Dinh Q. Le at San Art, May 2010. Photo by Richard Harper for AsiaLIFE.

This month, AsiaLIFE interviewed contemporary artist Dinh Q. Le. Printed here is an extended version of that interview. On June 30, Dinh’s new three-channel installation, The Farmers and the Helicopters, will be the subject of a six-month solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Contributed by Tom DiChristopher.

Your installation, The Farmers and the Helicopters, includes a three-channel video and a full-size helicopter built by an engineer in Tay Ninh Province. How did this all come together?

I read in the newspaper about how Tran Quoc Hai built the helicopter, and the way he talked about it was really interesting. The helicopter is such an iconic object during the [American War], but when Tran Quoc Hai talked about the helicopter, he was saying that he wanted to build the helicopter to help people—to help in emergency evacuations, to help with farming. So in a way, he’s changing this idea of the helicopter from a war machine as we know it when we think of the helicopter related to Vietnam. But he’s trying to change that, the idea of the helicopter.

I thought that was really interesting, and what was more interesting was how the general public wrote in to the newspaper in support of his idea, of his desire to build this machine. In a way it’s like Vietnam was trying to move forward—creating new memories—changing the idea of a war machine to a new idea of what this machine could be. So that’s what got me interested. In a way, this helicopter is kind of a marking of a transitional point in Vietnam.

Originally I wanted to bring his helicopter to the show that I was asked to do at Asia Society in New York. This was about 2005. The problem was Asia Society’s ceiling—the gallery ceiling—was too low. So I couldn’t bring the helicopter. The idea was to bring the helicopter as a kind of performance and then we would answer the audience’s question, so they have this kind of dialogue, talking about a different idea of the helicopter in relation to Vietnam. But that couldn’t happen. I came back [to HCM City] a little bit disappointed, so I decided to do a video. [Content development and production company] Propeller Group here in Saigon run by Tuan Andrew Nguyen are very good friends of mine, so I approached them and said this is sort of what I want to do and they were very supportive and also great at what they do, so we started working together to make this three-channel video happen.

It was commissioned by Asia Pacific Triennial in 2006. So we got some funding to create the video. So that’s how the video came about and when the time of the exhibition came, of course Asia Pacific Triennial doesn’t have the money to bring the helicopter to Australia, so we ended up only showing the film and they were able to bring Mr. Tran Quoc Hai, who built the helicopter, to Australia, and he and I had public conversations about the helicopter in Vietnam during Asia Pacific Triennial opening.

I’m curious about how your relationship with Tran Quoc Hai developed.

We only had a little blurb that says he’s in Suoi Day, Tay Ninh. We have no idea where it is, because Suoi Day is sort of an hour away from Tay Ninh. So we were like, “Let’s just rent a car and we’ll go there.” we go there and we slowly ask along the way and we basically ask all the xe om drivers, “Where is this?” [laughs] So eventually we found him, and he was really open about this idea. His helicopter had always been seen as a machine, and now I come and ask to look at it from an artistic perspective, and he loved that idea. He was very open willing to be part of the filming. We also invited his neighbours to be part of the film because we wanted their ideas, their memories of the helicopters during the war. Everybody was just very open.

Some of your early work dealt in part with your own memories of the war and how, as a Viet Kieu, they were partly informed by American film and media. Do you view this as an extension of that work?

My interest in the [American War] has always been about how that history has been mostly written by the West. I’ve always been trying to—maybe not completely undermine it—but at least insert a different point of view into that narrative. And I think this work in a way is probably my most successful work. Even though a lot of footage comes from Hollywood and documentaries that were taken by Westerners during the [American War], the only voices you hear are from the Vietnamese, so in a way I silenced the voices from the West. So this is the first piece of work that, primarily, the voice only comes from the Vietnamese perspective. I think in a way it’s marking a change in my work also.

For Signs and Signals from the Periphery (2009), you also used ready-made objects like the tyres used by merchants to advertise street-side shops.

I’ve always been a great admirer of the people, the resilience and the invetiveness of the people how to survice. I think this has a lot to do—again it goes back to the war because you constantly have to move because the war might come at any time. So you have to be able to pack up and leave and settle down wherever you are and be able to survive right away. And so it’s kind of interesting, this mentality. You can see it still happening in Vietnam.

