Material Culture, Archival Art, and Dinh Q. Le

Material objects inherently hold some sort of memory or associations. By using mixing and juxtaposing material objects, artists can reveal fallacies in accepted narratives that exist in society about these objects. While not all art dealing with material culture is “archival art,” I think that Hal Foster’s article on the subject is a good way to approach art that involves layered imagery and cultures. From our readings this week, I was especially drawn to the work of Dinh Q. Le. Initially he stood out to me because he used traditional Vietnamese weaving techniques in his photographic work, but all of his work is really interesting in that he layers different memories of the Vietnam War to create a unique narrative that holds truth to him and is not obscured by myths in American media or the Vietnamese government’s versions of the events. I want to use this blog post to explore how Foster’s discussion of archival art, specifically that of Thomas Hirschhorn and Sam Durant, can be applied to the work of Dinh Q Le.

Foster suggests that Hirschhorn layers space, fan testimonials, people, altars, etc to comment on the “grotesquerie of our immersive commodity-media-entertainment environment: such are the elements and the energies that exist to be reworked and rechanneled.” Hirschhorn combines material things that we don’t usually see together, “archiving” them in a new way, so that viewers can gain a fresh perspective about their environment. Foster writes that “archival art is rarely cynical in intent…on the contrary, these artists often aim to fashion distracted viewers into engaged discussants.” It is through these fresh combinations of typically overpassed and ignored objects that viewers are engaged. Foster suggests that Sam Durant’s work functions in a similar way, saying that his “’bad combinations’…serve to ‘offer space for associative interpretations’ and they suggest that, even in an apparent condition of entropic collapse, new conditions can be made.”

Sam Durant is interesting to compare to Dinh Q Le because his work focuses on the Vietnam era and combines more abstract pieces of material culture. Instead of using physical objects like banners and letters as Hirsschorn does, Durant mixes signs of the utopian and dystopian. In Partially Buried Woodshed, he contrasts images of the Kent state killings with Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and music from Woodstock with music from Altamont. Foster suggests that “these conflicting signs erupt together in this archival space…in this way, Durant not only sketches a cultural-political archive of the Vietnam era, but also points to its entropic slide into semiotic mélange, into media myth.” By combining different media of cultural artifacts in one space and time, Durant successfully express the complexity of the 1960s and 1970s. It is important that he is communicating his truth in order to combat the “media myth” of the time.

Dinh Q. Le also layers disparate elements of the time together to highlight opposing memories and to reveal myths in existing narratives. His photographic works literally weave together the conflicting memories he personally has from the war and those presented in Hollywood movies that he saw when he moved to America in 1978. Sometimes he uses family photographs and sometimes he uses famous images from the war. In Born on the Fourth of July (2000), he combines a still from the film of the same name, featuring Tom Cruise as a paraplegic veteran in a wheelchair, with the James Ott photo of a young Vietnamese girl who has been napalmed. This image is especially interesting because the James Ott image is so deeply engrained in our conception of the Vietnam war that it too is part of the media’s narrative of the war. Nevertheless, the ghostly faces of screaming children fading into the melodramatic image of Tom Cruise pretty effectively convey the safe distance most Americans had from the extreme violence that the Vietnamese endured. Le’s art frequently focuses on the difference between the American and Vietnamese conceptions of the war, both of which are important for him to explore because he has lived through both. Only by combining these two perspectives in an archival setting can he truly capture the reality of his own experience.

Le is very interested in memory, and the layers and dichotomies of his work allow for all the ambiguities of memory. The Farmers and the Helicopters was a video installation where three channels “wove together images [of Vietnamese speaking] about their memories of the helicopter and documentary footage of a helicopter in Vietnam” ( He embarked on this project because Hollywood movies always featured helicopters, but helicopters were not part of his personal memory of the war. This project also gave voice to actual Vietnamese memories. Le said in an interview, “Whether in documentary footage or in Hollywood movies, the Vietnamese are always on the side and they barely say anything; most Hollywood movies are really about American soldiers in Vietnam. I was interested in giving the Vietnamese a platform to speak about the Vietnam War for the first time.” In this piece, Le is also archiving authentic memories. A critic from the New York Times referred to this piece as “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.” Thus, by combing and juxtaposing authentic memories of the war with fictionalized Western narratives, Dinh Q Le is able to force viewers to reconsider their own understanding of the war. Le’s archival art works to “fashion distracted viewers into engaged discussants,” as Foster would say.

Dinh Q Le, Born on the Fourth of July (2000)
Dinh Q Le, Born on the Fourth of July (2000)


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