By Yesenia Martinez
Artist Trang T. Lê’s painting “111, 978” confronts the Iraq War in a way that allows the audience to experience the sense of pleasure before that of pain.
Walking into HOY Space located at the Vincent Price Art Museum, where the Los Angeles-based artist’s painting is displayed, is like walking into a large body of water. The work wraps the walls with the confusing sense of infinity that begins as visitors move closer, in each 111, 978 spiral circle individually swirling on the canvas.
She remembers seeing the blue ocean as a child during the Vietnam War when she escaped on a boat with her family. It made her feel calm and it has stayed with her until this day. In 1996 she earned her first bachelor’s degree in anthropology and in 2003 she earned a bachelor’s degree in art at the University of California, Riverside. Then in 2006, she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Claremont Graduate University.
She chose the color blue for her painting because it is an easier color for her when talking about death. Lê discovered that painting repetitive spiral circles brought internal soothing comfort through the circular motion of a small brush. Her 56-foot-wide painting, “111, 978,” symbolizes every documented fatality including American soldiers, coalition forces and civilians in the Iraq war. She said she did not know where this was going to take her, but she had to do it.
Lê began researching the deceased when, as she puts it, the United States declared war on Iraq in 2003. She researched the Internet for each victim’s name, age, home town, nature of death and picture. “I wanted to know them and remember them,” said Lê. She recorded the names and glued tiny faces, if they were available, of the deceased on notebooks. During the time that the war started, Lê was in graduate school and was not able to start her project. Lê wondered why she did not really care, given that she experienced her country at war.
“We hear the news about them and later on we just forget and continue with our lives,” said Lê.Lê consulted online sources, such as CNN, for combatant deaths and Iraq body count for civilian deaths. Lê said when she started this she had no idea this information was available. She was taken back to her childhood during the Vietnam War, after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The Iraq War brings up my past and my memories as a child without a voice. I wanted to heal the wounds of people suffering, including myself,” said Lê. When the pictures popped up and she saw their faces, she would start crying. It was emotionally hard for her to write down their names and see their faces.
In 2006, she transferred her project to painting where each spiral on her painting represents a human life lost.When she started her painting she was hoping to fit all the deceased on one four-by-eight-foot canvas. On her first canvas she approximately painted 10,000 spirals. When she finished her painting she had seven canvases completed. Lê could not take the project anymore. It was too depressing for her to continue. She stopped for a week or two, but she kept thinking about her childhood in Vietnam. “I had to do it. I had to continue,” said Lê.
Toward the middle of her painting it becomes really dark. It begins looking heavy and trapped. That is when she began using brighter colors in her painting. Lê said she also felt as if there was no way out in her painting. It just was going to go on and never stop.
She decided to do the spirals in a line, to resemble a way out. It helped her not feel too trapped and depressed. In 2009 President Barack Obama established August 31, 2010, as the day all troops serving in Iraq would return and that is when Lê completed her painting. It helped her count every spiral circle she made. Slowly toward the end of her painting she started to heal and her meditation began. Lê said, “This time I have a voice. I’m not a little kid anymore.”
Lê’s work is being featured in the HOY Space located on the third floor of the Vincent Price Art Museum and will be on display until Dec. 16.