So you see the poor people surrounding themselves with whatever they can get their hands on to attract your attention to what they are selling. Some of them are the most wonderful things. I’ve been looking at them for years, but I think I was a little bit too obsessed with the Vietnam War to think about this work. Going back to The Farmers and the Helicopters, I think that work really freed me to think about Vietnam today. And so I was thinking, “Where is Vietnam today? What is happening in Vietnam?” Some parts of Vietnam are still trying to deal with this history of the Vietnam/American War. But I think there’s also another part that has been forced to move on because of the necessity of survival and so I wanted to look at that part of Vietnam, as well.

I think in part because I live all the way in District 8, which you could say is a poor neighborhood, you could see the way people every day struggle to survive. They’re very creative in the way they use whatever they have in order to survive. It’s wonderful. That’s something that I’m interested, that I have great admiration for.

But also if you look at the objects they created, it’s completely abstract. If you don’t know how to read the signs, they’re a kind of a puzzle, a kind of abstraction. It’s so close to the language of contemporary art of today that all you have to do is switch the environment they’re in. So what I did was very simply I just took them from the street and put them in the white cube of a gallery and it completely changed the meaning and the context and everything.

You exhibited one of these works, a bicycle stocked with Vietnamese flags, at HCM City’s San Art recently. Did you consider how that might be interpreted by local Vietnamese for whom it’s an everyday sight?

That was one of the pieces I had in mind right away, because the local audience, they see this work all the time—this bicycle with the flags. They see it on the street every day, but after a while, they don’t pay attention. It’s sort of taken for granted. So I wanted people to look at this work in a different context. It was sort of a gamble. I thought a lot of people would dismiss it; “Oh, he’s just taking something off the street.” But I think something wonderful happened. Here in the gallery context, [the audience] really looked at it for the first time.

People don’t look at things, and that’s the problem. We’re so busy with our daily lives I submitted that bike for the show because I want people to think about what it is on the street that they’re seeing and yet not seeing–when it’s in the gallery context, force them to think about their idea of everything they see on the street. I think that’s what the goal is, and I think it was very successful. It was in all the newspapers. [laughs]

"The Infrastructure of Nationalism" from the Signs and Signals from the Periphery series (2009). Exhibited at Syntax and Diction. Photo Courtesy of San Art.

That body of work contains a neon-lit tyre that you said reminds you of Dan Flavin’s light installations, as well as a piece entitled Fountain for B.N. [Bruce Nauman]. Is there a conscious effort there to bring Vietnamese imagery into the contemporary art dialogue?

It wasn’t a conscious effort but I think because this is part of the history, part of the vocabulary that I’m part of—contemporary art—so I’m only seeing things in relation to that history. It wasn’t conscious, it was just very effortless. It was probably one of the easiest bodies of work I’ve ever done. [laughs] I guess because I’d been kind of thinking about them for so long that when the ideas all clicked together, it just flowed so effortlessly.

And I think maybe that’s the thing about who I am—I was born in Vietnam, raised in America, educated in the West and educated in the language of Western contemporary art. Now coming back, this is where the two meet within me. I’m sort of a combination of the two—the West and the East, the local and the international. That body of work is really about who I am in a way. How I see the world.

The nonprofit art space you co-founded, San Art, recently paricipated in No Soul for Sale: A Festival of Independents at the Tate Modern. How did that go?

It was wonderful because for three days, according to Tate Modern, we got about 450,000 people. That was quite an amazing experience—so many people streaming through. A lot of them are just lay people. They come to the museum on the weekend for fun, and it was nice to be able to do a little bit of, “What is contemporary art in Vietnam today?” We brought a lot of books on contemporary Vietnam, too, and we had a place for people to sit down and just kind of browse through the books. Because not many people are aware of what’s happening contemporary art-wise in Vietnam, so it was a wonderful way to share that knowledge and to promote some of our artists.

You’ve spoken about San Art as bridge between the local and the international. Do you see international events like this as a big part of San Art’s future?

