Where The Sea Remembers – Part One

by Eddie Wong

An exciting, multi-faceted exhibit called “Where The Sea Remembers” opened in Los Angeles on July 13, 2019 and runs until Oct. 12, 2019 at The Mistake Room.  Drawing inspiration from Biên Nhó or “The Sea Remembers,” a Vietnamese song beloved among Vietnamese people who fled in the aftermath of the American war in 1975, the curators present 15 Vietnamese artists, many of whom were born after the American War, and whose works address complex issues of history, memory and identity.  The curators also demarcate 2007 as a point of departure for the exhibit, “marking Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a peak in the country’s Dôi Mói reforms that began in 1986 with the goal of creating a socialist-oriented market economy… Vietnam also softened its borders – allowing for expanded tourism, professional exchanges and broadened travel opportunities for Vietnamese citizens. This facilitated movement also gave way to returnees – foreign-raised Vietnamese refugees who returned to settle in their homeland. Among them were artists, who alongside local stakeholders helped found new independent spaces for the cultivation of emerging talent and the production and presentation of contemporary art.”

The diverse works in the exhibit are grouped into themes and part one of this article about the exhibit focused on “Intimate Mythologies & New Histories.”  I’ll start here because it grabbed my attention immediately as I wandered through the gallery. Perhaps it was the sculptural elements that drew me towards it, e.g. the horses and drawings that jutted out of the walls. The images were mysterious, alluring, riveting, but I still had no clue about their meaning.  Then, I started reading the explanation of the exhibit sections: “The works in this section grapple with the space between the historical and biographical.  They challenge what we know about the past and re-cast it through personal perspectives. Mixing realism, research, and fantasy, they propose creative interventions into the historical project and create alternative ways to make sense of our lived experiences and the ways through which we remember and come to know the world.”

The following video gives you a quick overview of the works in this section of the exhibit.

A much deeper understanding of the works comes via the videos about each artist, their background, nature of their artistic practice, and thoughts about the purpose and direction of their work.  These videos created by The Mistake Room add immensely to the viewer’s appreciation of the artwork. All the videos were produced by Anna Borisova and directed by Vanya Vokov, who also served as director of photography. Go to tmr.la and click on “Website Now Live” to see the nine videos that accompany the exhibit.

The first artist featured in this clip is Truong Công Tùng and his work When the virtual becomes the actual becomes the virtual/Traces of Infinity.  The curators provided the following information: “Truong Công Tùng’s works are rooted in the stories and materials of the Central Highlands. This ethnically diverse area of Vietnam where the artist is from has a complex history that includes overlapping occupations, plantation agriculture, and rapid industrialization. One such tale, of the ‘hybrid ghost,’ describes the nightly rounds of a disembodied head that hungrily consumes everything in its path. Like the ‘hybrid ghost,’ Tùng indiscriminately incorporates and transforms materials into his art, as in the spent fertilizer bags of Traces of Infinity that take on a skin-like translucency after being buried in rich Highlands earth, or in the panicked obsolescence of his horses, brought back to uncertain life from the remains of an abandoned amusement park. Morphing together technology and the land these works express change on a communal and personal scale. They are an ambiguous mix of opposites: artificial and natural; human and animal; things to be desired and feared.”

The second artist who is profiled in the overview clip is Nguyên Vãn Dú.  The curators’ described his work as follows: “Slaughterhouse #7 combines the drama and dynamic composition of a grand historical painting with the gritty attention to detail of a realist’s still-life.  This canvas is only one in a much larger series of works that the artist embarked upon after a chance visit to a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Greatly affected, Dú began to use the spilled blood from slaughterhouses as the medium in which to represent and immortalize them.  These works are thus an effort towards building an epic of everyday life, where the techniques of painting are used to transform the quotidian into the mythological. In this way, the day-to-day workings of a slaughterhouse on the edges of Ho Chi Minh City become a metaphor for our own uneasy relationship to the daily ending of lives and rending of flesh, actions which are so common throughout history and around the world.”

Lastly, the overview clip shows the work of Phan Tháo Nguyên whose Voyages de Rhodes “is a series of watercolor drawings that explores the complex relationship between documented histories and the way we live them.  Published in 1653, Rhodes of Vietnam: The Travels and Missions of Father Alexandre de Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient, is  an account of Vietnam by a seventeenth-century European missionary.  The artist purchased a first edition of the book on eBay and carefully cut all the pages out to create these drawings that layer her own imagery on top of the missionary’s textual accounts and observations. The images are both visual interpretations of the missionary’s accounts and a fantastical lexicon of imagery that expands, challenges, and even distorts some of the missionary’s references.  At the core of this body of work is an interest in the way translation functions across temporalities and perspectives. What the works collectively render is a Vietnam that is both familiar and strange – forged from the viewpoints of outsiders and those who call it home.”

“Where The Sea Remembers” is a richly rewarding experience.  The entire purpose of art is to interpret life and wrest new meaning and questioning about all aspects of existence.  If you are in the LA area, go see the exhibit and if you can’t attend, please check out the website.  You will get the opportunity to see Vietnam through the eyes of young, articulate probing artists.  Vietnam is very much in the throes of transition and the key to the future will be its younger generations who are literate, cosmopolitan and invested in creating a new society.

This exhibit was organized by The Mistake Room and Anna Borisova and curated by César García-Alvarez. It will be on display at The Mistake Room, 1811 E. 20th  St., Los Angeles, CA until October 12, 2019.

I hope to cover additional sections of the exhibit soon. Stay tuned.

Author’s Bio:  Eddie Wong is the editor and publisher of East Wind ezine.

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