An-My Lê, Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, staged across a series of eight connected gallery spaces on the third floor of the museum. The exhibit was curated by Roxana Marcoci, with assistance from Caitlyn Ryan.

The exhibition includes the following works:

  • 18 gelatin silver prints, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, sized roughly 16×22 inches (or the reverse)
  • 9 inkjet prints, 2011, sized roughly 14×20 inches
  • 9 gelatin silver prints, 1999-2002, sized roughly 27×38 inches (or the reverse)
  • 1 4K video projection from 16mm film, 2002, 5 minutes
  • 1 installation of 181 vintage novelty zippo-style lighters, 2021, each roughly 7x4x2 inches
  • 15 gelatin silver prints, 2003-2004, sized roughly 27×38 inches
  • 1 two-channel 4K video projection from 35mm film, 2005, 7 minutes 30 seconds
  • 13 inkjet prints, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, sized roughly 40×57 inches
  • 8 inkjet prints, 2009, 2010, sized roughly 27×38 inches
  • 1 vinyl wallpaper, 2016
  • 4 inkjet prints, 2016, sized roughly 36×34, 26×26, 25×23, 23×19 inches
  • 2 cotton and embroidery floss, 2016-2023, sized 44×56 inches
  • 6 cotton and embroidery floss, 2022, sized roughly 11×15 inches
  • 39 inkjet prints, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, sized roughly 40×57 inches (or the reverse)
  • 17 inkjet prints, 2006, sized 30×42 inches

A catalog has been published by the museum to coincide with the exhibit (here). Hardcover, 184 pages, with 222 illustrations. Includes essays and texts by Roxana Marcoci, La Frances Hui, Joan Kee, Thy Phu, Caitlin Ryan, Monique Truong, and Ocean Vuong. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Back in the fall of 2020, in the height of the pandemic lockdowns, I spent some time digging into the catalog from An-My Lê’s mid-career retrospective at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Titled On Contested Terrain, the show was a definitive institutional summary of Lê’s career, and it went on to travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth in subsequent years.

As part of that analysis (here), I mused about the timing of mid-career retrospectives, and how Lê seemed well placed for such a systematic look back at her work. The exhibition ticked off her major projects in meticulous progression, starting with her 1990s work in Vietnam, and continuing on through her “Small Wars” project on Vietnam war reenactors in the American South, her “29 Palms” project on the military activities at desert training facilities in California during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, her “Trap Rock” mining images made as a commission for Dia:Beacon, and her broader efforts in the “Events Ashore” project following the US Navy around the world. Chronologically, the show brought visitors up to the present with an early sampler of Lê’s most recent project “Silent General”, which had its roots in the removal of Confederate statues in the American South in 2015, but soon expanded out to include other topics.

Given the long lead times associated with museum exhibitions and the calendar disruptions caused by the pandemic, it seems hard to imagine that this MoMA retrospective of Lê’s career wasn’t at least in the planning stages when the other touring retrospective occurred, and given the delays, it seems impossible that the MoMA curators weren’t at least aware of what had been done by other esteemed museums so recently. Regardless of the timings and influences, MoMA’s handsome Lê retrospective follows a very similar path to the earlier one (how could it not?), with a handful of additional insertions and newer bodies of work that fill out the artist’s story somewhat further. In a certain way, it feels a little like the “new and improved” version, with a few tweaks and expansions here and there.

Given this backdrop, and that I have already wrestled with many of Lê’s earlier bodies of work in that previous review, I’m going to use that analysis as a baseline and limit my thinking to the differences in how MoMA has presented the projects, and then go on to spend more time considering some of the works/presentations that are shown here for the first time. As an example, Lê’s 1990s black-and-white images from Vietnam are shown here in slightly more depth, with the addition of an intervening wall that contains a grid of nine more recent color works (from 2011) that intermingle people and places in Ho Chi Minh City and New Orleans. These photographs highlight the tensions and connection points of a contemporary diasporic life (nearly all of the subjects are women), which then resonates back to Lê’s own experiences of going back to Vietnam some thirty years ago.

The MoMA edits of Lê’s “Small Wars” and “29 Palms” projects are both tighter, with somewhat fewer prints balanced by the addition of multi-media expressions. “Small Wars” is augmented by both a short video, which covers similar ground as the still images from the project, and a library of oversized replica lighters, like the kind soldiers brought with them to Vietnam. Between the engraved inscriptions and a few hand-woven koozies, the lighters approximate a sense of intimate personal touch, with personalities, histories, affiliations, and encouragements sprinkled throughout. “29 Palms” is similarly slimmed down in terms of the number of photographs included, but then augmented by a two-channel video, which juxtaposes soldiers listening to inaudible briefings and views of far off maneuvers in the desert landscape. The pairing leaves plenty unsaid or unexplained, connecting attentive, distracted, and often exhausted faces with distant machinations. In the other direction, both edits of “Trap Rock” and “Events Ashore” are more expansive here, filling out the rock quarry project into an edge-to-edge room filling install (which highlights Lê’s exploration of the formal aspects of a hybrid altered landscape), and adding images of tripwire clearing, flood relief, sailors playing pool with Vietnamese women, and interchanges with Vietnamese military leaders to the laundry list of US Navy activities.

