What engages us to return, time and again, to places painful and pleasurable? Wars, wounds and wonder. Forty years onwards, why and how does this still matter? What is the true heart of the matter? Tracing historical violence and contemporary violence, both home and abroad, from the Việt Nam War / American War to the Middle East, to the Black Lives Matter movement and beyond, it is imperative, urgent that we return. This is not separate: the racialized violence on US streets and bloodshed on other shores, then and now. In our returns, our reexaminations and reorientations, something irrevocably turns, shifts. It must.
Return the favor. Return to the scene of the crime. Return home. The many valences of the terms “return” (go back, reappear, pay again, yield profit, produce verdict) and “engagement” (romantic, social, military engagements) frame the images, text, and actions in this creative portfolio. This section explores memory, popular culture and the traumas of history and modernity within and without Cambodia and Việt Nam—two countries linked historically and regionally with each other and the United States. The term “return engagement” captures these artists’ commitments as well as the real and ideological battlefields they maneuver.
Vandy Rattana returns to the Khmer countryside to document the sublime, unearthing still-present pasts in the form of “bomb ponds” left by the 2.7 million tons of bombs dropped during Nixon’s “secret war” against communism in Cambodia and Laos (the bombings in Cambodia lasted from 1969-73; in Laos, from 1964-73). Reconsidering the connections between militarized histories and current rapid modernization in Việt Nam, Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng presents us with tongue-in-cheek sculptural installations and paintings of tanks, planes and other cargo in surreal, uncanny, unsettling juxtapositions. The socialist-capitalist changes brought on by the Vietnamese government’s 1986 đổi mới economic renovation policies are captured by twin symbols in Hủng’s work: fighter jets (the military) and plastic shopping bags (the market).
Poet Ocean Vuong also revisits sites and scenes of individual and collective trauma. Collaborative team Lin + Lam wrestle with the politics of return—and possibly diminishing returns—through their Tomorrow I Leave project, in which Vietnamese refugees embark on return tours to their former refugee camps. This project focused on Bidong, Malaysia, is an outgrowth of their project entitled Even the Trees Would Leave (2005), which marked the traces of former refugee camp sites in Hong Kong (some now reused as miniature golf courses). In the works of Vandy, Hung and Lin + Lam, physical human bodies are absent, but their “seething presence” (to use Avery Gordon’s term) still haunt.
Conversely the body—and often the artist’s own body—is central in the practice of Jamie Maxton-Graham, Ly Hoang Ly and Tuan Mami. Through a durational performance, I Drink My Country (2013), artist and poet Ly Hoang Ly deals with the connotations of the word nước (country, water) and the imbibing of ideology. In this work, she swallows (nuốt) water (nước), passes it through her body, and drinks her own urine. As a writer, the assonance of the words nuốt (swallow) and water (nước) speaks of the ways in which bio-power and state politics—at once pleasurable and painful—are part of the body politic. The durational performance I Make Myself a Rock also touches upon nationhood and nationalism through the stereotypical Orientalized female body—which is both the “bedrock” of traditions as well as libidinous and labor economies.
Jamie Maxtone-Graham’s Still. Life. series, as the artist playfully writes in an e-mail exchange, pairs a “still” (object) with a “life”: the images inform each other and are “portraits” of everyday things and everyday people, all remarking on the “tenuous balance” of life (the objects are often balanced precariously, forming unexpected compositions). Graphic novelist and illustrator Minnie Pham also offers a still life in the form of a flipbook; in this case, the “still life” is not so still, speaking of cycles of life and love. Gesturing at love and strange intimacies, the suite of Graham’s portraits entitled That Little Distance contain solemn figures, clothed and nude, which inhabit a former state-run Hà Nội factory (now closed). In each evocative photograph, the artist appears nude within the image’s margins—a spectral, shadowy presence—an uncanny double, a harbinger of death, an angel of history?
Conceptual artist (performance, installation, and painting) and arts organizer (Nha San Collective, Hà Nội) Tuan Mami shares a selection of his performance work. For example, in the Rice Seeds Diary (2010) the artist grafts embedded rice seeds into his skin (letting them grow for approximately a month) until his body rejects them. In the series of images documenting the site-specific installation Physicality (2013), the artist collaborated with the manager of a national cactus park by growing cacti within the confines of former army pharmaceutical factory—the strong chemical stench still permeating from the humid walls.
Breaking down walls, these artists live and work in Hà Nội, Berlin, Taipei, New York, Phnom Penh, Oakland, Sài Gòn, Berlin, and in between. They remind us that the in-between, the interstitial real and psychic spaces—between wounds and wonder—is at the heart of the matter. Let’s return to the matters at hand, with our hearts in hand.