Return Engagements

Contemporary Art's Traumas of Modernity and History in Sài Gòn and Phnom Penh

Return Engagements

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 27 illustrations, incl. 16 page color insert Published: May 2021

Author: Viet Lê

Art and Visual Culture, Asian American Studies, Asian Studies > Southeast Asia

In Return Engagements artist and critic Việt Lê examines contemporary art in Cambodia and Việt Nam to rethink the entwinement of militarization, trauma, diaspora, and modernity in Southeast Asian art. Highlighting artists tied to Phnom Penh and Sài Gòn and drawing on a range of visual art as well as documentary and experimental films, Lê points out that artists of Southeast Asian descent are often expected to address the twin traumas of armed conflict and modernization, and shows how desirable art on these themes is on international art markets. As the global art market fetishizes trauma and violence, artists strategically align their work with those tropes in ways that Lê suggests allow them to reinvent such aesthetics and discursive spaces. By returning to and refashioning these themes, artists such as Tiffany Chung, Rithy Panh, and Sopheap Pich challenge categorizations of “diasporic” and “local” by situating themselves as insiders and outsiders relative to Cambodia and Việt Nam. By doing so, they disrupt dominant understandings of place, time, and belonging in contemporary art.


“Việt Lê writes with flair and passion of difficult subjects: war, trauma, the art and visual culture of the Vietnamese and Cambodian diasporas. With a critic's nuanced eye and a practitioner's sensitivity, his framings and readings of provocative, complicated work evoke the beauty of the artists' visions and yet always return us to the history and the present of the artists' lives, careers, and countries. Return Engagements is a brilliant work to which I will return.” — Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer

“Việt Lê moves the scholarly conversation about displacement away from the traditional state boundaries toward a much-needed examination of diaspora, (un)settlement, and return while offering a capacious rethinking of refugee-ness, displaced personhood, and diasporic selfhood. Return Engagements is a provocative and compelling work of curatorially driven art criticism.” — Cathy Schlund-Vials, author of War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Việt Lê is Associate Professor of Visual Studies at the California College of the Arts and coauthor of White Gaze.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations  ix
Preface  xi
Acknowledgments  xxi
Introduction. Risky Returns  1
1. What Remains: Silence, Confrontation, and Traumatic Memory  57
2. The Art Part: Việt Kiều Artists, Divides and Desires in Sài Gòn  105
3. Personal and Public Archives: Fragments and (Post)Colonial Memory  150
4. Town and Country: Urban-Rural Developments  189
Epilogue. Leaving and Returns  239
Notes  245
Bibliography  301
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-1079-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-1038-8