Lê Phi Long is always attuned to representations and interventions of site. Initially trained in interior design, he states that site plays an important role in influencing the audience’s experience with a photograph or installation. These objects, in return, can provide keys to challenge conventional assumptions about the site, or unlock discourses and social issues pertinent to it. One such issue that concerns him is the impact of human waste on the land. Thus, his project at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre (The Factory), The Prolonged Interventions, explores both Lê’s fascination with site and his preoccupation with the overwhelming presence of waste in both urban and rural environments.
The photographic series Hidden Future is documentation of a site-specific project that Lê produced as part of a larger environmental endeavor called ‘Clean Up the Beach’, organized by OpenM Corp*. Situated on Lý Sơn Island, an increasingly popular travel destination in Quảng Ngãi Province, Vietnam, the production of these photographs was a collaborative effort between Lê and 70 volunteers to collect garbage around the island, sort it according to size, shape, and colors, and stitch the pieces together with rope to create a ‘trash’ nets that wraps around Tò Vò Gate – Lý Sơn’s iconic limerock archway created by volcano lava and worn out by sea waves over millions of years. The camera angle, in some of the photographs, mimics snapshots taken by tourists standing underneath Tò Vò Gate. In Lê’s imagery however, the brightly colored net that consumes this local icon disrupts the popular scenic location, bringing to light the usually hidden problem of how a natural landmark is being suffocated by the artificial garbage left behind by locals and tourists. In Hidden Future, Lê juxtaposes the natural wonder of Lý Sơn with the waste of human life, posing the question of ecological repercussions of modern consumer attitudes.
The video documentary Hidden Future, directed by Lê, commissioned and produced by Madeleine Cao, archives the efforts that the volunteers put into cleaning up the island, supporting Lê with the site-specific project at Tò Vò Gate, and organizing waste management and environmental education workshops for the local people in Ly Son.
Invasive Deviant is an installation at The Factory. A mountain of inorganic garbage flows in from outside through the entrance, inundates the interior gallery, and engulfs the furniture** within the space, thus blurring boundaries between furniture and trash, between the ‘usable’ and the ‘unusable’. Here, Lê wants to question the definition of ‘trash’, and the life cycle of an object in a consumerist urban society. Since people are constantly encouraged to purchase new objects (rather than repair), objects become ‘garbage’ more rapidly as a result. Thus, Lê wants to invite the audience to investigate this relationship between garbage production and excessive consumption as they engage with the installation, and to think critically about the impact of consumerism and a market-oriented economy.
Lê’s works in The Prolonged Interventions continue the tradition of site-specificity*** in the visual arts, which originated in the United States and Europe in the 1970s. ‘Site-specific art’ essentially refers to a work created to exist in response to a specific site. It was born out of artists’ criticism of museums as institutions that prescribe rules for artists and viewers, and the ‘modernist artwork’ as transportable, commodified, and existing solely in ‘white cube’ spaces. Thus, artists shifted focus to site and its context. They began exploring the locality of site – its history, topography, and discourse, with the hope of creating works that anchor within a certain location, and responding to particular circumstances attached to the site. Recent exemplary works include Doris Salcedo’s installation with chairs Noviembre 6 y 7 (2002) on the walls of the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, Colombia; Kara Walker’s massive sugar-clad sculpture A Subtlety (2004) in the Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn, or Ibrahim Mahama’s Untitled series (2013) of public installation using jute sacks to cover market buildings in Accra, Ghana, to name but a few.
In Vietnam, site-specific art is a relatively recent emergence, arriving with artists such as Trần Lương, whose early performances in Mạo Khê Coal Mine Project (2001 – 2014) responded to sites of coal production in Northern Vietnam as criticism of governmental art camps at that time; and the Zenei Gang of Five, whose installations in Book Grave (2008) took place in remote Buddhist temples bemoaning the lack of literary knowledge. More recently, the Art Labor Collective’s project, titled The adventure of Color Wheel (2014), redesigned the interior of the Pediatrics Department of HCMC Eye Hospital using patterns inspired by the children inpatients, to address the healing power of arts and creativity within healthcare institutions.
Lê Phi Long lends his voice to this growing experimental discourse with his artistic practice, which has previously engaged specific histories attached to many sites in Hue (his hometown), the Red River in Hanoi, and the Yamingshan area, Taipei, Taiwan. Through his photographs, installations, and performances, Lê wants to initiate conversations, without being didactic, about the impact of humans’ lifestyle on our environment, to seek solutions that are more organic in connecting humanity with nature. The title of this project – The Prolonged Interventions – alludes to the artist’s desire to extend and prolong the urgently needed discourse about humans relationship with nature, about waste and its impact on human daily lives and the environments, by creating a space where we are asked to ethically confront the damage that we have caused to our planet.
Lê Phi Long wishes to thank The Factory, Madeleine Cao, and all the volunteers who helped make this educational display possible.
*Clean Up the Beach is a waste management volunteer project, initiated by Madeleine Cao. Lê was invited to conduct a site-specific work using trash in Lý Sơn Island from 17-28/7/2016, to deliver a visual message about the situation of ineffective waste management on the island.
**The furniture is donated by the community, and installed by Lê in The Factory as part of the work.
***The concept was refined and promoted by Californian modern art designer Robert Irwin, and officially declared as a contemporary art movement by architectural critic Catherine Howett in 1977.
Content written by: Duong Manh Hung