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Dinh Q. Le

By Keith Miller

P.P.O.W. Gallery

19 November - 23 December 1998

First Published in ARTPAPERS, March/Aprill,'99

In the recent work of Dinh Q. Le, "Splendour and Darkness", one is confronted by a disquieting mix of the beautiful and the horrible. In this subtle and elegant balance the viewer is invited to simultaneously relish and be repelled. Informed by the personal experience of his childhood in Vietnam witnessing the invasion of the Khmer Rouge, the tragic impact of the Vietnam war and watching his aunt weave grass mats, Dinh has woven a complex and personal tapestry informed by history and presence.

In his large format photographic works in the recent show he has combined imagery from two distinct sources. The first are images of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, the second images of the people killed by the Khmer Rouge.These areimages made through a meticulous documentation process just prior to the executions.

The two sets of images are combined through a weaving technique similar to what one might see in the woven grass mats of the artist¹s aunt. These are monochrome images slightly burnt around the edges with the portraits varying in size from two inches to three or four feet in size, but the size of the portraits remains consistent within each piece. When viewing the large works with smaller images at first the portraits are lost in the elegance of the dominant temple image. The effect is aesthetically rich: the texture of the woven pattern combined with the decorative patches which, upon close inspection, reveal themselves to be the aforementioned photos. One is then drawn to see the subtle and human qualities of each individual, slowly finiding the uniqueness and idiosyncratic nature of each, such as the man who seems to smirk as he looks to his right.

In the pieces with the large, single portraits the relationship is quite different. One is not faced with several parts of a whole which finally make up a dense totality, instead we see the totality as it is. The large portrait of a woman (all the pieces are "Untitled" 1998, C-print and linen tape), for example, speaks of her as a complete individual who is at once a comlex and complete individual and an inseperable part of the land and history that created, and finally destroyed her.

The combination of the original images¹ beauty with its¹ historical implications causes a spiritual stir in the viewer. In the same way that the original portraits were left nameless, leaving each piece untitled denies the victims their individuality.It is the specificity of the images which forcefully asserts that lost individuality. The catalogued portraits¹ barbarous and methodical cruelty lays tacit beneath each of the works and bespeaks a pain and suffering using beauty as a tool. The elegant device, instead of assuaging the underlying anguish, seems to emphasize it still more.

The brutality of images with which the contemporary world bombards us has hardened us to the painful truth they reveal. In that sense it is necessary to create a manner which invites and forces the viewer to take on the deeper implications of the image without quickly rejecting it as too much or accepting it as another meaningless image, such as one might do with the images seen in telethons and ads for the needy in some other, abstract part of the world. Within these strict limitations Dinh has taken on a difficult subject and dealt with it in serious and powerful terms. It is to his credit that he has used the already extremely powerful portraits of the terror vicitms and utilized them not as button pushing emotional activators but has instead charged them with a deeper questioning of their meaning within the historic and spiritual panorama of southeast Asia.

The real success of the images, then, is that they function as neutral and purely estheticized images but are not content to be seen as such. These works force the viewer to deal with them as more than that. Through the achieved formal elegance we are taken to the heart of the suffering in an ungeneralized, site specific manner, something difficult for the average viewer to experience unless he or she has a common historic and social experience. It is this generalizing through the painfully specific which qives to the work of Dinh Q. Le a powerful transcendence, albeit a painful one.