The Collector: Dinh Q. Le

The Vietnamese-American Artist Talks About Loss and Hoarding


In 1978, when he was just 10 years old, Dinh Q. Le and his family — his mother, six siblings, two aunts and a few cousins — fled their home in Ha Tien, a town on the Mekong river delta. They had lived through the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, but wanted to get away from continuing military skirmishes, this time between the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops. Eventually, they resettled in the U.S. and became American citizens.

But in his art, it seems, Mr. Le can’t escape Vietnam’s long conflict.

In 2003, the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale showcased the 40-year-old artist’s now-famous montages, created by weaving individual Vietnam War photos together like a traditional mat to form a larger image. And the centerpiece of a recent Hong Kong gallery exhibition was Mr. Le’s 3-D animation video of American helicopters dropping into the sea — based on two short documentary video clips taken during the final days of the Vietnam War.

Vietnamese furniture and contemporary art as well as antique Asian ceramics

Kevin German/Luceo Images

In person, Mr. Le seems to punctuate every sentence with infectious gurgles of laughter. Today, he is one of the world’s most visible Vietnamese contemporary artists — next May, the venerated Museum of Modern Art in New York plans to feature him in a one-man show.

Collecting has been a consuming passion since Mr. Le first returned to Vietnam in 1993, after 15 years in the U.S. (He graduated from college in 1989 and earned a masters in photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1992.) He now lives in Ho Chi Minh City in a four-story modern home, filled with genteel traditional furniture and the antique porcelain and pottery he so loves, carefully displayed alongside contemporary artworks by international and young Vietnamese artists.

Why do you collect?

My friends joke that I collect because when my family escaped from Vietnam in 1978, we had to leave everything behind. By collecting these historical objects, I am compensating for the loss. I think there is some truth to that. A part of me also worries that if I don’t buy these objects up, they will disappear from Vietnam. These objects are part of Vietnam’s history, my history. But the most important thing is that I just love to live with these beautiful objects. I started buying furniture and ceramics around 1996. I basically was looking for furniture and dishes for everyday use. I was looking at some new furniture, but did not like any of it and a friend took me to a used-furniture dealer and so began my collecting.

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