For Document’s Spring/Summer 2023 issue, MoMA’s Roxana Marcoci curates a selection of lesser-known works from the artist’s complex oeuvre
For the past 30 years, conflicting ideals of American politics—as informed by her Vietnamese heritage and experiences of war and dislocation—have been at the center of An-My Lê’s creative practice. Her oeuvre powerfully explores the complex fictions used to justify, represent, and mythologize warfare. Lê does not take a conventional photojournalistic approach to real-time combat; rather, with attention to politics and landscape, she focuses on military exercises (“pre-enactments” of future conflicts) and war reenactments (wistful restagings of past conflicts), interrogating how these simulated activities collapse the distance between bygone and present actions and perpetuate a mental state of war—what she has called the “Vietnam of the Mind.”
The selection of works displayed here is included in the artist’s forthcoming survey this fall at the Museum of Modern Art. Its title, An-My Lê: Between Two Rivers/Giũa hai dòng sông/Entre deux rivières, conjures a space where distinct landscapes, cultures, and histories come together. The “two rivers” refer specifically to the Mekong in South Vietnam and the Mississippi in the Southern United States, but they gesture toward other subjects Lê has inflected with her own experiences—from the banks of the Hudson River to the Mexican-American border along the Rio Grande, to waterways flowing through Parisian parks. The rivers are a metaphor that invites viewers to reflect on the fluidity of time, the layering of disparate geographies, and the intimacies that paradoxically grow out of conflict.
Pit Bern, from the series Trap Rock.
For a commission for the Dia Art Foundation, An-My Lê photographed a rock quarry about 50 miles north of New York City, which she regularly passed on her train ride along the Hudson River on her way to Bard College. Transformed by resource extraction, the man-altered landscape suggests regeneration at the same time as depletion. The lush green shrubs and grass convey the artist’s interest in the subtle contradictions and ambiguities of what she has called the “allegorical landscape.”
Lê’s expansive and layered views of rock formations and large-scale constructions take this local site—which bears cultural resonances of 19th-century Hudson River School paintings and earthworks of the late-1960s and ’70s—to stand in for a planetary history that exposes the astonishing scale and speed at which human industry has reshaped the surface of the earth.
Hô Chí Minh City, Merchandiser, Sông Design Studio, from the series Delta.
While photographing Vietnam for the series Delta—a meditation on gender, coming of age, and diaspora made for the Prospect New Orleans Triennial—the artist visited the Hô Chí Minh City offices and home of her friend Valerie Gregori McKenzie, a French fashion designer. This portrait shows one of McKenzie’s employees, a merchandiser, sitting before a white drop cloth in the studio, where the team styled and photographed the finished garments.
Mechanized Assault, from the series 29 Palms.
Lê’s early photographic and film works deconstruct the endless global violence of the late-20th century, in scenes of both mental and physical rehearsal. In 29 Palms (2003–2004), US Marine Corps recruits train in replica war zones in the Mojave Desert before being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Lê’s close observation of the cinematic dimensions of war serves to cloud conventional distinctions between directing, playacting, and recording, calling into question any claims to objectivity and authenticity.
Untitled, Băc Giang, from the series Viêt Nam.
This previously unpublished work, from the Viêt Nam series (1994-1998), is fascinating in the way it suggests untold stories about a nation in transition. It is an interior shot of a mayor’s home in Băc Giang, a province located in Northeast Vietnam, which includes a painting of a visit to the village by the communist statesman Hô Chí Minh, who led the struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule. This byway into political history offers an insightful, nuanced perspective on a culture that many Westerners know only through official narratives of war.
Restoration of J.M.W. Turner’s Port Ruysdael, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, from the series Silent General.
In 2015, Lê embarked on a new series titled Silent General, an epic travelog traversing the United States, from the South and Southwest regions to the metropolitan areas of New York, California, and Washington, D.C. The structure of the series, as well as its subject, were inspired by Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days & Collect (1882), a selection of the poet’s notes, sketches, and prose fragments from the years of the American Civil War and its aftermath. The text is filled with intimate meditations on the American landscape, the brutality of war, and the desire for cohesiveness during a time of national rupture.
