Dinh Q. Lê: Erasure
On a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City I found myself in a second-hand bookstore rather misplaced among its more upmarket neighbours, thumbing through an album of photographs—beautiful young women coyly posing by flowerbeds and candlelight, the notations of an earnest shutterbug pencilled in the margins. Bound in brown card with ‘1987’ inscribed in gold foil and the words Nhà Máy Xi Măng ('Cement Plant') on the cover, it was a government-issued worker’s diary that had been appropriated by its young owner into a book of devotion. The storekeeper drove a hard bargain. ‘Very popular nowadays,' she reasoned. Yes, I thought, but why should this be?
Dinh Q. Lê’s Erasure provided an answer: we are easily seduced by the dead eyes of history. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and co-curated by Zoe Butt, Erasure was Lê’s first solo exhibition in Australia, after he had previously participated in the 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 2006–07 and Casula Powerhouse’s 2009 project Nam Bang!. For Erasure Lê presented a work of particularly poignant historical import. On entering the gallery the audience navigated a boardwalk path through the thousands of photographs that covered every inch of floor space. The damaged wooden hull of a boat lay strewn among outcrops of rock. A video projection provided an ocean’s horizon, before which appeared the burning hulk of an eighteenth-century ship. The sound of burning timber, crashing waves and a howling gale combined to simultaneously disorientate and calm the senses.
Conceived by the artist as a broader participatory project, Lê spent years collecting the photographs that had been lost or left behind by South Vietnamese once the North encroached—gelatin silver ticket stubs of permanent exiles, of the drowned and the saved. An ongoing website was created (www.erasurearchive.net) allowing each image to be transformed into pixels and archived, to be remembered or forgotten. Deliberately set face-down in the exhibition, the photographs appeared as a sea of yellowing paper; handwritten inscriptions on their reverse caught the eye and appealed to curiosity. I turned one over. The photograph depicted a dozen unremarkable suited men standing in a row. I scanned and uploaded it in the gallery. When prompted to post a comment I noted that it reminded me, ironically, of Richard Avedon’s 1971 group portrait of the United States’ chief on-the-ground bureaucratic prosecutors of the Vietnam War at its terrifying height, a picture of the banality of power. As a medium, photography excels at ensuring that images beget yet more images which keep the world at one remove, leaving us no closer to the truth.
Erasure signalled the capacity of Lê’s visual metaphor of a sea of memory to engender emotions that have no specific agency, their anonymity inevitably separating us from those for whom we feel morally impelled to seek empathetic recognition—distanced even further by euphemisms such as ‘boat people’. Lê’s insoluble artistic dilemma has thus become how to meaningfully explicate the one from the many, no easy task when we’re rendered mute by the irreducible mystery of a face, a life and a fate unknown to us. And so in his ongoing objective of compiling photographs lost from their subjects so that they might be identified, Erasure marked the first vital step. Nothing so fundamentally signals our human connection as knowing an individual by name.
Later, at home, I pulled the Cement Plant diary from my shelf. Inscribed on the inside front cover, in cursive red script against a faded cerulean pattern of rose and thorn motifs, appeared the name of its author: Bùi Ðức Thăng. Who are you?
© Pedro de Almeida 2011.