'In ‘Damaged Gene’ 1998... Le explains the effects of chemical defoliants used by the United States during the war. Emphasising how exposure to the dioxins in the these chemicals still permeates bodies, memories and land in Vietnam, Le strategically interweaves social agency with forms of popular culture. The title of ‘Damaged gene’ refers not only to the immediate consequences of chemical exposure but also its long-term genetic effects and the large number of conjoined twins born as a result. In Vietnam, congenital malformation has been a taboo subject, with the government’s silence about the contamination of soil partly due to its economic dependency on agricultural export. ‘Damaged gene’ reacts against this silence as well as the unwillingness of the United States government to compensate Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.
Originally staged in a small kiosk in Ho Chi Minh City for a month in 1998, ‘Damaged Gene’ displayed and sold objects illustrating the physical effects of Agent Orange. A range of clothing and pacifiers custom made for conjoined twins were fabricated and presented alongside figurine of Siamese twins and T-shirts informing shoppers of the high rate of birth abnormalities in Vietnam. Le does not shy away from the issue of accountability, branding the clothes with the names of American companies, such as Monsanto and Uniroyal Chemical, which were responsible for producing the dioxins. He also cites statistics about the extend to which American troops sprayed these chemicals across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.’
Excerpt from Jose Da Silva ‘Dinh Q Le’ in ‘5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’. (exhibition catalogue), Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia, 2006.
'Dinh Q Le is one of Vietnam’s most established artists from a generation that has witnessed and endured great political, social and cultural upheaval. Born in Ha Tien on the southern border between Cambodia and Vietnam, Le’s family took to the sea in fear of the Khmer Rouge, spending his childhood in the USA. He received his BA in Art (Studio) at UC Santa Barbara in 1989 and his MFA in Photography and Related Media at The School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1992. Learning his country’s ‘history’ through the eyes of foreigners whose investment in the Vietnam War is fraught with numerous political agendas, Lê returned to Vietnam in 1993, determined to find the voice of his own people. Le’s artistic practice is diverse. His early woven photographs have referred to the thousands killed under Pol Pot in Cambodia; the plight of the innumerable ‘boat people’ and their desperate search for safety and validity; or the morphing of filmic and documentary footage into compelling imagery that challenges the voice of popular media and its construction of ‘truth’. His sculptural installations and social ‘interactions’ have often drawn attention to the smaller, often overlooked consequences of everyday life in Vietnam, such as children born with deformity as a result of Agent Orange with Le creating his own form of shrine to these souls who live a life of pain. Examining the influence of American culture in its stereotyping of contemporary Vietnam, much of Le’s ongoing work (most recently installation and the moving image) juxtaposes the lived and mediated experiences of the social condition of Vietnam – its contradictions, insecurities and historical anomalies, but most importantly he has endeavored to illustrate the complex flowering of human persistence and resilience in the face of a powerless urge to survive.
Le’s work has combed the little known historical facts of the complex confluence of war and the extreme assumptions that ensue in a government’s maneuvering of a dominant national psyche that limits a community’s understanding of its own past. Drawn to the issue of land rights, nationhood and questions of sovereignty, issues that are laced with varied biblical, mythical, religious or cultural metaphors that often persist in Vietnamese society today, Le’s oeuvre is one of the most outspoken artistic voices that has consistently drawn attention to the reality of contemporary Vietnam.
Concerned with the lack of artistic opportunities for Vietnamese contemporary artists to experiment, display and critically discuss their work and ideas, Le co-founded Vietnam Foundation for the Arts (VNFA), based in Los Angeles, in 2006 an organization that supports Vietnamese artists and promotes artistic exchange between cultural workers from Vietnam and around the world. With funding from VNFA, Le also co-founded ‘San Art’ in 2007 (along with fellow Vietnamese artists Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phu Nam Thuc Ha and Tiffany Chung). This independent, non-profit, artist-run space and reading room in Ho Chi Minh City, is the first space of its kind in the country with a dedicated exhibition program, promoting exchange and dialogue between local and international audiences, encouraging artistic debate through exhibition, lectures, and panel discussions www.san-art.org
Zoe Butt, Co-Director and Curator, San Art