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Dinh Q. Le, Artist Who Weighed War and Memory, Dies at 56

Dinh Q. Le, a Vietnam-born artist whose best-known work combined and compared the on-the-ground realities of the 20th-century war that devastated his homeland with the fantasy versions of that war projected by Hollywood, died on April 6 at his home in Ho Chi Minh City.

The death, confirmed by his New York gallery, P·P·O·W, was caused by a stroke. He was 56, according to his sister.

Mr. Le (pronounced LAY) gained international attention, beginning in the 1990s, with a series of large, tapestry-like woven collages. As a child, he had learned the weaving technique from an aunt who used it to make grass mats. For his own version, though, he used photographs that he had cut into strips.

Some of the works depict historical Vietnamese art, while others show South Vietnamese landscapes scorched by war. Some are stills from popular Western films associated with Vietnam, such as “Apocalypse Now.” In the resulting weavings truth and fiction blend; a shuddering, disjointed world seems to be going up in smoke.

Mr. Le brought a similar intertwining of elements to his film work: A three-channel video called “The Farmers and the Helicopters,” (2006), the centerpiece of a 2010 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, combines aerial views of rice paddies, wartime footage of buzzing and crashing helicopters and taped interviews of Vietnamese people recalling their encounters with such aircraft. Their responses ranged from terror to enthusiastic wonder.

One fascinated interviewee, a self-taught mechanic named Tran Quoc Hai, had worked with a farmer friend to build a full-size, functional copter entirely from scrap materials. Mr. Le included it in the MoMA show.

Dinh Q. Le was born in Vietnam in 1968 in the village of Ha Tien, near the Cambodian border. He claimed to have few direct memories of what Vietnamese people refer to as the American War, but he had traumatic ones of the Khmer Rouge invasion that followed. To escape it, he, his mother and six siblings fled the country in 1978 by boat and, after spending a year in Thailand, moved to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. There, after studying art in high school, he earned a degree in photography from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Although he had become a U.S. citizen, Mr. Le spoke of never feeling fully comfortable living there, in a country that he said had invented, for its own purposes, an image of Vietnam that did not jibe with reality. Spurred by this uneasiness, he began regularly visiting Vietnam in the 1990s and eventually made Ho Chi Minh City his permanent home.

Much of his work focused on Vietnam’s history — which he feared was being lost to time and government suppression — and on his lived relationship to that history. Hunting through secondhand shops, he purchased hundreds of prewar family snapshots and portraits, similar to those that his own family had been forced to leave behind when they fled. After annotating them with passages from a classical Vietnamese epic poem and quotes from interviews recorded by the Vietnamese American Oral History Project, he threaded the photos together to form an installation titled “Mot Coi Di Ve” (1998), which roughly translates to “spending one’s life to find one’s way home.”

Over time, he also became a cultural force in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2007, he collaborated there with members of an art collective called the Propeller Group, Tiffany Chung, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Phunam Thuc Ha, to establish an experimental nonprofit space called San Art, a major generator of contemporary art in the country.

A much-loved figure on the international scene, Mr. Le traveled often and exhibited widely. In addition to the MoMA show, he had solo exhibitions at the Musée du Quai Branly — Jacques Chirac in Paris, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and the San Jose Museum of Art in California. He appeared in the 2003 Venice Biennale; the 2012 edition of Documenta in Germany; and the 2006 Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Australia, among other notable shows.

In 2010, he received the Prince Claus Award, named for Prince Claus of the Netherlands, given to those whose artistic work “engages with pressing social and/or political issues within their own local context.”

He is survived by his longtime partner, Ngo Minh Hao; his mother, Diep Tu Doan; and six siblings.

As an artist, Mr. Le was essentially a historian, one of a critical and corrective bent. He was also a collector — of photographs, quotations and cultural memories, along with Vietnamese art, with which he filled the Ho Chi Minh City home that he and Mr. Hao shared.

“I started collecting with a desire to reclaim my identity as a Vietnamese,” he told Zoe Butt in a 2013 interview, when she was executive director of San Art. “When I returned to Vietnam to live in the mid-1990s, collecting and learning the cultural histories that are embedded in the objects I found was a way of reclaiming my heritage, my identity. If you know a history, you own it.”