Mesopotamia by Trang Lê: Bringing the Visible to Light


By Diane Sippl


 102,477,  detail, 2009, oil on canvas and linen, 4 x 48 feet

Have you ever been on a boat at night, looking up at the stars, where the sky and the water become one? You could be Ishmael on the Pequod with Captain Ahab, or Huck Finn on a raft with Jim on the Mississippi, or a small girl in the South China Sea, adrift in the dark, perhaps in flight.  You could be lost in the heavens, glowing as an after-life.


Walking into Santa Monica’s Ruth Bachofner Gallery where Trang Lê’s new painting is installed is like walking into a galaxy where nebulae arrive and recede like foam in the sea.  The work wraps the walls with the dizzying sense of infinity that begins again, as you move closer, in each of 102,477 circles individually swirling on the canvas.  The artist gave me a personal tour at the gallery, and we sat down at Bergamot Station's cafe to talk about her work.

As a child Trang Lê experienced the Vietnam War.  In her girlhood she fled with her family by boat to the most powerful country in the world.  She felt blessed to be safe and protected from remote war zones.  She went on to earn two Bachelor’s degrees, in anthropology and in art, at the University of California, Riverside, and then a Master of Fine Arts degree from the prestigious Claremont Graduate University. 

 102,477,  detail, 2009, oil on canvas and linen, 4 x 48 feet

“Yet,” she comments, “that sense of safety evaporated after September 11, 2001, causing me along with most Americans to question if there is truly any safe place in our world.  Seeing increasing violence throughout the United States and the world, I cannot close my eyes, ears, and mouth.  This installation takes viewers to the great loss of war, on all sides, with hopes of directing us all toward alternative solutions to violence.”

Her vast, 48-foot-wide painting, 102,477, references the tally of casualties in the Iraq war.  This number title changed weekly as the death toll increased.  Over the years since the war began, Trang Lê has researched the deceased, looking them up on the Internet — each one’s name, age, home town, nature of death, and face.


“I looked at the pictures.  I looked at the names.  I did it because I needed to.  I felt they needed to be recognized somehow.  And I wanted to know them.  The pictures popped up, and when I saw the faces — that’s when I started to cry.  It was very hard for me, so I thought to just make the circle for each, and they added up.”


Making this mark for each deceased person — first American soldiers, then Allies, then Iraqui civilians, then children — has been a healing process.


“The Iraq War brings up my past and my memories as a child without a voice.  With Mesopotamia I want to heal the wounds of people suffering, including myself.” 

 102,477,  detail, 2009, oil on canvas and linen, 4 x 48 feet

Prior to creating 102,477, Trang Lê had discovered that painting repetitive spiral circles brought internal comfort and soothing through the circular motion of a small brush.  But painting 102,477 was an emotional struggle because it meant facing the topic of war.  She explains,


“Counting every circle I made helped me.  I had never counted my circles before this project.  Slowly, toward the end of the painting, I started to heal and meditation began.  And the funny thing is, when I came to the edge of each canvas, I couldn’t cut off the circle.  I thought, this is a life — you can’t just cut it off.”


The deaths symbolized in the dots of the painting are palpably arresting; the paint spirals out  at you from the canvas each time, from the depth of each separate circle.  And as you back away, the work takes a different toll.  The myriad marks form an amorphous mass that appears to swell and dissipate with a life of its own.  Across the panels, dark spaces take hold, patches of black after a dense build-up.

“I needed a space to breathe, a place to rest,” explains the artist.  “When you look into the dark sky, with just nothing, the emptiness helps.  Toward the middle of the painting I felt so heavy, so blocked, and that’s when I started to go brighter.


Have you ever been on the water at night, floating, so quiet, no sound but the water hitting your boat… the ocean meeting the sky? 

“When we left Vietnam, I was too young to know about politics and history, but I heard my mom and dad crying.  They still cry.  My dad couldn’t see the future for his kids.  In the U.S. people are so removed from this war, yet others live it every day.  Who’s suffering this war?  They are — their land, air, water — it takes years and years to restore it.” 

Painting Mesopotamia was a healing process.  Then Trang Lê wanted to take a look at Iraq in a closer way, to look with the eyes of the people who lived there.  She did more research. 

“In their journals, the soldiers wrote about the trees, the environment, and the weather over there, how really hot it was.  So I said to myself, ‘Let’s do a willow tree. I love the movement of the willow, and it’s very seldom that you can find a willow.  Then because both the soldiers and the civilians I Googled wrote so much about the heat, I decided to paint the willow red.”


Willow Tree, 2009, oil on linen, 48" x 48"

Mesopotamian Rain, 2009, oil on linen, 60" x 28"

“There is so much history to the region that many of us don’t think about or even know, and a special geography — the Tigris River, the Euphrates River, and Lake Habbaniyah, a big reservoir so important to the people.  Water is their life, their survival.  When I painted Mesopotamian Rain, I just thought about the golden sand, the sky, and how the rain evaporates, how it goes up — it gives you that light feeling.  Usually when people paint rain, they just paint water pouring down.  But for me, it’s upward.  It’s light, refreshing.”


“I don’t want this work to focus on me, but on people, people in the Middle East, from any place.  Why do we have to carry this hate from generation to generation?  We need to look at the children — why can’t they be free to run and play without fear?  They are the seed of the future.  I have three kids — 2, 10, and 12.  I think of kids anywhere as mine.  Why can’t we have peace?”

I asked her if she visualized peace as possible in Iraq. Her painting, Dreaming for Peace, placed at the entrance to the gallery, looked so vivid and yet serene, so fresh and yet other-worldly.  Her words surprised me:


“In my last painting, the view is not realistic for me.  I couldn’t do a search for this kind of landscape in Iraq.  But I imagine it, and I wish for it.  There’s a phrase in a song that people sang at my son’s recital — “For purple mountain majesty…”


She meant the hymn, “America the Beautiful.”


“So at the end of my exhibition, I wrap it all up by just saying, this is what it is — dreaming for peace.  We all need to dream, for the desire and drive to work hard on peace and make it happen.”


 Dreaming for Peace, 2009, oil on linen, 45" x 22"

Mesopotamia              Trang Lê                     


Ruth Bachofner Gallery

2525 Michigan Ave. G2

Santa Monica, CA 90404

June 6 – July 18, 2009

Photos courtesy of Ruth Bachofner Gallery

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