Piecing Together Forgotten Histories, One Photograph at a Time

Article by Louise Wong for The Wall Street Journal, 7th of August 2012.


Dinh Q. Lê has always felt a part of his life was missing. He was 10 years old the night that he and his family fled the Khmer Rouge-occupied border town of Ha Tien in Vietnam in 1978. They left everything behind, including family photographs.

Mr. Lê, now 44 and a prominent artist – he was the first Vietnamese name to hold a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – spent almost a year in a Thai refugee camp before being repatriated to Los Angeles. He has since relocated to Ho Chi Minh City, where for the past 15 years he has collected discarded black-and-white snapshots sold in large quantities at antique stores in the city.

“A part of me is hoping that when my family escaped, these photos were saved and somehow left in these shops,” he says.

Courtesy of Dinh Q. Lê and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation
A video still from the exhibition.

Tens of thousands of these forgotten photographs are a central feature in Mr. Lê’s exhibition “Erasure,” currently on display in Hong Kong after being first shown in Sydney. Commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Australia and supported by Nicholas and Angela Curtis, it explores issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers in an installation that incorporates sculpture and video.

Recreating a shipwreck of sorts, the show occupies a darkened gallery space in the city’s Chai Wan district, filling it with the sound of a blazing fire and howling winds. On one wall, a floor-to-ceiling moving image of an 18th-century vessel burns, modeled in the style of the ship Captain Cook commanded when he landed in Australia’s Botany Bay.

“It was critical that the overall installation be dramatically linking the journey of Empire with the plight of the numerous who take to the sea in search of freedom,” co-curator Zoe Butt explains.

Covering the floor of the gallery are Mr. Lê’s abandoned photographs, punctuated by makeshift debris that visitors can access via a wooden pathway that curves around part of the space. Wooden boat fragments and torn clothes symbolize the fragility and danger of the journey taken by boat.

“I think this is my story as well as thousands of other people’s stories,” says Mr. Lê. “My family and myself were on this boat that crossed oceans to find a better life.”

The artist says he felt compelled to reframe the discussion about asylum seekers and refugees after seeing images of the Christmas Island tragedy of 2010, when a wooden vessel crashed into the cliffs off Australia’s territory near Indonesia, killing more than half the people onboard.

“They are called ‘queue jumpers’ but I want people to connect personally to faces, to individuals rather than to generalize this image of ‘boat people’,” he says.

Exhibition visitors are encouraged to select photographs to be removed, scanned, catalogued, stored and uploaded to a website (www.erasurearchive.net), where comments are also added.

“I hope these photographs will find their owners in places in Europe, Australia, even in Hong Kong or Vietnam,” Mr. Lê says. “Hopefully these people made it through the war or made it across the seas but I fear that most of the people in these photos didn’t make it through.”

“Erasure” is on show at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery Art Projects until Aug. 12.