If budget permits, we definitely try to do programmes that are local and international because San Art is not only providing a space for local artists to experiment, but also we want to bring artists here to make work, to collaborate, to show. Because I think an artist’s process is really interesting. I think the process for the artist here in Vietnam is a little bit different than the process of an artist, let’s say, from Europe or from America. So I think if they come and they make the work here, it would be wonderful for artists to see how an idea begins and how it’s built from an idea to a final product.

That’s something that we’re trying to do here. San Art is trying to do both, not only trying to support the local artists, but also trying to bring them internatially to show them abroad.

During an artist talk at San Art recently, the panel seemed to have some trouble explaining the concept of the ready-made object and Marcel Duchamp’s work. When we’re talking about contemporary art in Vietnam, is there a sense that we’re still using two different languages?

Myself, I’ve been very privileged in that way. But that privilege came hard-earned, also. There’s still a gap and unfortunately the Fine Arts University here has not been able to give that kind of information. It’s not part of the education system, but I think the younger artists, like Bui Cong Khanh for example, and some of the artists in Hanoi, they themselves have made the effort to learn English and to read books about contemporary art, and to look on the web. So many of them are learning about it. But unfortunately only a small number of them are on that level. I think that’s where San Art and other artist-run institutions in Saigon and in Hanoi are trying to fill that gap. The school is unable to do it and the governmental institutions are not able to do it. So this is where nonprofit spaces like San Art and some of the NGOs like the Goethe Insitute in Hanoi and Alliance Francaise [are] trying to fill that gap.

You’ve also spoken about wanting to support local artists interested in engaging contemporary art, but being cautious not to be seen to be teaching these young artists “the facts of life.” Do you think San Art has struck that balance?

I think the younger generation are very hungry, willing to take risks, willing to learn. I think what we do is just give information, and then it’s up to them to take it or leave it. Many of the older generation, I wish they would be willing to come to San Art, but I think overall we have done what we could with the little resources we have. I think we have achieved not only what we have set out to do, but  more than we thought we could. Slowly the artists are realizing that San Art could be a place for them. I think that is our ultimate goal, that all the artists will feel comfortable—not that San Art is some elitist institution–that they could be part of it.

This month AsiaLIFE delves into contemporary pop culture in Vietnam. Tom DiChristopher speaks to industry insiders about delivering better homegrown television programming in “I Want My VNTV.” Thomas Maresca profiles the efforts of producers and artists to champion R&B and hiphop over saccharine karaoke-ready pop in “Vietnamese Music Searches for a Groove.” Jade Bilowol follows up on our September Vietnamese Film issue in “Filmmaking’s Wild Wild East.” And Chi Huyen Mai traces the curious lifespan of Vietnamese blogs in “The Birth, Death and Revival of Vietnam’s Blogging Culture.”

Also this month: Dinh Q. Le sits for a Q&A to speak about the opening of his solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Jeremy Kressmann discovers hiking in Hong Kong. Thomas Maresca reconnects with famed foodie Patricia Wells on her return to Vietnam. James Beard Award-winning food writer Richard Sterling begins his regular column for AsiaLIFE. Alexandra Karina gives us the skinny on the peak of Vietnam’s fruit season. Lolita Guevarra explains how bamboo-oriented economists are lifting legions out of poverty. Ginny Becker discovers how to harness Qi. And Tom DiChristopher explores the career of modern-day Renaissance man Quasar Khanh in a visual retrospective (expect lots of inflatable furniture).

AND: AsiaLIFE breaks the news on the biggest concert to hit Phnom Penh in … well … perhaps ever!

The issue is hitting the stands right now. Pick up your copy at: Al Fresco’s, Au Parc, Bernie’s Bar & Grill, Black Cat, BoatHouse, Buddha Bar, Jaspa’s, Juice, Kim Hai, La Brasserie, Le Pub, Mekong Merchant, Mogambo, Mojo Café, Pacharan, Peaches, Phattys, Refinery, Sheridan’s, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, The Deck, The Tavern, ZanZBar.

Or download it online at www.asialifehcmc.com. Available in the coming weeks in Hanoi at Ipanima, Le Pub, La Restaurant and R&R Tavern; Nha Trang at Rainbow Divers, Sailing Club and Zeno Designs; and Phan Thiet at Joe’s The Art Café, Princess D’Annam and Sailing Club.