Viet Le introduces us to the visual artist Hồng-An Trương and her compelling work–part 2 of 2.
This is the second installment on Hồng-An Trương’s Adaptation Fever video series. This segment outlines It’s True Because it’s Absurd (3:00) and Explosions in the Sky (Dien Bien Phu 1954) (3:00).
For diasporic subjects, the gaps between official history and individual memory are immense. But what constitutes history and memory, home and exile? The eternal process of looking and not seeing oneself reflected, refracted constitutes loss, liminality. In mining visual archives of black and white colonial postcards and grainy celluloid footage, nostalgic and horrific, Trương suggests that things are not so, well, black and white.
Coming of age in the shadow of 1990s multiculturalism, Hồng-An Trương makes work that destabilizes fixed notions of nation-hood and identitarian politics. She examines how subjects are varyingly constructed and interpellated through religious and state institutions. Speaking of Adaptation Fever, Trương states,
“I was looking at Catholicism in terms of it being a very obvious and powerful process of colonization, and an irreversible part of the war. At what point does colonization become not objectifying. I was thinking about it in the context of politics and the wars, and Catholics who stayed in the North and what their sympathies are because we assume that all Catholics left and moved to the South.” I wanted to break down what we think about Vietnamese politics and identity. (Võ 2009, italics mine)
Adaptation Fever is informed by many migrations: colonial movements of laborers, clergy and colons; the 1954 internal exodus of Vietnamese (largely from North to South Việt Nam) after France’s defeat and withdrawal from its former colonies; and more recent resettlements.
Truth or Dare
Its True Because it’s Absurd also features a female voice recounting a personal narrative: a retelling of a true story Hồng-An Trương’s mother told her about witnessing a child playing with a gun shoot his mother accidentally: “ . . . I was standing there holding your hand. She was standing next to me holding a baby and the baby fell . . .” The background sound drones; in the distance, soldiers can be heard. The processed voice speaks in a measured cadence, belying the measured distance of recollection and its unreliability. The voice sounds like a ghost in the machine.
It’s True Because it’s Absurd opens and closes with a black-and-white shot of a dirt road between rice fields— soldiers hidden in the roadside foliage suddenly appear and march; the footage rewinds and they are again invisible. In between this looped footage, the viewer sees planes dropping rations; close-up footage of urban streets during wartime—debris and dirt, children staring vacantly with their packed possessions, their home vacated; a young man lying bloodied on the street, still alive with a woman crouched next to him; smiling children playing with a gun; two identically dressed women in front of a political sign. One cannot tell exactly what year, what decade this is, only that it is wartime. Instead of literally mirroring and doubling images, the images are uncanny, full of doubles. Let’s revisit them: two parallel rows of soldiers, visible then invisible; two children with their tongues sticking out playing stick-up; two women in white hats and outfits, their gaze blocked by sunglasses. “Do you remember?” the disintegrated voice asks again and again. This is the way memory works: it loops back upon itself, mental images replay, rewind, become distorted. She says, “I remember it later, afterwards . . .” Trương’s mother is perhaps the sole bearer of these memories, not the artist, not the woman who got shot by her child. All of the details have been forgotten; the documentary footage sutured together forms another recollection, both imagined and real. What is the truth and what is fiction? And do we dare unearth the “truth”? The initial site of shock and trauma is later reconstituted in memory, reconstructed verbally and visually. The forgotten past suddenly appears, like the anonymous soldiers once hidden in the thicket.
Darkness and light. In Explosions in the Sky (Dien Bien Phu 1954), a black screen suddenly reveals white explosions, an artillery cannon hidden in the thicket shooting heavenward. The white blasts become strobe-like as the tempo of the soundtrack picks up, a Vietnamese cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 smash “Sounds of Silence.” The familiar, haunting melody and lyrics become unnerving. “Hello darkness my old friend . . .” Written as a song about youthful alienation, it was subsequently claimed by an American generation as an anti-Vietnam War anthem, although that was not the songwriter’s original aim (Kingston 69). For this flower generation’s Vietnamese counterparts, the song embodies the ambivalent legacy of the American War in Việt Nam—the smoky mental image of dimlit Sài Gòn bars blasting American songs, American and Vietnamese soldiers memorialized by Hollywood war epics. Trương’s use of popular culture—particularly music—has a more somber cadence and affect than Nguyễn Tan Hoang’s campy/poignant use of found footage and war-era songs sung by an exiled Khánh Ly or French love songs covered by Thanh Lan in videos such as PIRATED! and Forever Linda! The Vietnamese lyrics anonymously sung in Explosions in the Sky are not a direct translation of the original “Sounds of Silence”: “Từng người đi qua bóng tối đêm/cùng cầm tay đi bước với nhau . . . ” I imagine South Vietnamese soldiers—perhaps my then-fresh faced uncles who have since survived reeducation camps—half-lit by fire strumming this song in Vietnamese, their voices echoing in the dark. The half-life of longing and loss. “Hello darkness…” Their voices make me homesick, but I don’t know where home is. Perhaps homesickness is “the process of looking for family members and not seeing oneself there.”
Their voices echo to the present in the small living rooms (altars of memory and incense) in Little Saigons all over the world. Their voices echo to the grainy distant past, flashes of brilliance then void. The past, indeed, is a distant colony. The French lost the 1954 Battle of Điện Biên Phủ to the Việt Minh, leading to the demise of its colonial empire and the bifurcation of Việt Nam into North and South (Berndard 469). The dividing line of history and memory is blurred. The ever-present past is not represented by a barricade of specific images but by an abstract barrage of black and white—flickering ghosts.
Again we are looking at the night sky. Voices echo; desire and void. I cannot bear to look at Trương’s sky. I am heartbroken. The artillery fire—darkness and light—rends gaping holes in sky; it slow burns constellations in my mind’s eye. We suture what remains, the gaps immense.
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