Article by Miranda Caravalho
Imagine this: you and your friends are walking through the farmland of North Vietnam. It’s a warm Summer day, the type that makes that air hot and thick. Then you hear it – the familiar guttural stutter of blades cutting against air, and the new and angry wind that has cut through the calm of the afternoon. You know what’s coming, and your friends do too.
Without saying a word you all grab the nearest leaves and branches, and you drop down to the dirt with the foliage covering you. With the jets screaming above you, you begin to crawl through the grass. The noise is ringing in your ears and vibrating the inside of your skull, but you keep crawling. As you move the noise slowly fades away, but you’re too terrified to get up. So you stay where you are, on your hands and knees under your makeshift, and you continue to crawl, further and further, for miles.
Dinh Q. Lê and his family were forced to flee their home of Hà Tiên in 1978, along with a wave of others from a country suddenly ravaged with war. Lê lived for twenty years in the United States until he followed the path of many other refugees and returned to his country to live in Ho Chi Minh City. where he soon started work on the pieces that would eventually make up True Journey is Return the newest exhibit at the San José Museum of Art.
I wasn’t expecting this to be what it was when I walked in. And if I’m being honest, when I found out about the subject manner I hesitated to write about it, mostly out of fear of saying the wrong thing. But after taking some time I couldn’t help myself. True Journey is a touching exhibit, one that commands your time and attention, and yes, your words.
When you walk into the second floor main exhibit, all of which has been dominated by Lê’s work, the first thing that catches your eye will probably be Crossing the Further Shore. It’s these four structures made entirely of loosely-connected photographs. The pictures are ones that Lê has been collecting in antique shops and thrift stores for years. They’re taken from the 1940’s to the 1980’s, mostly from the pre-war era of Vietnam. They’re photos form wedding days and dinner parties, childhood portraits and pristine landscapes. Everyone looks beautiful. If not beautiful, than happy. If not happy, then alive.
The photos form a net. There are more of them scattered under the makeshift buildings. And the ones along the walls that face inside instead of out have writing on the back of them.
“From the field I watched my house burn,” one reads, “late in the afternoon it collapsed. I did not know what to feel then I heard that my husband had been killed, but the French would not let me search for him.”
Another one just reads “Hai cha con”, which means, translated into English, “Father and son”. You can’t see the photo, but something about the words on their own stir up a wistfulness I can’t exactly explain.
But maybe that’s the point that Lê is trying to get across, isn’t it? Once back in Vietnam he searched for the family photographs of his childhood, the ones they’d been forced to abandon as they left to the country. Instead he found these fragments of these people, these other families connected to him through circumstance as opposed to blood. Where are they now? And what memories did they abandon to the storm of war and chaos? Whatever was gone is here again, strung up on display, these private snapshots filled with a potent emotional force. If you stand close enough to the structures your vision starts to spin, like a physical optical illusion of faces and faces.
We have Dinh Q. Lê’s true journey to return laid out in three rooms. But going through those rooms, especially when you take your time, you leave feeling as if you have embarked on a journey of your own. I was in a daze for a long while after I left, deeply touched by what I had seen. I had to mull over the work for days, and as I did I couldn’t help but think – what is my journey? I – and you as well, reader – what do we have to return to?
The answer differs for all of us, but regardless of who you are, you will see your journey as you see Dinh Q. Lê’s work. And it might be sad, or even dizzying, but no matter what I promise it will be beautiful.