SoPARTS Spotlight: Việt Lê

Việt Lê is an artist, writer and curator using these creative narratives to tell stories around different forms of trauma: historical, state-imposed, identity-related, and more. Whether in the form of a poem or a curated installation, his work is deeply layered, tinged with loss as well as the beauty of living.

What drives you to wake up in the morning & what keeps you up at night?
I believe we are in a crisis. I don’t believe in the anxious language of refugee “crisis,” although we are globally experiencing mass migrations in the shadow of capital and wars.  In this age of Brexit, xenophobia, gun violence, self-interest and selfies, we are in the depths of a sociopolitical, environmental and spiritual crisis. What wakes me up and keeps me up is the crisis of meaning: how do we facilitate and create meaningful, productive exchanges with our limited world views?  And how do we get ourselves and others to expand the limits of our individual and collective vision?

eclipse teaser // HD experimental film, edition of 3 // directed by Việt Lê with Jamie Maxtone-Graham featuring the music of Đại Lâm Linh // Việt Lê with Jamie Maxtone-Graham

Trained as an ethnographer, much of my art and research involves collaboration. I worked with many fantastic artists in Hà Nội, including Jamie Maxtone-Graham, my director of photography, as well as conceptual artists Nguyễn Phương Linh, Tuân Mami, Nguyễn Quốc Thành. The dancer is Duy Thanh and you may recognize Phong (the trans M to F protagonist) from the film Finding Phong.
eclipse is about longing and loss—losing a loved one or a country (as I did, as a refugee) and desperately wanting it back, with no recourse.  It is indicative of our current moment, wanting to “make America great again”: we’ve fallen from grace, lost our garden of Eden, there is no way back. On the other hand, it can be about spirituality—wanting to give up everything as a path towards enlightenment, towards ego-lessness—and its blind struggle.  

Why art? You work as an artist, writer, and curator – do you find different ways of addressing issues through each practice?
Like J-Lo, I’m a triple threat! Joking aside, my individual creative and critical practices deeply inform each other. As a conceptual artist, it’s about what is the best medium and discourse for the idea, whether it is a poem, academic text, or an art installation. For instance, I start with questions—What’s the gap between the traumas of history (e.g., wars) and the traumas of modernization? What’s the void between wars and pop culture?  
Reflecting on different facets of these questions take different forms: the lovebang! art series, an academic article, and two traveling exhibitions I co-curated, transPOP: Korea Việt Nam Remix (with Yong Soon Min) and Love in the Time of War (with Jen Vanderpool).
The lingering questions about intimacy, the body and the political body also permeated the 2015 International Southeast Asian Film (I-SEA) Festival which I co-directed with Adele Ray. All of these projects attempt to query and queer standard narratives. < 3

 Love in the Time of War postcard, curated by Việt Lê and Jen Vanderpool //&nbsp;2016-17 University of California, Santa Barbara and SF // Camerawork

Love in the Time of War postcard, curated by Việt Lê and Jen Vanderpool // 2016-17 University of California, Santa Barbara and SF // Camerawork

The artists in this group exhibition embody the contradictions of engaging love—its contingency and urgency— in a time of eternal wars. There is the question of the relationship between intimate statements and state violence?

Refugee (camp!) ......... heARTbreak! excerpt, from the "lovebang!" trilogy featuring the music of Đại Lâm Linh // Courtesy of the artist.

What were your motivations to get involved with social justice? What specific issues do you try to address through your art?
In both my academic and creative work, I am interested in the traumas of history (e.g., wars) and the traumas of modernity—rapid development, displacement, refugees and refuge.  

My friend Dinh Q. Lê says that artists are public intellectuals. I don’t necessarily think of myself as that but I look to other artists to viscerally learn about the world. Where else can you see the world through someone else’s eyes and feel it? Through literature, films—through art.
All my art, research and curatorial work is politically motivated. You might not see it, it might look fluffy to you, but that’s a strategy. For some artists, I see humor as a strategy to talk about other social and political concerns. My friend Kristina Wong, a performance artist, says she uses humor to just reel them in and then kick them in the guts. And I think I do a similar thing, just fluffy stuff— like sexy music videos— but then to talk about these deeper things like the traumas of history and modernisation.
As a Vietnamese/ Vietnamese American queer artist there are certain expectations about representation, the politics of identity— ‘oh yes he’s in a Vietnamese show, he’s in a LGBT show.’ As a curator, I understand the limits of these designations. People are still being discriminated, still being killed for their subject positions—identitarian politics are still vital. In the United States we are in a state of war—people are being killed abroad and at home. The interrelated lines of race, sexuality, class—oppression, suffering, it appears in my own work. That’s also why I feel community building or collaboration is important: making these violences visible within and without institutions that would not have us.

