Born in Saigon in 1960, as a child, An-My Lê spent several years in Paris, a city where her parents had lived and were married in the late 1950s. In 1975, in the wake of the war, her family left Vietnam permanently and emigrated to the United States. In the mid-1980s, she worked in France as a photographer for the Compagnons du Devoir. Over the course of four years, she documented architectural restorations and inventoried historical monuments, just as Eugène Atget had done in his time. This seminal experience, along with the artist’s personal history, influenced her deeply humanist oeuvre. “I aspire to achieve a certain lyrical objectivity. It is more about patterns of behavior than the specificity of it, which perhaps allows for a larger understanding of history and culture.”
For her first solo exhibition in Paris, An-My Lê presents The Silent General at Marian Goodman Gallery, a collection of new color photographs, first unveiled a few weeks ago at the Whitney Biennale in New York. She is also showing black-and-white images from earlier series, including Viêt Nam, Small Wars, and 29 Palms.
An-My Lê’s latest project, The Silent General, takes its title from a fragment of Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days which is devoted to the American general and statesman Ulysses S. Grant. In this poetic autobiographical narrative, written in 1882, which blends personal history and national events, the author sets down his memories of the Civil War era (1861–65). The seven photographs made over the past two years in various places near or in New Orleans, Louisiana, are evocative of Whitman’s essay. The images are the result of the observation of different aspects of contemporary life in the South. However, in contrast to the photojournalist aesthetic always in close proximity to the subject, Lê keeps a distance, following the tradition of nineteenth-century landscape photography. Allusions to the past are woven into the scenery: the film set whose action unfolds against the backdrop of a famous Civil War battle, or a statue commemorating a Confederate army general. Other pictures represent archetypal motifs from American Southern history and heritage, such as a sugar cane field, churchgoers leaving the service, or anonymous laborers at work. The Silent General reveals just how much history continues to mark the territory and the people who inhabit it, and neatly encapsulates An-My Lê’s ambition: “Instead of seeking the real, I began to ground the imaginary. The landscape genre or the description of people’s activity in the landscape lent itself well to this way of thinking.”
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