Fixing the Impermanent considers the Buddhist idea of impermanence through photographic means. Philosophically, the very nature of photography is at odds with the idea of impermanence: it seeks to capture a moment for eternity. But if we go deeper, we realize that photography itself, in the traditional sense, is also fading away with time. Dinh Q. Lê’s multi-element installations seek to illustrate this on a grand scale. Lê analyzes how the digital is replacing the analog in modern photography. He is also asking the audience to re-consider photography and its use as an artistic medium. In this body of work, photography is not only an image on paper, it is also strongly sculptural and deeply conceptual.
In the first element of the exhibition, Lê takes four of the most iconic and emotional photographs from the Vietnam War and entwines them with either a spectrum of solid colors or shades of gray to create photo weavings. The squares that the weaving produces bring to mind pixelation and digitization. These heartbreaking images from the past, etched on the collective memory, are inventively broken down into a handmade digitization. The images are fleeting, and the viewer is forced to rely upon memory to recreate it.
Another element greets you as you enter the main gallery: a gorgeous lacquer box. Inside rests a roll of color photo paper, which will very soon be extinct due to its cost and toxicity to those who process it. The box is a reliquary to house this artifact from a pre-digital world - it is a requiem for this soon to be extinct material that the artist loves.
Further challenging the nature of photography, on the walls of the gallery rolls of photo paper sculpturally cascade from the ceiling, piling upon the floor below. Here, those four iconic images have been stretched the length of the paper, until all that remains is data-like strips of color or shades of gray. In these oversized works, the highly emotionally charged images seem to have been reduced to bits of data.
In the second gallery, a roll of light sensitive paper rolls down from the ceiling onto the floor as if it is trying to capture everything in front of it. Facing it is a 4th to 6th century wood Buddha from Funan Kingdom, an ancient empire located around the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. The Buddha is over one thousand years old, and it appears to be slowly melting away, its details worn away by time. The Buddha looks as if it is contemplating the attempt of this photographic paper to make every fleeting moment permanent.
The concept of impermanence and the very Western desire of capturing a moment forever are at odds. Nothing stays the same, even the photographic process itself. But through awareness of this never ending process of change we can appreciate what we have before us, now: one mode of production fading away, another blossoming.
Lê was born in 1968 in Ha-Tien, Vietnam and currently resides in Ho Chi Minh City. He holds an MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Exhibiting internationally for over fifteen years, Lê’s work was shown in: a solo Projects 93 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Busan Biennale in Busan, Korea; the Vancouver Biennial, Vancouver, BC; in a highly acclaimed one-person exhibition at the Asia Society in New York; and in Red Hot: Asian Art Today from the Chaney Family Collection. In 2012 his work was included in documenta(13). Lê’s work was also exhibited in the Italian Pavilion of the 2003 Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy. Lê’s work is included in numerous permanent collections, including: The Museum of Modern Art, NY; The Ford Foundation; The Portland Art Museum; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.