Exploring Trauma and Forgotten Histories in the Works of Dinh Q. Lê
1978: ten-year-old Dinh Q. Lê steps onto a small, overcrowded fishing boat in Southern Vietnam. Together with his mother and several family members, they drift across the Gulf of Thailand, spending a year in a Thai refugee camp before heading to the United States.
Considered one of the world’s most renowned Vietnamese contemporary artists, Lê’s artistic creations germinated in a pond of cloudy memories and second-hand recollections of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, continuously striving to remember and preserve a part of history that risks being forgotten. The systematic revisiting of these traumatic memories is a distinctive characteristic of his multi-disciplinary practice, one that continuously looks at a history that is difficult to remember yet impossible to forget. Does this process of repetition provide a platform for Lê to reconcile with a troubled and amorphous past, abating the emotional impact of not only experiencing the war but also the guilt of surviving it? With a look at Sigmund Freud’s theorization of trauma, a better understanding of Lê’s practice as one that “merges fact, fiction, and personal recollections to create a tapestry of memories” can be attained.
Lê was born in 1968, in Hà-Tiên, a small town in the south of Vietnam. His family lived through the war, eventually fleeing to the United States when the Khmer Rouge started making cross-border incursions from neighbouring Cambodia. Arriving in California in 1979, he grew up with Hollywood depictions of a war whose history had been written almost exclusively by the West. Lê explains that “as a child growing up in Simi Valley, California, with the distant memories of a country whose culture and imagery was being fed back to me via mainstream television and film, it was at times difficult to pinpoint which memories were mine or popularly inherited.” This volatile interchange between memory and illusion, fact and fiction, recurs in his practice, which is still galvanized by the process of perceiving the Vietnam War through a Vaselined lens.
The definition of ‘trauma’ centres on intense personal suffering, and is one of the many afflictions that Sigmund Freud studied throughout his career. After World War I, he was intrigued by the propensity of his patients to repeat and re-live unpleasant experiences. He observed that this compulsion was prevalent after sudden and unexpected shocks; the brain inflicts the same traumatic damage on itself, repeatedly. The element of surprise or fright was constant across these patients, the normal defences against danger not having time to operate and the individual being overwhelmed by dread. As a young child experiencing the onslaught of war and having to flee the country, Lê was exposed to a plethora of unpredictable and shocking events. This characteristic of repeatedly reliving these traumas is reflected not only in the subject matter of his works, but also in the processes he uses to create them.
The Vietnam War sparked a renewed interest in the topic of trauma and 1980 saw the formal acknowledgement of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by the American Psychiatric Association. The method of catharsis, where patients uncover original traumas and purge harrowing memories by vividly recalling them, was pioneered by Freud and has subsequently been widely used to treat patients suffering from PTSD. After years of suppressing his childhood memories, Lê’s recollections resurfaced upon returning to Vietnam in 1993. Through his practice, he grapples with his own traumatic experiences and draws attention to the victims of the same conflicts, memorializing them through the act of creation. Through this process of catharsis, he not only pays tribute to the casualties of war, but also forever attaches his name to them.
Merging Eastern and Western cultures, Lê’s works have ventured into the realm of large-scale photo montages and installations, documentary film, and appropriated objects and images. His re-interpretation of traditional grass mat weaving has become his trademark, a technique he learned from an aunt during his childhood in Hà-Tiên. Focusing on the recent history of Vietnam, Lê explores themes of loss and redemption, ensuring that the histories of those who perished in its wake are not forgotten. Whilst at the University of California, he engaged with the topic of the Vietnam War for the first time. Frustrated by “an Asian culture with which the West was for a time intimately and violently engaged with, but about which it knew almost nothing about,” Lê produced a series of posters juxtaposing American media images of the war with photos of Vietnamese suffering, unmasking the contradictory accounts of the conflict’s history (Fig. 1). This was the beginning of a practice that continues to challenge the apathy towards war memories and shines a spotlight on forgotten histories.
A trip to Cambodia in 1994 resulted in Lê’s acclaimed Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness series (Fig. 2). He visited the temples in Siem Reap and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, located at the site of the Khmer Rouge prison and execution centre. Shocked by the contrast between the cruelty of the regime and the beauty of the temples, Lê began working on a series of photo weavings that blended the images of the intricate temple carvings with haunting photographs of the prisoners. Cutting the images into strips, he weaved them together as a way of intertwining cultures and identities. In a careful and repetitive manner, he interweaves the faces of the prisoners with images of the monuments that were also privy to the deaths of countless individuals who helped build them. The artist revisited this series during a residency at STPI in 2018, throwing himself into this compelling act of repetition (Fig. 3).
