The following is a conversation between An-My Lê and Michael Almereyda that took place at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library on May 5th, 2008. This event was co-presented with BOMB Magazine. Stay tuned for the second part of this interview, which will be published tomorrow.
MICHAEL ALMEREYDA: I guess we’ll just leap into this. I have to confess that I’ve never interviewed anyone in public before, so you’ll have to bear with me. But I’ve known An-My for a long time—for about four years or so. I’m feeling lucky to be asked to talk with her.
I wasn’t familiar with the Art:21 series before, but it’s clearly a strong series. But I want to register my own polite protest in that I have to confess that I’m not sure how An-My’s work can really be considered “protest.” I’m really intrigued by the idea of artists who vocally protest, but it seems that what she’s doing in her work is asking questions. One of the great traps of vocalizing protest in art is that you tend to be strident, or corny, or obvious, and I think her work is none of those things. Having known her work for a long time and having recognized a certain progression, I guess we’ll just talk a little bit about that. I also wanted to mention that there’s a great show up right now at the Murray Guy Gallery on 17th Street, is it?
AN-MY LÊ: Yes.
ALMEREYDA: I recommend anyone who’s remotely interested to go check it out. In some ways the work is similar and has continuity, but it’s also very different. It’s in color and you found your way to Antarctica. It’s a different landscape, but a similar sensibility.
I’m curious about your background in that it’s touched on in the movie. There are things I didn’t know even after knowing you for a while. You grew up in and around the war—what are your clearest and most vivid memories of the war?
LÊ: I think my memories are vivid in the sense that I remember very specific events, whether they were the Tet offensive, or a mortar falling into my school half an hour before I showed up, or my great grandmother who was saved because she decided to spend the night at our house instead of going home; her house was then mortared. But at the same time, war was part of our life so we never really questioned it. I just accepted it and lived through it.
ALMEREYDA: But what were the direct manifestations? Did you have raids that you had to run from?
LÊ: Yes, there were raids that we had to run from and there were political coups, which meant that we would come home and my mother would be up in arms. And so we would go out and buy more rice and stock the cupboards because we didn’t know when the stores would be open again. But it was part of our life and we all accepted it. At times, I remember thinking I wish I lived in another country where we didn’t have those difficulties and upheavals.
ALMEREYDA: You also spent a lot of time growing up in Paris.
LÊ: Yes, when I was eight my mother received a scholarship to go study in Paris, and she thought it was a great opportunity because she wanted us to experience what peace was like. My father had to stay as a guarantor because that’s the way it worked in Vietnam. So she took us to Paris.
ALMEREYDA: A guarantor guaranteed that you wouldn’t skip the country?
LÊ: That we would return. He stayed and she went to Paris to work on her PhD—it took her five years to do it.
ALMEREYDA: What was she studying?
LÊ: She studied English literature in France. Her thesis was about feminism. Then she finished it and I think we were the only Vietnamese family to return to Vietnam. This was 1972. I think everyone was trying to escape at that time.
ALMEREYDA: What was your father’s line of work?
LÊ: My father was also an educator who taught American Studies and was an administrator in a university context. So both of my parents are educators.
ALMEREYDA: So you eventually landed in the U.S…
LÊ: Yes. My parents are Francophiles, but they spoke English. When the war ended, we were evacuated by the Americans, and everyone thought we should stay in the United States. There was an option of returning to France, but everyone thought there would be more opportunities in the United States. I think everyone was right. We ended up staying in the United States.
ALMEREYDA: When you landed here did you feel dislocated and bewildered?
LÊ: Oh completely. It was quite an adventure for a 15 year-old, in a kind of movie sense. We were chased by cops, ended up on a plane, evacuated and shuttled to different camps like Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, then to Wake Island, to Guam Island, and then Camp Pendleton. Encountering California and McDonald’s and everything else was quite bewildering. And going to summer school for the first time.
ALMEREYDA: Where was that?
LÊ: This was in southern California. It was quite a disjuncture, and I think it took me a really, really long time to feel like an American.
ALMEREYDA: Do you feel like an American now?
LÊ: I do feel like an American, especially after returning to Vietnam and photographing there.
ALMEREYDA: I saw the film long enough ago that my memory is a bit blurry, so we’ll probably overlap with some of that material, but one of the bits of homework that I did in preparation for this was to read your book Small Wars, which I recommend to everyone here. It’s really magnificent. It combines three series of work that are linked together, including your Vietnamese series, the war re-enactors in North Carolina, and the more recent work in Twentynine Palms with real military exercises. Again, there’s this irony about what’s real and what’s not.
Of course, Vietnam is a place where violence really happened. I think the first picture that I saw of yours was in The Museum of Modern Art. It’s that beautiful black and white, almost ghostly image of boats heading towards a far horizon. And it’s a surprise to the eye to recognize that what’s on the horizon are billboards of electronic companies. It’s sort of a joke because it’s almost painterly in its lyricism while also making a statement about how the landscape has been changed and in some ways co-opted. In the book, that series of work begins with a portrait of a young woman. I am curious how that picture was chosen and how you’ve chosen not to include many portraits from that point on?
LÊ: Well, I think I’m not really a portrait photographer. I will leave that to Judith Ross and August Sander and other people. I think the person responsible for that portrait is Susan Kismaric, who’s here tonight. I think I’m one of those photographers who figures things out as I do the work. Susan has been looking at my work over the years, and when we tried to put the book together she said, “I think this is a self-portrait.” And so we chose to put the portrait in the book. I think it’s the only one that I’ve liked from the many portraits that I’ve made. And it stuck.
ALMEREYDA: Well, it’s interesting to have a kind of subjective attack on something that in many ways is more abstract or oblique. Throughout your work, you often see people whose personalities don’t register right away or their psychology is minimized, but then there’s usually a balancing act where you have one or two images where you can see the people. One question I have, and I don’t mean to just provoke you, but I’m curious: in order to go where you go, you’ve got to get sanctions from a lot of people, and I’m wondering how much scrutiny you get, how much they actually look at your pictures, and how much they might even think about them. Is there any sense of real complicity or control that they assert?
LÊ: Are you talking about the military? Or anywhere?
ALMEREYDA: Yes, the military.
LÊ: I’ve heard many people say that my work is so much about access, but it’s really not about access. There’s no complicity. I do think my work is not outwardly political, where it’s obvious that I’m either against or for the military. I think people just don’t read it that way. So they don’t really see the message. One of the unusual things—I’m fine with this—is that my work could be seen as against war or subversive depending on who is looking at it. But you could also take my work somewhere such as the Midwest or to Texas and it could be seen as glorifying the army.
ALMEREYDA: I wouldn’t say glorifies it, but there’s a lot of respect. You respect the people.
LÊ: Yes, I do. I think that the military is a fascinating organization in that I’ve seen it save so many people who were on the brink of economic disasters or just had no idea of what they were going to do with their lives. And suddenly, the military sort of grabbed them and changed things for them. Though I’ve also seen the military crush people’s individuality. I think the whole point of the work is that it’s about all of those things.
ALMEREYDA: It recognizes the contradictions…
— Part 1 of 2 —