Review: Dinh Q. Lê at Shoshana Wayne Gallery: Unspooling the horrors of Vietnam

The recent Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary notwithstanding, the Vietnam War is an event that simply can't be fully understood. Much of Dinh Q. Lê's art is driven by this sense of the unresolvable, of competing narratives — personal experience, collective memory, historical record, fictional accounts, propaganda and more.

Born in Vietnam in 1968, Lê and his family sought refuge in the U.S. in 1978. Educated in Southern California and New York, Lê returned to Vietnam in the mid-'90s, and he lives in Ho Chi Minh City. He has worked in a range of media but is best known for photographic weavings of disparate images. No single image can be fully read. Wholeness is unachievable; the most we can grasp are flickering parts of the tessellated, pixelated field.

A vivid materialization of Lê's reflections on his own fragmented and recombined identity, it also serves as a metaphor for cultural self-knowledge. Five recent works made by this compelling process mix portraits of victims of the Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison and mural paintings of a Cambodian epic poem. They hang in the side gallery of Lê's show at Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

Installation view of Dinh Q. Lê's “The Scrolls: Distortion” at Shoshana Wayne Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.
(Shoshana Wayne Gallery)
Dinh Q. Le’s “Cracked Reamker,” 2017. C-print and linen tape, 68 inches by 48-7/16 inches by 2-7/16 inches.
(Shoshana Wayne Gallery)

Eight pieces in the gallery’s high-ceilinged main space push the notion of fluidity in historical memory to a daunting scale. For each work, Lê has printed a photo-montage pertaining to the conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia — Hollywood stills, photojournalistic records, those mural paintings and more — onto a continuous scroll of paper, some 4 feet wide and 164 feet long. Draped over metal rods high overhead, the scrolls unfurl onto platforms just a few inches above the floor, where the glossy paper curls and ripples.

Discontinuous images spread across the continuous surface. Radically enlarged faces are pulled sideways like taffy, groups of figures (monks?) hang upside down, skulls pile up. Visual logic is subverted in what feels, viscerally, like an urgent, bad dream. The connective tissue of reason has gone rogue, and legibility is compromised. Even though they’re not moving, the images seem to keep unspooling, indigestibly tough beneath their seductive sheen.

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Through Dec. 23; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 453-7535,

Detail, Dinh Q. Lê's scrolls.
(Shoshana Wayne Gallery)

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