The attempt to justify abject brutality and unfathomable aggression under the pretext of war, is one that continues to challenge those who have not only experienced it but also suffer the emotional consequences of having survived it. Shaped by his own recollections of the war, together with second-hand memories and photographic cues, Lê has used his practice as both a refuge and a vessel to immortalise those who no longer have a voice. Freud noted that traumas are alternately relived and suppressed, and Lê’s process of healing and acceptance of his past continues to be an onerous one. Reflecting on the experience of living through but also later remembering the war from afar, his works offer a distanced view of a history that he was born into but living away from. With his photo-weavings now firmly established as his trademark, the repetitive nature of Lê’s practice sees him continuously revisiting the past. Is this done in an attempt to deal with a troubled history or is his mind unable to process these traumatic events, compelling him to continuously relive them? Is war ever truly over for those who have experienced it so vehemently? The nature of suffering is a complex and multifaceted one; whilst Lê’s art has set him on a journey of catharsis, this is one where the destination is still unknown.
Published January 2021.
 The Vietnam War took place between 1954 and 1975. It was officially fought between North and South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies and the South Vietnamese one backed by the United States, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and other anti-communist allies. US military involvement escalated in 1961 and continued until their withdrawal in 1973. Two years later, Communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam and in 1976 the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
 Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist best known for developing the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis. Freud posited that neuroses had their origins in deeply traumatic experiences that had occurred in the past, forgotten and hidden from consciousness. His theories on child sexuality, libido and the ego, are some of the most influential academic concepts of the twentieth century.
 Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio, “Contemporary Asian Art.” (Singapore: Thames & Hudson, 2010).
 In an attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge government, led by Pol Pot, rose to power in 1975 after winning the Cambodian Civil War. Forcibly depopulating the country’s cities, they targeted and murdered perceived political opponents and carried out a genocide in which an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people were killed or died (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica). The Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979.
 Dinh Q. Lê, “On Dinh” in Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials, exhibition catalogue, 2018 (Singapore: STPI 2018), 12.
 Holland Cotter, “Vietnamese Voices Against a Whir of War,” nytimes.com, USA, 12 August, 2010, accessed 23 April, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/arts/design/13dinh.html
 Lê blended iconic images of the Vietnam War with documentary photographs and anonymous family portraits that he had bought in thrift shops in Vietnam, Lê created a tapestry of memories and fictions that all merge together. From Vietnam to Hollywood explored and reflected upon the experience of living through and later remembering the war from a distance.
 A former secondary school, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, was used as a prison and interrogation centre during the Khmer Rouge regime. Soldiers, government officials, academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, to name a few, were imprisoned, tortured and killed during the four year regime. An estimated 17,000 people were murdered at the prison and only seven inmates survived.
 Photos are cut into strips and the ones placed horizontally are woven into the vertical ones.
 Lê’s exhibition at STPI – Monuments and Memorials (17 March – 12 May, 2018) establishes a strong connection between previous works and his STPI residency. He revised the Cambodia: Splendour and Darkness series and adopted the same weaving technique and style for these new works. Having previously done little with the print medium and no papermaking experience, Lê was pushed out of his comfort zone, going beyond the weaving process and creating new three-dimensional works.
 As Freud points out in his research findings, repetition itself is the aim of the compulsion.
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About the Writer
Based in Singapore, Sofia is an art consultant and independent curator who holds a Master of Arts, Asian Art Histories, from Goldsmiths University of London through LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.
With over a decade in Southeast Asia, Sofia was the Press and Media Relations at STPI – Creative Workshop and Gallery for 2 years. In 2016, she founded Art Locker, a Singapore-based art consultancy offering marketing, PR, curatorial and strategic advice, as well as artist representation. She has collaborated with a plethora of artists from the region, curating shows and managing special projects. In 2019 she partnered with Amador Arts Projects on the production of a short video on audience reception of Cambodian-American artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s ‘The Buddhist Bug’ performance in Kuala Lumpur.
Sofia is the co-founder of Art World Database, a new online compendium of Southeast Asian contemporary artists, set to launch in 2021.