“I experienced moments of recognition when I came across these landscapes,” An-My Lê says, regarding the Vietnamese countryside. “They felt familiar to me from stories I heard from my grandmother, from folk tales and short stories I read.” Lê fled Vietnam as a refugee when she was a child and returned after diplomatic normalization between the US and Vietnam in 1994. It is revealing, then, that she draws on the techniques of narrative and fiction to refer to a landscape that she herself knew. In the two series of photographs on view in “đô-mi-nô,” the artist's first show at Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Lê plays with staging and reality, showcasing how ubiquitous the landscapes of war can be, and how repetitive its vernacular.
For more than two decades, the artist has toyed with performance and reality through her meticulously crafted large-format photographs. “DO NOT SHOOT,” read the words painted upon a line of trash cans at the forefront of Mortar Impact, from 29 Palms (2003-2004), a command simultaneously literal and punning: the image depicts a vista at the 29 Palms Marine Corps training center, in the California desert, where wisps of smoke rise to meet the tops of mountains, so pristinely beautiful as to seem almost unreal. In Resupply Operations, from 29 Palms (2003-2004), a cloud of cinematic white dust makes the perfect contrast to an approaching helicopter, as if staged on a film set. In Combat Support Service Operations, from 29 Palms (2003-2004), targets look, from the distance of the lens, like living people.
“Dô-mi-nô” also presents new work, a collection of found jumbo Zippo lighters—some 6½ inches high—carefully arranged on shelves custom-built for the exhibition. The Zippo lighter, a ubiquitous symbol of American intervention used to torch Vietnamese villages, was simultaneously a symbol of small-scale anti-war protests, towing the messages soldiers would have engraved on them. The texts they bear range from bawdy to elegiac to cryptic: “OH OH,” reads one; another, in hand-etched letters, “DAD”; and, “Why Me.” Many of them are ensconced in the kind of potholders that come straight out of a children’s craft book, made by the ordinarily peripatetic Lê, to channel stress and cabin fever during the COVID-19 lockdowns as well as the 2020 Presidential election. Though the medium of the newest series differs, the message does not: “I believe this collection of lighters recalls the madness of the Vietnam war,” Lê says, "as much as it speaks to the absurdity of the Trump years and the senselessness of the COVID-19 crisis.” —Lisa Yin Zhang
An earlier version of this post suggested the engravings on the Zippo lighters were done by Vietnamese engravers. The majority of the jumbo lighters Lê collected were blank, although a few had inscriptions which the artist kept, “DAD” being one example. The rest of the engravings were done in Lê ’s Brooklyn studio—the wording was copied from, or loosely inspired by original texts.
An-My Lê, Thomas, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Copyright: An-My Lê.