(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War

Vol. 6, No. 2


Curators’ Notes

This Side of Now

Võ Hồng Chương-Đài



In Vientiane, Laos, it is not uncommon for people to speak multiple languages. This several-hundred-year-old city is home to various ethnic minority groups as well as the dominant Lao. There is also a significant presence of Vietnamese as well as French, a legacy not only of the colonial era but of countless invasions that predate the modern nation-state.

As in Luang Prabang, its picturesque rival city to the north, Vientiane is populated with temple complexes whose sculptures and architectural styles tell a complex history shaped by entwined violence and cultural influences. Over hundreds of years, these city states suffered invasions from the Champa, Khmer, and Ayutthaya kingdoms to the south, the Tibetan, Shan, and Chinese to the north, the Lanna to the west, and the Vietnamese to the east. More recent forces include the French, Japanese, and Americans. One sees their traces in the fragmented Buddhist sculptures, the flowing form of the ubiquitous naga, the Japanese glass embedded in the wall mosaics, the mural paintings of battle scenes, the intricately carved wooden doors and screens.[1]

These spaces remind us that Southeast Asia is a confluence of intricately woven histories that cannot be reduced to ethnic and national categories. These spaces also remind us that the aesthetic is never separate from the political and the social. This curated section takes its cue from this intermingling of cultural and political histories, bringing together work made by artists living in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and their diasporas.

As we mark the 40th anniversary of what Americans call the Vietnam War, we remember that the fighting embroiled Cambodia and Laos as well. It resulted in Cambodia and Laos becoming two of the most densely mined and bombed areas in the world. Against its ruler Norodom Sihanouk’s efforts to keep the country neutral, the U.S. dropped an estimated 2,756,941 tons of cluster bombs and landmines on Cambodia during the war; the Khmer Rouge later planted another four million landmines supplied by the Chinese.[2] Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. carried out a secret war in Laos, dropping more than two million tons of bombs on the country, many of which still lie unexploded in the earth until farmers, children, and other civilians accidentally detonate them.[3]

As we remember the past, this section focuses on the present and the future. French colonialism created an imaginary world called Indochine that was stuck in time, simultaneously fossilized and ahistorical. U.S., Cold War, and current tourist rhetoric perpetuate such representations by continually recycling images of the region as a war zone or quaint backwater.


Movie poster for Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten (2014, 107 min), directed by John Pirozzi

Even if war dominated and disrupted their daily lives, it did not wholly determine how artists saw the world then or now. During the 1960s and 1970s, Cambodia saw a “golden age” of culture that flourished under the patronage of Prince Sihanouk, himself a trained musician. As told in the film Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, directed by John Pirozzi, singers developed a distinctive rock and roll style that was influenced as much by Cambodian classical music as it was by the latest American and European songs. The singers created another world that offered their audiences respite from the violence and reminded them that they were not helpless to shape their lives. The Khmer Rouge later killed an estimated ninety percent of artists and intellectuals; the musicians’ songs and images live on, as seen in a scattering of beautifully drawn album covers.


Pete Pin, Three generations of the Duong family view old family photos and documents from the refugee camps in the living room of their Bronx apartment, New York, Sept. 2011. For many families, these documents are their only possessions from Cambodia, 2011, 40 x 50 cm, archival pigment print. Image courtesy the artist.

Artists such as Cambodian American photographer Pete Pin use portraiture and representational modes as a means of reconstructing a history forcibly taken from them and their forebears. As acts of remembering, these projects collectively work to reclaim history and the right to see. In his ongoing series Cambodian Diaspora, Pin documents his subjects in their homes, neighborhoods, dance halls, and temples.


Hồng-Ân Trương, “Description #4 (Three Figurines)” from the series Resistance Can Be Quiet, 2011, archival inkjet print, 20 x 20 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Vietnamese American Hồng-Ân Trương documented the lives of a different community, as part of her research about the impact of French colonialism and Cold War rhetoric on Vietnam. Resistance Can Be Quiet is a photographic series of interior views of churches, chapels, and convents that were built during the French period in northern Vietnam. Trương met nuns and priests who did not identify with simplified, exclusionary categories that equated Catholicism with colonialism, the modern with the West, communism with totalitarianism, and republicanism with freedom.