In a small transition room with red painted walls, some previously unseen works by Lê pop up. One group comes from the “secret cabinet” at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which houses erotic art found at the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Lê’s photographs isolate certain mural and fresco works as displayed, not with a Louise Lawler-like attention to the dynamics of the surroundings, but more with a focus on particular works that show mixed race pairings, Gods and mortals together, and other voyeuristic combinations. These images are largely forgettable as appropriations, but they provide an intriguing backstory and contrast to the other works by Lê across the room. Using a recent pornographic video depicting a gangbang between actors portraying GIs and two Vietnamese women as source material, Lê has isolated certain frames and reimagined them as embroidered weavings. As we might expect, the stills isolate moments of groping, watching, and seas of tangled limbs, but the textural weaving distances us from that specificity, in a manner similar to the ancient frescoes depicted nearby. In a sense, these too are stylized moments of a broader definition of war or conflict, as seen in Lê’s better known projects, her process here making the provocatively explicit fragments (and our consumption of the pictures) more abstract.

In another nearby side room, Lê has created the modern equivalent of a cyclorama, using her own black-and-white images to create a hybrid landscape panorama that fills the intimate oval-shaped space. In this installation, she has mixed photographs from various locations (Vietnam, Louisiana, and France, among others), creating piece-part rivers, gardens, and vistas that force incongruous places (and times) into one continuum. The effect is quietly uneasy, with various colonial signifiers intermingled with the natural beauty, and conflicting realities brought into apparent coexistence. Nuclear cooling towers march along like perfectly pruned evergreen trees, glorious towering cloudscapes are interrupted by cargo cranes and flying drones, and river deltas from far flung locations are seemingly merged, leaving us with an experience of the land that doesn’t settle into easy understanding, but instead asks us to unpack each frame and its hidden in plain sight histories and implications.

The largest and most sprawling portion of this retrospective comes near the end, where images from Lê’s most recent project “Silent General” cover several connected spaces. In the previous retrospective, there were fewer of these images and Lê organized them into “fragments” of several photographs grouped together; as installed here, there are more pictures (nearly 40), and the structural categorization and theme building has been removed, allowing the images to intertwine more freely. Her eye is still attentively precise and quietly ordered, but her subject matter wanders more widely than before, seemingly in search of the individual tiles that might arrange this polarized contemporary moment (since 2015 at least) into an uneasy mosaic.

Since Lê works with a large format camera, almost by definition, she’s not capturing action or journalistic news as it happens, unless it’s staged for her benefit or observed over time. Instead, her patient approach allows for the places (or the people milling around) to reveal themselves. One thread of her contemporary brocade includes the removal and storage of Confederate monuments in the South, and the recreation of history happening during a filming of a Civil War era drama. Another thread connects migrant farm workers (and the citrus orchards and asparagus fields they maintain) with images from the US-Mexico border region, including lazy scenes of life near the river and posed portraits of Latina border control agents on both sides of a bridge. The dual tensions of the Trump presidency and the pandemic form a third group of pictures, which document a massive vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and a naval hospital ship passing under the Verrazano Bridge in New York, as well as an empty White House press briefing room, a Saturday Night Live stage set of the oval office, and some anti-Trump graffiti found on a wall in New Orleans. The fragility of the American land comes back into focus with images of a wildfire-charred forest in California, the twisting scars of a gas pipeline across the Texas scrubland, some dusty cattle ranchers gathering for scarce water in Texas, and a drainage pump station in New Orleans, and two other landscapes create a religion versus science back and forth, matching a church on the vast Montana plains and an antenna array in New Mexico. And still other images bring young people into the dialogue, from Air Force Academy cadets to high school students protesting gun violence. Together, the works offer an unsteadily shifting portrait of this past decade, with each frame providing a small insight into a much larger and more complex American reality.

There is a consistent understated precision to Lê’s photographic eye that comes through strongly when a lifetime of her artistic projects are strung together back to back. This is a tightly-edited and persuasive retrospective that ably summarizes Lê’s most important contributions to the medium, one that will satisfy both those familiar and entirely unfamiliar with her work. The show also checks various boxes of contemporary relevance, from the nuances of the diasporic experience to the layered complexities of militarization, providing plenty of points of open-ended engagement. As seen here, Lê successfully delivers both photographic sophistication and thoughtful and timely analysis of the pressure points of our changing world, methodically showing us versions of the American experience that deserve more attention.

Collector’s POV: An-My Lê is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York (here). Her work has very little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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