A new generation finds its Vietnam

VANCOUVER — When the American novelist William Faulkner quipped that the past is “not even past” he might have added that the future is always here. Multiple moments in time coalesce in a new show at Vancouver’s Belkin Satellite called Everything Is Not Lost. Curator (and graduate student) Kim Nguyen, 24, assembles a cohesive set of work from four Vietnamese artists, all of whom muddle our notions of memory, post-memory, and possible futures.

Thirty-three years after the end of the Vietnam War, that catastrophe remains a fertile battleground for Nguyen’s quartet of artists. But Nguyen, an assiduous and happy young woman, wanted to build an optimistic view of Vietnam’s future: thus the decidedly turned-up title.

“Sixty per cent of the population [in Vietnam] was born after the war was over. People can rebuild; Vietnam won’t always be known as a place of war. It can be recovered,” she says as she stands in the middle of one installation.

The installation encircling her, Generation (Crushed) (1996), is a large piece by Khanh Vo, an aluminum foil map of Vietnam, and one of the United States, twisted and joined in a continuous loop, which is suspended from the ceiling at eye-level by several fans of yellow string. The effect is arresting (the sharp southern edge of Vietnam stabs at your face when you enter the room). The piece hovers magisterially, soldering the two countries in a postwar embrace, and inviting viewers to duck down and examine the underbelly of their troubled landscapes. The work has only been shown once before, in Pittsburgh. It was made the year after the U.S. and Vietnam reinstated diplomatic relations.

Nguyen says that as the show came together, it felt as if it was as much about her life and generation as about Vietnam’s past. And, indeed, Everything Is Not Lost has an intimate, decidedly un-academic feel.

One wall in the front room is lined with a series of charcoal drawings by Christian Nguyen from 2006. Continuous Landscape looks innocuous at first. A dirt road; an abandoned street. The skin of the canvases, which shows through everywhere, is raw enough that bumps of miscoloured cotton lend a literally grainy effect. We begin to imagine we’re looking at stills from archival videos. And once the idea of reportage is raised, the viewer begins to recognize the scenes. The most famous photos from the Vietnam War are transformed into drawings, with all the humans removed. Here is the road that a naked, napalm-scorched Kim Phuc ran down. That is the can of gasoline a Buddhist monk used when he elected to self-immolate.

On the opposite wall hangs a single large photograph, a self-portrait by Pipo Nguyen-duy who, being the oldest artist represented, was 12-years-old when the war ended. Ha Long Bay has Nguyen-duy standing at the end of a wharf in Vietnam, umbrella in hand and life preserver strapped over his formal jacket. As a child he was one of “the boat people.” As an adult he has recreated the journey to America in the whimsical Two Million Steps, a series of photos reimagining the voyage, from which Ha Long Bay is drawn.

Everything Is Not Lost has an effective momentum, with Christian Nguyen’s sombre charcoal drawings building to Vo’s crumpled geographical planes and a colourful climax at the rear end of the gallery, where Nhan Duc Nguyen (the only Canadian represented) has installed a large new work.

Van Mieu: Nhu Xua (Shrine to Literature: Redux) is a 10-foot shrine built of 2,000 books – a brick-like structure with only words for mortar. Hundreds of incense sticks protrude, flagged with scrolls of text (“Loudly he prayed to the butterfly demanding the dispersion of the infantry,” reads one). Silk flowers – as ripe a symbol for the stubbornness of fond memory as one can muster – are spangled all over in a gaudy display. The floor and walls are splattered with red: Blood? Sealing wax?

Nguyen’s shrine recalls the many shrines to literature (Van Mieu) that Confucianism imported to Vietnam. And he extends the textual motif beyond the shrine itself, onto several wall-mounted pieces covered in Vietnamese text. Nguyen has written in barely decipherable, tight lines, obsessively and with multicolored pencils. Lines overlap, reducing original meanings into larger cloud-like shapes. The edges of stories become softer and exact meanings are reduced to impressions. The effect recalls a work by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who had three calligraphers write on his face for an entire day – the once legible characters were eventually worried into nothing more than an ink-coloured head.

We are told the books in Nguyen’s shrine are amassed from his own collection and the collections of his friends. But, studying the spines, one finds that many of the books in his tower are repeats and were probably scored from the warehouses of local indie publishers. In the industry, these are called remainders. Stories that could not be sold, stories that are left behind and need to be offloaded by any means necessary.

The effect of the show as a whole is a little like looking backward and forward at once. The most bloody chapter of Vietnam’s history still lingers and informs the creativity of a generation that came of age after the war had been turned into narrative. This is a collection of stories about stories – a hall of mirrors called “collective memory.”

Nguyen could have called her exhibit Not Everything Is Lost but instead chose the more semantically duplicitous Everything Is Not Lost. She might have simply meant that some things remain and others are vanished. But the exhibit offers an alternative, optimistic reading: All things are “un-lost,” everything that you thought was gone is secretly attached to you, waiting for your vision to catch up.

Everything Is Not Lost continues at Belkin Satellite in Vancouver until May 18 (604-687-3174)
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20080503.EVERYTHING03/TPStory/National

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