During a visit to the conservation studio at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Lê photographed J.M.W. Turner’s Port Ruysdael, a dramatic seascape, while it was being restored. The photograph is part of a group of six works within the series Silent General, known as Fragment II, which Lê has stated takes on the idea of form in art history—through its boundedness to religion, resonances in everyday life, preservation, and reproduction.
Aircraft Carrier Arresting Gear Mechanic, U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, North Arabian Gulf, from the series Events Ashore.
In Events Ashore (2005–2014), Lê followed the US Navy on numerous maritime and coastal missions, over the course of nine years. The series took Lê aboard battleships, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines, tracing America’s outposts and bases across all seven continents.
I am particularly taken with the portraits of young servicewomen, which shift the series into a more intimate register, inviting attention to the individual stories and gendered experiences behind the military’s technological apparatus. Taken on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, this striking portrait shows a female mechanic, her head and eyes almost demurely cast downward. US Navy aircraft carriers, which often have thousands of personnel working onboard, use color-coding to distinguish various duties; here, the green shirt with an “A” denotes the subject’s role as a member of the arresting gear crew, the team that helps to slow a plane as it lands on deck. The aspiration to render visible the specificity of life aboard these military ships provided the impetus for Lê’s decision to use color photography for the first time.
Behind the 8 ball, from the series dô-mi-nô.
As a child in 1960s Saigon, Lê watched her mother painstakingly stock the pantry with dry goods in preparation for an attack—an expression of wartime anxiety evoked in an installation of jumbo lighters, like the ones used by American G.I.s during the Vietnam War. The series’s title nods to domino theory, used to justify the United States’s entry into various wars (in Vietnam, the war was known as the “American War”), which posits that a country coming under communist control would quickly lead to similar takeovers in neighboring countries, each falling like a perfectly aligned row of dominos. U.S. soldiers deployed to Vietnam brought Zippo lighters for their cigarettes, but went on to use them to burn down huts and whole villages in seek-and-destroy missions. Conceived in the isolation of the COVID pandemic—a time of lockdown and political uncertainty that created anti-Asian sentiment and heightened xenophobia—dô-mi-nô connects the spectral nature of personal memories with the haunting physical legacy of war.
Satyr and Nymph, (from Pompeii), The National Archeological Museum of Naples, from the series Gabinetto.
This work is part of a series Lê made in 2016 inside the Secret Room, Gabinetto Segreto, a repository of erotic frescoes and objects excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum, housed in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. These items were separated from the rest of the museum because of their perceived indecorous subject matter, but such depictions—including wall-mounted phalli, symbols of good luck—were common in the Roman Empire, found on shop signs, in public gardens, and in the communal rooms of respectable private homes. Scenes of copulation between real characters, as well as allegorical figures, in Roman brothels presented a lexicon of sexual positions for the delectation of patrons, predating the modern cultural form of pornography, and placing the performance of racialized sexuality within a longer history of spectatorship, visual pleasure, and sex labor.
High School Student Protesting Gun Violence, Washington Square Park, New York City, from the series Silent General.
This poignant photograph, also part of the Silent General series, presents a moment in the real lives of young people entangled in current battles over race, migration, community reparations, and sexual rights in the United States—with all the historical legacies and consequences that these struggles involve. “I’ve been making [Silent General],” Lê said, “to relieve anxiety about what’s been going on in the past few years—division, chaos, racial tensions—all stuff I would not have felt so deeply five years ago. What makes America America? The wilderness, the vastness, our sense of history.”
Veterans/Extras, Film Set (Free State of Jones), Battle of Corinth, Bush, Louisiana, from the series Silent General.
This photograph was taken on the set of Free State of Jones, a feature film directed by Gary Ross, which is based on the revolt against the Confederacy led by the Mississippi farmer Newton Knight. It shows two extras seated on a bench, both sporting full costumes and makeup, appearing wounded—a sight that invites viewers to reflect on the relationship between war reenactments and moviemaking.