An-My Lê, On Contested Terrain

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Aperture (here), in conjunction with the Carnegie Museum of Art (here), where an exhibition is on view between March 14, 2020 and January 18, 2021. Softcover (10.5×9.25 inches), 204 pages, with 128 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes texts by Dan Leers, Lisa Sutcliffe, and David Finkel, and a conversation between the artist and Viet Thanh Nguyen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Somewhere in the unwritten rules of curatorial practice lies the definition of when is the exact right time for a mid-career retrospective. Not unlike the calculus that is applied to a poet who has published a few chapbooks and successful volumes and is now ready for a “Selected Poems” survey, the moment typically comes when a photographer has not only built up a number of notable projects or bodies of work in succession, but when the through line that connects the evolution of the underlying artistic ideas starts to become more visible. When that discernable pattern starts to emerge, and the work is more broadly tracking along an upward trajectory in terms of sophistication and maturity, the mid-career review starts to make sense, particularly as a succinct entry point for those who might have missed what was happening previously.

For An-My Lê, the magic hour has arrived, as evidenced by this handsome retrospective catalog for a museum show organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, which will then travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth in the coming months. In Lê’s case, she has ticked all the invisible curatorial boxes. In the years since finishing her MFA at Yale in 1993, she has methodically delivered four major bodies of work and embarked on an ambitious fifth, published several acclaimed monographs, completed a commission for the Dia:Beacon, and won both Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, among other achievements. And along that path, she has consistently engaged with and examined a sprawling, complicated, and oftentimes opaque subject – war (largely in its contemporary forms), the extensive military infrastructure that makes it possible, and the nuanced ideas on everything from politics to national identity that are embedded in it. She’s bitten off a massively complex and polarizing subject, and empathetically and thoughtfully shown us overlooked facets of its elusive character.

On Contested Terrain is organized in reverse chronological order, featuring her newest images first, but it actually makes better sense to think about Lê’s career in the order in which she built it, as following a step-by-step progression makes it much easier to see the evolution that has occurred. Smart essays by curators Dan Leers and Lisa Sutcliffe help fill in the connective tissue of personal events, artistic influences, and inspirations that provide the foundation of Lê’s work, beginning with her first trip to France and her family’s evacuation from Saigon right before the end of the Vietnam War. Lê’s Vietnamese-American heritage plays a central role in her thinking about not only her own personal identity, but in how she has approached and investigated the ways American military power is leveraged around the world.

In the late 1990s, Lê made a series of three trips back to Vietnam, which became the basis for her first body of work after graduate school. Using her large format camera, she made black and white landscapes that initially look traditional – farmland, riverscapes, misty jungles – but slowly reveal themselves as locations with layered and conflicted histories. The village of Son Tay has neatly ordered planting beds and healthy looking vegetables, but it was once the site of a prison camp. The elegant columns of a house in Soc Son are flanked by a wall pockmarked by a spray of bullet holes. A young woman pairs a feminine glass necklace with military helmet and what looks like a blood stain on her blouse. And an elevated, wide view of slow river life in Ho Chi Minh City is interrupted by a sweep of Western billboards advertising Nokia phones, Carlsberg beer, and Sanyo electronics. In these and other images from the project, Lê’s memories of Vietnam don’t quite line up with its complex reality, and her pictures wrestle with these subtle conflicts. Her photographs also set the land up as a witness, an approach she will come back to repeatedly in the subsequent years.

Small Wars is the project that first put Lê on the artistic map. Her photographs document various plausibly authentic Vietnam War reenactments staged in the wooded hills of Virginia and North Carolina, the scenes filled with recreated mortar fire, downed aircraft, helicopter landing zones, and chaotic firefights and ambushes in the smoke. To gain access to the goings on, Lê was asked to participate, taking on the role of a North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldier, even though she originally came from the South. At the heart of these exercises lies the unspoken intentions of the participants – why would someone want to do this? – and playing the role of sniper, captive, or informer gave Lê a personal view into what it felt like to be an “enemy”. She came to understand the reenactments as away for these men to process their own complex relationships with the war – whether they had fought themselves, served but avoided combat, stayed behind, or were simply engrossed by its powerful myths. Her images document imaginary setups that are in some sense ambiguously real, with all the participants, including Lê herself, actively processing their own demons. The best of the photographs from the series feel quietly controlled but ultimately unstable, the act of deliberate recreation adding layers of subtlety and inner conflict to even the most innocuous of camp scenes.

