPI has achieved a matte, abraded texture that offers a lenticular-like effect; one experiences a change of perspective depending on where one stands with respect to the work.
These weaved works, like his series Persistence of Memory (2000-01) and Texture of Memory (2000), hark back to Lê’s themes of forgotten versus official history, personal versus collective memory, imbricating as well the question of heritage and the way we memorialise archives. Lê, by juxtaposing photographs of Tuol Sleng victims with these heritage sites, is foregrounding for us the extent that ancient heritage sites have devolved into cultural capital and “alienated tours” of atrocities and trauma, reminding us that the costs to personal lives aren’t so neatly tabulated.
Weaving on such large scale is a laborious, time-consuming process, and thus takes on a resonance particularly reflective of the workings of memory, cross-hatched as it is by memory’s fragility and an episodic construction interspersed with popular images and official narratives. Okwui Enwezor tells us that the artistic deployment of archival logic can sometimes reveal the artist’s relationship to images or instruments, a seeking to “memorise the monuments of the past”. The interplay with ‘memorials’ and ‘monuments’ in this exhibition is perhaps indicative of a haunting of the artist himself. In this regard, I find myself struck by what Lê shared – these photographs of victims are ones he has lived with for the past twenty years. In weaving them into the works, he was mindful to leave eyes, nose and lips intact. It also meant cutting horizontally and not vertically.
Using photography as medium, as matter, as framework, also triggers an investigation into photography as representations of truth, as witness-bearer, a relationship Lê confessed he found fraught with tension. Likewise, these works test the complex weft of truth, memory and history and the dialectic of power (who’s doing the constructing of history? who’s consuming the narrative of history?). These are issues Lê has been grappling with since his very first work as a student, called Accountability, where he produced and put up posters around campus, challenging the American media images and narrative of the Vietnam War.
Lê may be said to be engaging in an exercise of ironic self-reflexivity here, given the facts that the former series of Splendour & Darkness is sold out and that the photographs of victims Lê uses were taken by their murderers (we extol their photography even as we condemn their acts of killing, though both were aspects of the same operation). If so, then surely the prod is: what social responsibility devolves upon the viewer beyond passive gazing? If, in linking these images to religious iconography, one was to see these photographs of victims, not just as the victim-other, but as ‘scenes of dying’, taken as they were in the process of killing, what complex feelings attend our gaze? What level of empathic questioning would allow us to transcend the “psychic numbing” Susan Sontag warned us about – to understand that works co-opting images of atrocity enter a cultural economy and that the art is not innocent but thrives on spectacle and yet retains that ineffable ability to haunt us still?
 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1971) (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), 7.
 Paul Antze and Michael Lambek, eds. Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory (New York: Routledge, 2016), Kindle edition.
 Okwui Enwezor, “Documents into Monuments: Archives as Meditations on Time//2008” in Memory, ed. Ian Farr (London: MIT Press & Whitechapel Gallery, 2012), 133.
 Charles Merewether, “On Dinh” in Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials, exhibition catalogue (Singapore: STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, 2018), 6.
Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials is a solo exhibition at STPI – Creative Workshop and Gallery from 17 March to 12 May 2018.
Guest Contributor Elaine Chiew is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted in numerous other U.S. and U.K. competitions. Her most recent stories can be found in East of the Web and Unthology 10 (Unthank Books, 2018). She has an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts and is currently based in Singapore.