By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: August 12, 2010
In slumberous mid-August thousands of visitors fidget and drift
through the Museum of Modern Art, finding almost everything worth
photographing and almost nothing worth more than a point-and-shoot
glance. But in one gallery basically a wide glorified corridor
people tend to stop, focus, even settle down in front of a
three-channel video by the Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Le
projected across a long wall.
Titled "The Farmers and the Helicopters," the video is partly and
spectacularly about the Vietnam War. We first see a panning shot of
forests and rice paddies in aerial view. Then helicopters arrive,
swarming, landing, lifting off, buzzing and shuddering through the
sky, spewing men and rockets, crashing explosively, then rising to
buzz some more. Classic shock and awe.
Interspersed with these noisy scenes are recent interviews with
Vietnamese people. A former Vietcong soldier recalls how, more than
40 years ago, he shot at an American chopper to make it go away, and
it did. A woman describes her first sight of an American helicopter
around the same time. She was so disconcerted as it hovered over her
that she could only look up at the pilot and smile.
A younger man, a self-taught mechanic named Tran Quoc Hai, speaks of
his lifelong infatuation with such flying machines. He says that
after studying old examples in Vietnam war museums and doing some
Internet research he teamed up with a farmer friend and built a
helicopter from scratch, for commercial use, but also to serve as a
positive symbol of his country in the contemporary world.
As it happens, we can see this symbol firsthand; it's installed in a
gallery next to where the video is playing. And the two pieces
constitute Mr. Le's solo show, part of MoMA's Projects series. Mr. Le
was born in 1968 in South Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. The war
that the Vietnamese call the American war was at full bore, though he
has few personal memories of it. He does have memories, traumatic
ones, of Khmer Rouge soldiers invading his hometown a decade later,
at which point his family fled to Thailand and on to the United States.
They ended up in Southern California, where Mr. Le studied art,
eventually earning an M.F.A. in New York City. In 1993 he returned to
Vietnam for the first time and soon decided to stay. He now lives in
Ho Chi Minh City, though, like many artists with thriving careers, he
travels a lot.
In the 1990s Mr. Le became known internationally for ingeniously
formatted photographic work that addressed his bicultural history. To
create that work he gathered various kinds of pictures family
snapshots, outtakes from 1960s news documentaries, stills from
Hollywood war films and reprinted them all at the same size. He
then cut the prints into thin strips and, using a traditional
Vietnamese technique for making grass mats, wove the strips into
composite images, in which real and fictional, personal and
political, Vietnamese and American overlapped and coexisted.
As time went on, and postwar Vietnam became a tourist destination, he
wove in corporate logos and references to Southeast Asian pop
culture. The art that resulted was the product of sharp, complex
critical thinking, about an Asian war whose history had been written
almost exclusively by the West, about an Asian culture with which the
West was for a time intimately and violently engaged, but about which
it knew almost nothing.
Obviously there was fuel for a polemic here. For the most part Mr. Le
steered clear of that, offering instead a distanced view of a
cultural history that he had been born into, but, as an immigrant
living away from it, had absorbed secondhand and primarily from an
The MoMA exhibition, organized by Klaus Biesenbach and Cara Starke,
is an extension and expansion of the photographic montage. The medium
has changed, but the weaving continues. The video, with its
rhythmically alternating images of past and present, is very much a
woven thing. So, in its clunky, jerry-built way, is Mr. Tran's
Assembled from recycled scraps a car seat, some tractor wheels, an
engine salvaged from a Russian truck it doesn't look sleekly
sky-worthy, especially if compared to the Bell-47D1 helicopter that
has long been a fixture of MoMA's design department. But it works,
sort of. In an early test flight it lifted six feet off the ground.
Its performance has improved since, but, more significantly, Mr.
Tran's project has gained wide popular notice in Vietnam, where it is
viewed as emblematic of the country's effort to move beyond the
devastating war and forge something constructive from its heritage.
Many Westerners have yet to see Vietnam in this changed light. For
them it is still a place defined by a war. And that war, though
fought on Southeast Asian soil, remains very much a Western event:
our war, our drama, our tragedy, our history, which may be one reason
that MoMA audiences are so enthralled by the video.
Mr. Le is well aware of this proprietary attitude and takes steps in
his video on which he collaborated with two Vietnamese artists,
Phu-Nam Thuc Ha and Tuan Andrew Nguyen to shake it up. When first
seeing the work's war scenes, we assume we're watching authentic
documentary footage. Some of it is, indeed, authentic; but much is
lifted from commercial films set during the Vietnam War.
Awareness of the discrepancy can be unsettling. Even when we know
we're dealing with two different species of filmed reality, we may
not be able, in practice, to distinguish examples of one kind from
the other. So we're just left with doubt. And suddenly it's hard to
know how to react to anything we're seeing.
In a video interview an older women describes how, during an air
attack decades earlier, she tried to camouflage herself by tying
branches to her body. Her comment is immediately followed by a
surveillance-style view of someone hiding in tall grass that is
churned up by propeller wind. Is this an illustrative clip from a
documentary or from a movie?
And what's the reality quotient in a quick, blurry shot, taken from
above, of a man who makes little beseeching bows as he holds up a
child, like an offering, to an ascending helicopter? It would be
comforting to take this heartbreaking vignette for a cinematic
invention, though it probably isn't.
Uncertainty is the right attitude to bring to the study and writing
of history. And it is, on the whole, the one Mr. Le brings to his
art, and notably to his remarkable video, with its visually tight and
ideologically porous weave of fact and fiction, memory and illusion,
with the elements of each pair in constant, volatile interchange.
And certainty, in some measure, has its place too. In the guise of
positive thinking, it has served Mr. Tran and his collaborator in a
D.I.Y. helicopter enterprise well. That the first product of their
labor is now on display in New York may be taken as proof. And that
it is specifically at MoMA is the result of further certainty: the
museum is sure enough of the strength and value of Mr. Le's art to
have acquired the contents of his current show gripping images,
overhauled histories, Vietnamese voices for its permanent collection.
"Projects 93: Dinh Q. Le" is on view through Jan. 24 at the Museum of
Modern Art; moma.org.