Installation view of the exhibition What Delights the Spirits (2012) showing Frédéric Sanchez, Concrete Landscape, 2012. Concrete, concrete iron, spray paint and carved and varnished wood (foreground), and Votive Painting, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 232 x160.5 cm (background)


Lionel Descostes, Tapestry Model 2, 2008, single thread hand embroidery on taffeta, 63.5 x 43 cm with frame. Image courtesy the artist.

As French descendants, Frédéric Sanchez and Lionel Descostes negotiate a complicated relationship to Vietnam. A painter and sculptor of French Catalan, Cretan, and Vietnamese heritage, Sanchez travels frequently between France and Vietnam. He uses his training in Neo-Geometric Abstraction to create work informed by cultural practices and street vending displays that he sees throughout Vietnam. Having initially moved to Hanoi for a position as director of The Lacquer Factory in 2000, Descostes became disillusioned with the industrial commodification of art and learned embroidery as a way to reinvent a dying art and to create community.


Ấn Ngọc Phạm, Flags Series, 2009-2014, mahogany, maple wood, composite OSB and poplar, 24 x 240 x 4 in each of 22. Image courtesy Topaz Arts and the artist.

Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, Barefoot, 2011. Fired clay, dimensions variable from 25 x 9 cm to 100 x 35 cm.

Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, Barefoot, 2011. Fired clay, dimensions variable from 25 x 9 cm to 100 x 35 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

In the U.S., the Brooklyn-based Ấn Ngọc Phạm deploys minimalism in his meditation on art and craft lineages shaped as much by conquest as by choice and collaboration. Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, a poet and sculptor based in Saigon, is also very much concerned with craft. The war years and economic realities have left a dearth in skilled ceramic makers in Vietnam—master craftsmen have died or are too old, and the younger generation largely makes pottery that caters to the tourist market. Inspired by the beautiful pottery that he would see now and then, Nguyễn taught himself to handle a variety of clay and glazing techniques.


Phothyzan Bounpaul, We Live, 2013, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.


Phan Thảo-Nguyễn, Mekong Mechanical, 2012, single channel video, 18:33 min. Image courtesy the artist.

Issues of neoliberal globalization inform the work of Phothyzan Bounpaul and Phan Thảo-Nguyễn. Phothyzan’s We Live is a public art project that he created with villagers affected by environmental degradation and development along the Mekong River outside of Vientiane. Phan looks at industrialized labor in her film Mekong Mechanical, which offers a view inside a factory in the southern delta region of Vietnam that processes catfish for export.


Vương Văn Thạo, Living Fossils, 2007-ongoing, composite resin, oil paint and mixed materials. Image courtesy the artist.


Sovan Philong, “Moeung Srun, 67, from Sa Ang, Kandal Province” from Old Church Building, 2009. Image courtesy the artist.

Vương Văn Thạo and Sovan Philong contemplate the costs of development on the urban poor and social memory-making. Vương’s resin sculpture series titled Living Fossils is a commentary on what he sees as an unexamined and dubious razing of historical buildings and neighborhoods throughout Hanoi in the name of progress. Sovan’s photographic series Old Church Building is a documentary on the residents of a housing complex in Phnom Penh, many of whom moved there after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The series depicts life inside one of the few historic buildings left standing amidst the government’s voracious redevelopment of the city, an effort that mostly benefits corrupt bureaucrats and local and foreign investors.


Trương Công-Tùng, Untitled, 2013, canvas eaten by termites, 1.5 x 6 m. Image courtesy the artist.

A roll of canvas eaten by termites, Trương Công-Tùng’s installation Untitled alludes to the journey of thousands of migrants from the countryside to the city who rent cheap places to live as they seek educational and work opportunities. As rural to urban migrations continually reshape life in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, so too do artists in these countries and their diasporic communities create projects that speak to their intertwined histories and overlapping futures.


[1] I would like to thank Asian Cultural Council for sponsoring my research on contemporary art in Laos in 2014.

[2] See Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia,” The Walrus (October 2006, 62-69, Web, 4 September 2014). For more information on the First and Second Indochinese Wars, see Noam Chomsky, At War with Asia (Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press, 1969/2005).

[3] See Lao Rehabilitation Foundation, “Unexploded Ordnance (Landmines)” (n.d. Web. 1 April 2015).

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