There’s an image in the Museum of Modern Art’s current An-My Lê exhibition of a wooden structure deep in the woods. The image is a black-and-white photograph taken on a large-format camera to capture an enormity of information, almost all of it belonging to the natural world: the stiff and upright trees are dappled with sunlight, the ground blanketed with branches, the leaves impossibly still. You have to look closely to see past all the plant life and reveal the structure itself, which imitates the branches and trees in both material and design. The image is called Tiger Cage, from a 1999-2002 series by Lê. Its title refers to the concrete prisons the United States helped conceive and pay for on Côn Sơn, an island off the coast of southern Vietnam, and which were revealed to be hiding in plain sight behind a vegetable-garden wall by photographer and U.S. congressional aide Tom Harkin, who published his pictures of them and the hundreds of men, women, and children imprisoned in them in Life magazine in 1970. Harkin’s photographs troubled the American imagination, but also fueled it. Soon, antiwar organizers in Boston fashioned an ersatz tiger cage and locked themselves inside as a daily protest. Lê herself was born in Vietnam in 1960, and in 1975 was airlifted with her family from Saigon to resettle as refugees in the United States. She includes Tiger Cage in her astonishing retrospective Between Two Rivers/Giữa hai giòng sông/Entre deux rivières, on view at MoMA through March 16. Like so much of her work, it appeals to the eye with its sumptuous technique and appeals to the conscience in its depiction of the diabolical technology of war. When I saw it, I wondered who’d been imprisoned in the cage, and who put them there. I wondered what it would be like to be held in all that jungle light, as apart from Harkin’s concrete dark. And then I learned that’s not what it was at all.
Tiger Cage is one of the images in Lê’s triumphant series Small Wars, in which, as the millennium turned, she embedded with a group of Vietnam War re-enactors in the depths of Virginia, in the role of “Viet Cong sniper.” And so free American hands built that cage on American land, and if anyone (perhaps even Lê herself) had been kept in that cage, they were free to leave. Much of the power of her photographs can be located in the realization that objects are not what they seem. Clearing Tripwire, US Marine Corps Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician and Indonesian Combat Engineer, Karang Ketok Camp, Indonesia I and II (both 2010), appear to show a white soldier saving an Indonesian soldier from setting off an explosion, and then the Indonesian soldier with raised arms that might be an all-clear sign or a prayer of thanks. Both are garbed in camouflage as verdant as the trees lined up in formation around them. Both are from Lê’s series Events Ashore, which turns its focus from reenactments to pre-enactments, or rehearsals, of future military campaigns. They are images of white men keeping men of color safe through their knowledge of the dangers of the natural world: that’s not a branch, it’s a tripwire – a danger that America probably installed.
The show moves from reenactment to preenactment to prevention. In High School Students Protesting Gun Violence, Washington Square Park, New York City (2018), Lê frames the activists within branches of cherry blossoms and lines them up to emphasize their mass. Their signs are authentically adolescent in their irony. One reads: WHEN I SAID I’D RATHER DIE THAN GO TO MATH CLASS, I DIDN’T MEAN IT THIS WAY!!!!! The one next to it echoes the collapse of past, present, and future that runs through Lê’s exhibition. Balanced on a bench as if exhausted, it reads: HOW CAN WE BE THE FUTURE IF WE DON’T LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO GET THERE?
Lê photographs are wry, but they generally sidestep the cynicism that, to my mind, weakens other work in the show, including a series of tapestries illustrating screengrabs of Vietnam War-themed pornographic films and a row of novelty lighters kept warm in cotton cozies. Again and again in her spellbinding images, people try to make sense of what it takes to get by in a brutal world. Her work – portraits of military officers on airships and patrolling borders, bird’s-eye views of tv sets and podiums, behind-the-scenes shots of Vietnamese tv actors learning lines and Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans attending fundraising galas –blurs the borders between acting and taking action, between identifying with a group of people and being identified as one of them. The revelation isn’t that everything’s phony. It’s that an unreliable narrator often still tells the truth.