SOMArts graphic design intern Corinna Karg caught up with exhibiting artist Binh Danh to talk about materials, techniques, and transmigration. See more of Danh’s work online at www.binhdanh.com and in The Future Is NOW: Asian America on its Own Terms, now through May 25.
What stories do the printed leaves in your pieces in The Future Is NOW: Asian America on Its Own Terms tell the viewer?
When I was looking at pictures of the war, photos of civilians being wounded or killed saddened me. I imagined as they are bleeding and possibly dying, their essences sank into the ground and the memories of the event join with the landscape. For me, a photograph is always a picture of the past, but that past lives in the present moment when the image is resurrected in ourselves by the pure act of us looking at the artwork.
We could use photography to meditate on themes of death, resurrection, history, landscape, time, and our collective memories. For me looking at the pictures of war and especially those on leaves, I understand that death is within reach and life is fragile. It is acknowledging that we will die at any moment makes our lives more meaningful. And when it does happen, we know that we ultimately become part of nature. I hope the viewers are able to form narratives about the Vietnam War. Why people were leaving the country during and after the war? And as a result, Vietnamese communities formed through out the world.
How did you arrive at the technique of printing on leaves trough photosynthesis, and what made you later transition to daguerreotype?
One summer, I was motivated to experiment with photosynthesis and its pigments after watching the lawn change color due to a water hose that was placed on it. Soon after that observation, I was making chlorophyll prints. For the past 5 years, I have been making daguerreotype, a 19-century photographic process. I have taken a historical process and applying it to a contemporary theme. A study of photo-history is a study of humanity. Time and space are recorded for future evaluation and studies. Photography became a process that changes the way we record history, no longer just use words but images too. I love the quality of the daguerreotype, the reflective surfaces. The viewer becomes part of the artwork as the view the photograph.
Are the tropical plants you use in your chlorophyll prints Vietnamese or American plants?
They are plants grown in my garden.
Why did you choose something organic, like the leaves, as a canvas for images of something man-made, like war?
This process deals with the idea of elemental transmigration: the decomposition and composition of matter into other forms. The images of war are part of the leaves, and live inside and outside of them. The leaves express the continuum of war. They contain the residue of the Vietnam War: bombs, blood, sweat, tears, and metals. The dead have been incorporated into the landscape of Vietnam during the cycles of birth, life, and death; through the recycling and transformation of materials, and the creation of new materials. Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, but only transformed, the remnants of the Vietnam and American War live on forever in the Vietnamese landscape. This body of work addresses this continuum.
Pictured above: “Holding #2″ by Binh Danh, chlorophyll print and resin, 2009