Dinh Q. Le is my colleague and friend since 2004 when we worked together on the Board of Directors of Res Artis, the International Association of Residential Arts Centers. Since then we have both remained part of an active group of artist/activists who have become Cultural Producers; artist practitioners whose work, besides exhibiting and writing about art, includes designing, administrating, funding and planning artist residencies and related cultural events and educational programming. This past October through December Dinh presented ample evidence of his first self, the artist practitioner at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica with a wonderful installation of over sized photo scrolls entitled The Scrolls: Distortion. Dinh’s career has taken off since 2004, and his international reputation is realized through various series that explore his native Vietnamese background. These series include Persistence of Memory; From Vietnam to Hollywood; Remnants, Ruins, Civilization, and Empire. The through-line in his investigation has dealt with fragmented memories and the reconciliation of painful and traumatic histories, often directly dealing with the wars in Southeast Asia, and more recently with other metaphors of loss or oppression. In The Scrolls; Distortion, Dinh uses found imagery from movies such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon. He then creates photo-montages referring to the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. The resulting imagery is stretched and distorted with photo shop and other software; then printed on a roll of glossy paper measuring 164 feet; and finally hung draped over metal rods some 10 feet off the floor, unfurling onto a platform below where the paper billows and furls. Referencing Chinese scroll painting, the scrolls form an animated series of totems the viewer can circle and view from a variety of directions and distances. The further away the viewer stands, the more into focus the distorted images become. Included in the scrolls are also images of victims of the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 prison. As these embedded images are deciphered through the distortions, more of the implicit social commentary in the work is revealed.
Dinh Q. Le is also the founder of San Art, the well known artist residency center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Sàn Art is an artist initiated, non-profit contemporary art organization committed to the exchange and excavation of cultural knowledge within an interdisciplinary community. Founded in 2007, Sàn Art set out to fill the gap in access and opportunity for local artistic practices by engaging with contemporary discourse through the visual arts, literature, performance and vocational activities such as exhibition, lecture, workshop, and residency programs, in conjunction with local and international partners. It’s Reading Room holds the most extensive resources on contemporary art in Ho Chi Minh City. Currently Sàn Art works with external partners in locating space to showcase exhibitions of the diverse talent of Vietnam and beyond.
The cultural infrastructure in Vietnam for contemporary art is unique to its location as is every residency. Like other artists who are also Cultural Producers, he has taken on an enormous set of challenges and time-consuming tasks by so actively collaborating and serving his arts community. Sàn Art is often the only source of information and meeting space available to artists in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2012 I chaired a panel at the Res Artis Conference in Tokyo entitled Innovative Strategies for Creative Platforms. I invited Sàn Art’s curator Zoe Butt to speak on the panel and she expressed some of the unique challenges faced by Sàn Art, and the contemporary arts community in Vietnam. “In a country where artistic production is low due to reasons of economy and self-censorship; where there is no economic system that provides tax inventive for culture; where there is no recognition of a non-profit artistic entity; where an educational system does not offer arts management training let alone mandate the learning of local or comparative world histories, it remains crucial to innovate the fabric of our presumed community. In many cases artist initiated activity that seeks to work openly with ‘official’ structures are slowly changing cultural policy – but often at a risk that can potentially restrict desired activities. Sàn Art must activate two tier programming – exhibitions of quality that do not consistently challenge perceived State policy while also privately running activities that cater for an interest in experimental practice and critique. It is a precarious dance and all content must be carefully weighed, there are times where official admission of material is omitted or certain programs (such as lectures supporting critical thinking) are produced for private audience (thus not requiring permit). In early 2011, San Art programmed a lecture by Duong Diem Mau, a renown author claimed to be Vietnam’s William Burrough’s, however the government perceived this as our interest in this writer’s previous anti-government opinions (which was not to be a focus of discussion at all but rather his creative methodology) and so Sàn Art as an organization was suddenly interrogated by Cultural Police and placed on high security alert within the country’s Cultural Ministry. Threats of arrest were handed down. It was made known that we were all being watched. This is but one example of the dance that can sometimes go awry. It is a fragile relationship that is slowly moving from suspicion to respectful distance.”
Since then San Art has experienced a degree of interference from the government that has seen the residency program go on hiatus in 2016. It was reported on by Hyperallergic at that time and you can read about it here:
Government Pressure Forces Closure of Vietnamese Artist Residency
For more about San Art, go to the home site at http://san-art.org/
And, in a sign that perhaps the hiatus is coming to an end, currently San Art is advertising for a curator and director: https://www.facebook.com/SanArtVN/
For those of you in the residency field or who are interested in cultural production, take a look at the Sàn Art site and the job offering, perhaps pass it along. For those of you who want to see some terrific art work, take a look at Dinh’s.