Lê’s next project, 29 Palms, builds on the idea of military staging, but in a slightly different direction. After being denied credentials to be embedded with frontline troops fighting in the Iraq War, Lê was given access to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center near Joshua Tree National Park in California, where troops were being trained before being posted out to Iraq or Afghanistan. She followed along as units performed various simulations of combat operations, from reconnaissance missions and small convoy attacks (both in the day and at night) to coordinated mechanized movements of tanks, trucks, and resupply maneuvers behind. Using her large format camera out in the dry, dusty terrain, Lê’s resulting photographs have the muted feel of 19th survey photography, the epic scale of the wide sweep of mountains and desert making the brawny military vehicles and helicopters look like toys. When she gets in closer, particularly to the house by house secure and stabilize drills in fake Iraq towns (complete with pro-Saddam graffiti), the whole enterprise starts to feel even more like a charade, with stage set houses, actors in Arab dress, and bored soldiers waiting to take their turn in the hot sun. Here again Lê settles into an in-between artistic zone that both documents the complex military planning and organization, but also captures the imperfections and artificiality of field exercises that don’t entirely prepare soldiers for complexity of actual war. The broad views especially give war a feeling of arms-length aloofness, where decisions and actions are far removed from each other, to the point of subtle absurdity.

Lê’s follow-on effort Events Ashore (reviewed on its own, here) cemented her growing artistic position and opened up some new aesthetic avenues for her photographs. In a project that took place over nearly a decade, she amplified and expanded her interest in the operations of US military by digging into the full scope of the activities of the US Navy, ultimately spending time on everything from aircraft carriers and submarines to scientific expeditions and humanitarian relief efforts. While still using her large format camera, Lê embraced working in color for the first time, which opened up opportunities for filling her expansive frames with even more visual information. In many cases, her continued use of elevated perspective (this time often from the deck of a ship) creates a similar toy effect as she employed in 29 Palms, miniaturizing massive tankers, naval hospitals, landing crafts, and Antarctic supply airplanes. But in other images, she moves in close for intimate portraits of female sailors, highlighting the broadening roles of women in the military, but also the challenges they face (one mechanic wears a shirt with a huge A emblazoned on the chest reminiscent of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). Many of her middle distance images document sailors at various kinds of everyday work, swabbing decks, executing training exercises, and waiting around to deliver earthquake relief. As with her previous works, she empathetically immerses herself in the immense scale and power of the military, the indifference and boredom applied to some duties, and the daily complexity and ambiguity present in all of these layered activities.

In recent years, Lê has moved away from direct engagement with and assessment of the sprawling US military, and begun to weave together separate strands of new work that connect in one way or another back to the consistent themes that have interested her throughout her career. Gathered together under the title Silent General, the photographs turn her methodical glance, at least indirectly, to a number of hot button political issues of the contemporary moment. She examines Confederate monuments, many cordoned off, packaged up, or surrounded by the scrum of a media spectacle. She watches the manufactured theatrics (and battle drama) of the filming of a Civil War era movie. She goes down to the US-Mexico border to photograph Latina border agents. And she follows migrant farm workers through the citrus groves and asparagus fields of California. Since its beginning in 2015, the project has continued to shift and morph, trying to get a steady grip on the nuances of American polarization, with the most successful images using her attentive detachment to step back and give us a wider and more complex perspective on topics that have otherwise been reduced to talking points and news flashes.

What emerges from this well-edited survey is a portrait of a photographer who has willing to be patient and deliberate, something of a rarity in this Instagram-age. By listening to and learning from the conflicts and contradictions of her own life, Lê has understood how to answer (at least for herself) the age old photographic question of “where to put the camera”. Her pictures are meticulously ordered, and the time that it takes to create such images has given her the space to observe the goings on around her with more care and attention, ultimately leading to photographs that are both formally logical but quietly nuanced and uncertain. That she has so consistently found subtle ambivalence in the charged topic of war is a testament to her willingness to see the world around her with engaged openness. Even when all the world feels like a carefully managed stage set, Lê has figured out ways to see beyond the theatrics and propaganda to the resonant messiness underneath.

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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