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Binh Danh




Gaye Chan
Kaili Chun
Sally Clark
Binh Danh
Ian Everard
James Fee
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Robin Kandel
John Morita
Katsushige Nakahashi
Masami Teraoka
Lynne Yamamoto
For me it becomes almost a religion, it's almost my own religious practice when I make my own artwork, because I am coming up with my own concept of what is life, what is death, what is consciousness and what is history.1

While a number of the artists in Reconstructing Memories examine how catastrophic histories are inscribed into geography (e.g., Fee, Chan, and Chun) or architecture (e.g., Clark), Danh's work is far more organic.  It is not just the material that calls attention to the organic - his material is foliage - rather it is the process by which the images are formed and the very quality of them.  Danh, in fact, invented an entirely new technique in order, not just to superimpose, but rather to grow the image into the leaf.

Whereas artists like Fee and Clark demonstrate how catastrophic history is inscribed in the landscape of Pelelui in the South Pacific, or concentration camps in Europe, Danh illustrates how history might be woven into the very fabric of our being.  Danh, born in Vietnam on October 9, 1977, was too young to remember the war, and as an infant it was not possible to fully comprehend the significance of what was unfolding around him.  Just as with the process of photosynthesis where a leaf absorbs ambient energy, the human spirit too is marked by historical events.  In this sense Danh's work is quite similar to Robin Kandel's.  As a child Kandel knew something of her father's experience during the Second World War, but she didn't know many of the details, much of what she "knew" was intuited; history and personal memories were not experienced cognitively per se, rather they ran through her blood.

As with many survivors of war, Danh's parents, who immigrated to the United States in 1979, did not speak much about their experiences in Vietnam; presumably they did not want to burden their children with some of the hardships and violence that they encountered.  Undoubtedly the family was touched with violence.  In a television interview Danh talks about his father.  Walking through Golden Gate Park with another artist, Danh's companion asks, "Did your father kill anyone?"  He responds simply by saying, "I never asked him. But he has a wound right here" gesturing to the left side of his face; continuing, he says, "the bullet went through his face."2  Indeed this family has been touched by violence, and Danh, like the other artists in the exhibition, might be using his work as a way to negotiate the presence of violence in his familial history.  In fact, Danh says in the same interview that, "A lot of my work has to do with death itself."  The artist says that the depiction of a portrait, similar to the portraits included in many Asian funeral/memorial rituals,  is "like ancestral altars for me, because when I look at them they almost look like people I know."

Like Kandel, the Danh family's reluctance to discuss the past, meant that Danh had to reconstruct a family history through an intuitive process.  In Danh's work this intuitive experience of history and memory materializes in the veins of the leaves.  Moreover, because the image is produced through the process of photosynthesis, the imagery itself - which stands in for individual episodes of history and memory - is inscribed, not just on the surface, but within the very tissue of the leaf.  The fragments of a historical moment are woven into the organic celluloid.  The images themselves are also "iconic," they are not directly representative of his family's experience, but rather stand-in for it.

Danh recognizes that "photographs bring up memories and for me they start to fabricate these memories of my life in Vietnam. When I was growing up in this country all I knew about Vietnam was the war, and my parents rarely talked about the times and their lives in Vietnam, so as I child I always had these questions …"3 to which no answers were immediately forthcoming.  So it came down to Danh to formulate his own memories, to reconstruct memories from the fragments that are available.  Moreover, any "real" memory of Vietnam would be impossible for Danh, he was far too young to remember anything of it, but through his work, and by drawing on images from that era, he can reconfigure a memory.

As with all the work in Reconstructing Memories there is something of a paradox in Danh's work.  All the work at once calls attention to the fact that personal memory and even history itself are fragile.  Even though the work in the show demonstrates how history decays, Danh's work at the same time resists the inevitable decomposition of history and memory.  The subtly of Danh's imagery - its near translucency - gives material form to our tenuous grip on history and memory. Analogously, the leaves themselves are subject to the laws of human history and memory.  A leaf, for example, while attached to a tree thrives, absorbing the radiant energy of the sun, and, reaching the end of its life cycle, yellows, and eventually falls to the ground.  On the ground the leaf decomposes and while it does not continue to collect radiant energy, it still nourishes the soil and, in turn, the tree.  People are like leaves.  They too, analogous to photosynthesis, participate in the kinetics of historical events; and the process of creating memories is an absorption of that dynamic history.  Finally, like leaves, people whither and die.  The residue of their existence, fragments of their collected memories, eventually nourish the history and the memories of the living.  The very medium, the very flesh of Danh's work showcases the characteristics of human memory and history.

Danh's work offers some resistance to the nature of history and memory by presenting his leaves in "suspended animation."  His work fossilizes this delicate hold on historical memory, not fossilizing memory at its strongest or most acute, but rather it captures memories as they begin to fade.  These are not memories of an earlier generation; these are related memories, not directly lived, but potent nonetheless.  These images, these fragments of memories, are infused into the tissue of the living.  Like some pre-historic insect forever suspended in a piece of amber, Danh's leaves are encased in resin; and as fossilized records they do not show us memories as they are, but memories in suspension.

 

See more of Binh Danh's work at the Haines Gallery in San Francisco.

Also see the PBS "Spark" feature on Binh Danh and his work.


1Binh Danh, interview "New Memories of an Old War," Spark, KQED/PBS, May 31, 2006.

2 Danh, interview

3 Danh, interview


click to view full-size image

drifitng souls

Drifting souls, Chlorophyll print and resin, 14.5 x 32 inch, 2000

drifting detail
Drifting Soul detail

one week

Dead # 4, Chlorophyll print and resin, 29.88 x 26.34 inch, 2006



holding


Holding, Chlorophyll print and resin, 13 x 21 inch, 2005





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