NEW YORK — One of the first photographs in An-My Lê's retrospective “Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières” is of a group of people staring up at the sky. The show runs through March 9 at the Museum of Modern Art.
What the people are looking at is an eclipse. You can figure that out because of the cardboard glasses most of them are using. But knowing that they’re in Vietnam, and seeing a poster of Ho Chi Minh in the background, someone with a sense of history — and pretty much anyone of a certain age — can’t help but wonder at first if they’re looking skyward because of an air raid. Lê took the photograph in 1995. The Vietnam War had ended 20 years before. That doesn’t mean the past had gone away.
Walker Evans said that he wanted his photographs to convey “what any present time will look like as the past.” What he meant was an engagement with time’s passage and the past as change. Among many other things, Lê wants her photographs to convey how any present time looks like shadowed by the past. What that means is an engagement with time’s continuity and the past as presence.
Such a presence is all but explicit in that eclipse photo — and quite overt in what may be Lê's best-known work, the series “Small Wars” (1999-2002), showing Vietnam War reenactors. Speaking of the presence of the past, those reenactments took place in Virginia and North Carolina, more frequently associated with Civil War reenactments.
(The reenactors granted Lê permission to photograph them on the condition that she participate, alternately as a South Vietnamese soldier and Viet Cong guerrilla. Truly, the mind reels.)
But whether Lê's photographing a Rio Grande border crossing, a Hudson Valley quarry, or a Marine training base in the Mojave Desert — the recruits are, in effect, pre-enactors — this alertness to the past as moral climate and ongoing legacy can be felt through the MoMA show. Note the references to the Rio Grande and Hudson. The Mekong and Mississippi figure in the show, too. That mention of “rivers” in the title isn’t just metaphorical.
That title’s being trilingual acknowledges the relationship between Lê's personal history and larger events. “Collision” might be a more accurate word than “relationship.” Lê was born in 1960 in what was then Saigon and is now Ho Chi Minh City (that’s where she took the eclipse photo). Her mother had grown up in Hanoi and married Lê's father in Paris, where they were students. The family lived there from 1968-73, before returning to South Vietnam. Four days before Saigon fell, Lê, her parents, and brothers were evacuated to the United States.
To emphasize the impact of Lê's early years on her work risks scanting the work’s variety and richness. But Lê, who considers herself first and foremost a landscape photographer, invites that emphasis. “My attachment to the idea of landscape is a direct extension of a life in exile,” she said in 2005 interview.
Also, Lê defines her vocation differently, perhaps, from how others might. “Being a landscape photographer means creating a relationship between various categories — the individual within a larger construct such as the military, history, and culture.” Elsewhere she’s spoken of “this enduring search beyond the frame.” It’s that enduring search for multiple contexts that makes her work deceptively challenging and so consistently rewarding.
Lê has a very American sense of space. It’s evident in traditional fashion in three photographs from 2019: of a Lutheran church in rural Montana, of a canyon in the Chinati Mountains, in Texas, and of a cattle drive passing through Marfa, Texas. It’s no less evident, if unconventionally so, in views of a Navy cargo plane at the South Pole, from 2008, and of Dodger Stadium, in Los Angeles, being used as a vaccination site, in 2021. “What makes America America?” Lê asks. “The wilderness, the vastness, our sense of history.” Yes, yes, and no.
Having studied biology at Stanford, Lê planned to go to medical school. A photography course she took changed that. Perhaps this is another example of personal history shaping her photography. Is it too much to see that earlier ambition in the way her work can feel faintly clinical even as it’s always compassionate?
So often in these images Lê maintains a distance from subjects, emotional as well as physical. That’s regardless of whether she’s in sympathy with them or not. Neither embracing nor condemning, she stands apart from those she photographs without ever viewing them as alien.
There’s a sense of calm throughout Lê's work. It’s not the calm of serenity or acceptance, but of reflection and restraint. The soft light she frequently relies on — especially in her series “Events Ashore” (2005-14), showing US Navy missions abroad — can verge on dreaminess. But that relates to the clarity dreams have, not their capacity for excess or unreality. Dreams exist outside of time; or, at the very least, outside of linear time. That would seem to contradict this idea of the past mattering so much in Lê's work. But she would argue otherwise. “History doesn’t move through time in a straight line,” she has said.
Related to those aspects of apartness and calm is an abiding chaste scrutiny. Well, “chaste” doesn’t really apply to the two least characteristic series in the show: “Someone Else’s War (’Gangbang Girl #26′),” which takes scenes from a pornographic movie and renders them as tapestries, and “Gambetto,” consisting of photographs of erotic art from the collection of the National Archaeological Museum, in Naples. Even in these instances, though, chaste does describe Lê’s approach to decidedly not-chaste subject matter.
Only twice does humor peek through in “Rivers.” Once it’s not visual but geographic. Marfa, the site of that cattle drive, is also a pilgrimage site for contemporary art. The other is most definitely visual — and firmly puts us back in the realm of history. Statues of the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard are seen in storage in New Orleans, in 2017. Beauregard’s on horseback. A wooden support in front of the statue resembles a pole on a merry-go-round, which makes Beauregard look as though he’s a rider on a carnival attraction. Appear heroic this general does not.
The show includes two videos, one of the Vietnam reenactors, the other of 29 Palms, the Marine base. Both extend and deepen the impact of the photographs they accompany. There are also two installations. “Fourteen Views,” commissioned for “Rivers,” harkens to 19th-century cycloramas, with the immersive sweep — each panel is 10 feet high and nearly 5 feet wide — of its black-and-white views of Vietnam, New Orleans, Paris, and elsewhere.
The other installation, “đô-mi-nô,” is tucked away in a corner between the Vietnam photos and “Small Wars.” That tucked-away-ness makes coming upon it all the more startling. The title “đô-mi-nô” puns on “domino theory,” the rationale for US involvement in Southeast Asia.
The installation consists of 181 oversize Zippo-style cigarette lighters arranged on shelves. Zippos were popular among US soldiers and Marines in Vietnam. The shelves might make a viewer think of bookcases — and the jumbo lighters are book size — but what Lê has in mind is something very different: the shelves on which her mother would store canned goods and bags of grain to guard against wartime food shortages. Again the past informs the present, a very direct and personal past.
AN-MY LÊ: Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.