For every pain, there is a pill. For both personal and social “pains”, what is your medicine?
Pop, art and fashion. And Pop Art. I make “real” fake  pop music videos to deal with difficult subject matter such as displacement, and refugees then and now because I believe humor and beauty are strategies. I don’t want to replicate over-determined and hyper-visible images of traumatized subjects.   Art and activism are salves.  

What is a normal day for you like during the artistic process? Do you have any rituals?
There is no “normal” day. I often start off with research-- building arguments, a stance, a vision. The medium drives the process. The creative/ critical process itself is a ritual: research, reflect, rinse, repeat.
With photography it’s the relationship between myself and the subject. For instance, I have done an ongoing series (entitled pictures of you) of queer-identified male nudes in their domestic space. The  ethnographic interaction between two subjects (myself and the model) was important, so it couldn’t be a painting, because I can’t talk literally to a painting.
For paintings I want to really meditate on an image and for performance it’s a sort of relationship between myself and the audience and the space that is embodied. For film/ video it’s a compression of time, space, performance, music, fashion and architecture that I can’t conjure in a painting. Experimental video combines all of my interests. I can’t necessarily bring people to these sights, but I can conjure it through moving images, gesture and sound.

What does community mean to you? How does that community affect your creative output?

Unpublished journal notes:
Community is revealed in the death of others; hence it is always revealed to others. Community is what takes place always through others and for others. (15)                   
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community

While writing an article in Southern California on January 16, 2012, I learned that a beloved friend and colleague suddenly died. Two weeks earlier in Sài Gòn, I shared a meal at one of my favorite restaurants, Cục Gạch Quán, with this friend, Boitran Huynh-Beattie, an historian and curator of Vietnamese art, and her husband Ray Beattie, an artist—the couple is based in Australia. Coincidentally, the night before our intimate dinner, tabloid headlines and facebook posts proclaimed that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ate at the same place. Over rau muống and ca hap, we joked how the hard-to-find eatery—popular with locals—was now overrun with tourists basking in the aura of Brangelina, ourselves included.  
Shadowing Brangelina, Boitran and Ray planned to visit Cambodia.  Instead of visiting Ta Prom temple–now touted as Angelina’s Tomb Raider temple—the artist and the art historian wanted to explore the contemporary Khmer art scene; I promised to introduce them via e-mail to local artists and organizers. At the end of our dinner, I wanted to take a snapshot of the couple to commemorate our time together, but feeling self-conscious among tourists, I thought, Next time.
This time, Boitran was in Việt Nam for three months on an Asialink grant to research Vietnamese contemporary art. Beyond Việt Nam, she also wanted to look at regional socioeconomic and creative exchanges. While Boitran was interviewing artists, Ray turned their temporary Sài Gòn home into a studio, making new artwork with archival postage stamps. Stamps bear the trace of place and time; they mark at turns tender and terrifying news. In another place and time, I first met Ray and Boitran—almost a decade ago while I was in Sydney for a conference on war. In the United States, we are still at war. Are we still bounded by wars then and now?   Due to distance, I did not get to see the inseparable couple frequently but I knew then our connection was urgent, unyielding: we are part of a small tribe of artists, academics, and organizers haunted by the histories of Southeast Asia.  Still, we are hopeful. Boitran wrote,  “We all live in history, some of us write it and a few of us rewrite it. But how do we understand history and how do we want history to be written?”   I now write and make art about these intimate histories and communities. We together rewrite our histories and re-envision our communities. It’s an act both tender and terrifying.

Can you give us a quick list of influences?

Is there anything you would change in your life, if you had the chance? In the world?
I wouldn’t change my life differently for the world, but I would change how life is valued differently in the world.  

Can you share a story about social injustice? How do experiences like these manifest in your work?


Ghosts are not what you imagine,
they don’t take forms, inhabit their dispossessed,
aren’t recognizable, nor loved.

Not the naked girl burning burning bones,
concave skin running running sweating Napalm glory
screaming in your memory
(Do I look like her? She’s still alive, you know);

not the grass and wire and skeletal piles,
Tuol Sleng, clumps of dirt, weeds, night forests, bright fires;
not the small teeth, high cheekbones

black gun blasting VC—

none of these things.

The afterlife
of trauma, the image’s aura: stereotypical, stereoscopic,
grainy black and white—atomic, indelible, spectral.

I have been looking for the uncanny
in daylight, afraid of the dark’s secrets (the night

mother was raped on the way to Thailand,
she never told me,
I always knew). Marrow guided, I have been searching
for glimpses, hunting for my parents’ ghosts
in imaginary countries.

Haunting is mute, barely
perceptible, your breath’s heave and sigh.

It comes as this: small coincidences, signs,
a candle flaring at noon, obscure headlines, blood
in water, slight chills.

To see more of Việt's work, visit his website here.
interview conducted 08.14.2017