Art is art, no matter where you find it. Vietnamese-American artist/photographer Dinh Q. Lê has found it in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (the city formerly known as Saigon), where he's lived and worked for the past 12 years. Lucky for us, ASU Art Museum has brought his most recent work to Arizona. Here, we can enjoy it without the imminent threat of being run over by the millions of overburdened bikes and motos that ply the streets there without any perceptible traffic signals to order the chaos.
In the photographic and sculptural work on display in "Signs and Signals from the Periphery: New Work by Dinh Q. Lê," Dinh sifts through the semiotics of the lively economic and cultural street life of the thriving urban center that's sprung up since the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam on April 30, 1975. With Dinh deconstructing arcane street signs and symbols for us through photographs and three-dimensional sculptural interpretations of actual street displays, I'm particularly excited about the fact that I'll be able to score gas for a motorcycle, get one repaired, purchase a plant, pho, flag, or rearview mirror, and even find X-rated DVDs when I visit the city in August for the first time in eight years.
The installation at ASUAM is a significant departure from Dinh's distinct oeuvre of work dealing with both personal and collective memories, impressions, and perceptions of the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War, by the way) and its deeply devastating effects on this Southeast Asian culture. The artist is perhaps best known for the masterful "woven photographs" in his unforgettable "From Vietnam to Hollywood" series, which was showcased in the Italian Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Using a technique his aunt, a grass-mat weaver in Vietnam, taught him, Dinh literally wove together images from old, anonymous family photos left behind when refugees fled (or perhaps died) from wartime mayhem, iconic news photos, and classic American movie scenes about the war into large-scale mats. These tapestries, interlaced with fact, fiction, filmic images, and sobering negative space, become the fabric of Dinh's personal perceptions of the conflict that drove him to leave his homeland.
When the Khmer Rouge began its killing spree in earnest in 1978, the artist, then just 10 years old, and family members fled Ha Tien, a town near the Cambodian border, for Thailand. They moved to Los Angeles, where Dinh was raised and tried to assimilate into American culture. Eventually, he earned a degree in fine arts from UC Santa Barbara and an M.F.A. in photography from The School of Visual Arts in New York. In the 1990s, the artist felt compelled to move back to Vietnam, settling in Ho Chi Minh City to make art about the culture he could not leave behind.
Dinh's attention is now focused on the kinetic public life that occurs on a quotidian basis in Vietnam, a life fed by the amazingly entrepreneurial spirit of its people and its constant quest for economic parity with the rest of the globalized world. It's a place where two-wheeled vehicles rule the road and become rolling stores and retail displays for everyday consumer goods. On occasion, these same vehicles become art objects in themselves when removed from their usual street setting.
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Cases in point are I am Large. I Contain Multitudes (2009), a bike outfitted with a dazzling display of moto mirrors that shine like polished silver in the museum's lighting; Gardens on the Move (2009), a bicycle toting metal saddlebags filled with living plants; and The Infrastructure of Nationalism (2009), a flag-laden, bestickered two-wheeler overflowing with bright red national flags waiting to be eagerly snatched up by fanatic spectators after Vietnam's national soccer team wins a match.
Dinh also hones in, both photographically and three-dimensionally, on the ubiquitous street "sculptures" that announce the availability of certain goods and services nearby. Carefully balanced, wedged, or post-mounted tires placed on city sidewalks touting gray-market scooter and bike repair shops are immortalized in Beyond Signs and Signals (2009) and its photographic companion, Bicycle Repair Signals (2009), while an almost religious apparition is created by a vertical fluorescent light intersecting a tire in Halo in the Night (2009), another repair service sign. Porn Here (2009) digitally captures the street's visual cue for pornographic DVDs. And if you didn't know the meaning behind paper funnels or chunks of Styrofoam stuck into bricks, as they appear in Gasoline 4 Sale Signals (2009), you'd miss the "gasoline available here" message commonly attached to this simple, but effective, structural signal.
Dinh Q. Lê is one of those artists who let nothing in their environment escape examination, pulling significance from the mundane, overlooked, and ignored. In "Signs and Signals," by lifting objects out of the context of their daily life on the street and placing them in a museum setting, Dinh not only forces us to concentrate on the innate beauty and power of these objects, but also elevates them to the status of readymade art in the very best Dadaist tradition.