The original translation of the interview was first published in Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, Volume 6, Number 1, March 2022.
Performance art in Hà Nội, Việt Nam emerged in the 1990s and was mostly associated with important personalities and spaces in the community such as Nhà Sàn Studio, Veronika Radulovic, Đào Anh Khánh, etc. However, in 2014, Nguyễn Thuỷ Tiên (b. 1993), a young and fresh photographer joined the In-Act Performance Art Festival and created a controversial performance, Yoko, which is still discussed and talked about till today. Nguyễn Thuỷ Tiên left the art world shortly after and has made no public remarks about this work. Yoko (2014) is an important performance piece to understand the dynamics of art and power as well as a reflection of the artist’s self-representation and self-making in the context of Việt Nam.
Hi, Thuỷ Tiên, could you please share about the project Yoko that you have started from 2014 until the present?
It started from a photography course held in Angkor. At that time, I was really into working on different identities. I decided to try a variety of jobs, pretend to be different persons living different lives, and those moments were captured in photography format. Within the framework of the course, I couldn’t stick to any job for more than a few days. So, I spent three to four days working on each job, and did two to three jobs a day. It was like “role-playing”, and it felt so real to me. Some jobs I got paid for, while others were just for fun, for experimenting and photography. All I needed to do was explain to the boss and ask to work for them and for my project. I used to work as a human mannequin, nursing staff, and even drag singing and dancing at the night market. Some roles in my point of view were so true to me, but when shown in pictures, they turned into a “performance”.
When I studied photography at college, I started approaching the topic of “Identities”, but in effect, it was about the identity of photography. Every time I take a photo, the medium of the photograph makes everything so unreal, so theatrical and fake. After trying to do some jobs, I realized there were some very fascinating working environments, for example, the karaoke club or the night market. Returning to Vietnam, I decided to explore those environments which I did not know well, and were not openly recognized by the main public society.
When I was younger, I considered myself pretty goofy and open-minded. When I saw something mysterious like a forbidden land, I was really curious and just wanted to dive into it. I took a break from photography and started working as a karaoke hostess, which meant that I also concealed my true identity. I started to link this job to the topic of “Identity”—identity as an
artist and identity as a karaoke hostess. Most of those karaoke clubs with “special service” are on Triệu Việt Vương Street.
I recall around the 2010s that there was a karaoke club on Triệu Việt Vương Street, a small street with many services, restaurants and clubs for Japanese visitors that looked very mysterious. I looked on the Internet to see if any club was recruiting. I didn’t really overthink or take things seriously when I worked there. I did what they told me to do, like entertaining clients. I have to admit that I started getting used to it, enjoying that environment, and I gradually accepted the fact that I’d become a different person every night.
Sometimes, I captured those moments with my “silly” Nokia phone, but most of the time, I totally forgot to document. I really liked having double identities, however, it confused me sometimes. There were days I felt frustrated and disrespectful. But there were also days I felt so powerful because I could pretend like I knew nothing when I actually recorded everything in my mind. The presence of those men in that space affected us strongly though we might not even have been aware of it at that time.
After working there for a while, I started having some existential crises. I took a break from working at the club. That’s when I decided to make an artwork on the mountain—that piece you mentioned Yoko—opening a karaoke room, like transforming the experiences into a situational performance. Every time we pass by a karaoke club, the thought of what happens in these karaoke rooms always pops up in our minds; however, it actually happens only in our heads. I will be an artist if I think I am. And vice versa, if I assume myself to be a karaoke hostess, then that is who I am.
When I worked on this project, I am curious what people would think about my identity. In their opinion, would an artist in a performance festival placed in a very mysterious “dim light” situation be an artist or a prostitute? I think it’s very interesting, because although I was the creator of that hypothetical situation and also the rules-maker, people thought they were the ones who ran the game. I asked Tuấn Mami1 to play the “pimp” role for me. He organized and decided who would be the first to enter. When entering the room, there was nothing too serious, just some casual talk and chit chat, entertaining each other with karaoke and snacks. Some funny things actually happened but nothing far from my expectations; however, people over-thought a little bit.
I assumed that anyone entering that room, artists or curators, only saw themselves as clients of mine. When they spent time, presence and money, they thought they should get something, at least sharing, talking, touching, eating or singing. In general, they expected to achieve something because this was obviously a transactional service. After that day, I was quite exhausted because I felt like I had to live both as an artist and a hostess, so I decided to stop that performance for a while.
Why did you choose a Japanese club at that time instead of a normal Vietnamese karaoke bar?
I’m not so sure, but maybe it’s because Vietnamese karaoke bars are either offering illegal services or not. However, those Japanese karaoke clubs with hostesses wearing “áo dài” were appealing to me. The point is, I don’t know exactly what entertaining activities they offer, but I don’t think there could have been prostitution at those places. I asked them about prostitution and they made it clear to me that they don’t offer or suggest it on their part. In case the hostess and the client have chemistry for each other, they can absolutely develop feelings and go far as much as they want, just like other couples. This is a kind of emotional labour, totally different.
I just visited some of your previous works. In 2013 you did a work called Case 1953 and exhibited this project in Zone 9. This seems to be the first project where you started to show your interest in the topic of “identity”. Of course, it’s a personal project where you find your own history. But I think your interest in “identity” probably dates back a long time. I remember when you were in the photography workshop with Jamie Maxtone-Graham.2 In your final work you also proposed to work with women as your subjects. It seems that you started to care about women and their identities a long time ago. Can you share a little more about why you are interested in this topic? Even though it’s not very clearly represented, is it something that is still going on?
I think when growing up, everyone would question themselves about identity, but people of the generations of my parents or grandparents would not even have the space to think about it. People are not used to one day not knowing who they are, unsure of how others perceive them, or feeling unlucky because they were born a woman or into a bad situation. I had a pretty stressful time because of my existential issues about my family and my deprivations. But I think that’s part of my constructed identity. I’ve always thought about this, but maybe it’s only when I did the workshop with Jamie that things started to become clearer. Those narratives about the women around me including my grandma, my moms, my sister’s siblings are 100% my own narratives. When I took those documentary photos, all my thoughts were about loneliness, abandonment, not belonging to anyone. Does it reflect what’s been going on in my head? Those narratives might speak for what I think about, what I craved for. Gradually I started to realize the keyword I am interested in is “identity”.
I do think that everyone has their own “identity” story. Back in the day, when I was at college and started practising art, especially with performance, I actually felt a distance with my other college friends. Maybe it was very different with how they knew me before-ish, simpler and more cheerful. They are still super nice to me, but I felt a gap of communication and I felt at that point, they did not share the same questions and interest. I felt alone and unable to share. And I decided to focus more on my questions and keep a distance from my friends. None of my friends got what I did, and even my best friend assumed I was a nut. That was when I distanced myself from them.
It’s true that there was a lot of gossip around what was going on inside the room. Even though I wasn’t there that day, I’ve heard from many people about you. Everyone (mostly male established artists) spoke of you like the true queen of the Vietnamese performance art scene—a Vietnam Yoko Ono. You said that everyone’s interaction in that private room was interesting to you, like people were acting with you?
I found those gossip and rumours kind of funny. I don’t really care about it that much, I even think it’s just for fun. Being spoken about by other people and to become a totally different version from the original is not so bad, like when I changed my identity and also modified it myself every day. Everyone was completely acting, very excited with their acting. And the only person who didn’t act at all was Nguyễn Phương Linh.3 When people entered the room, I would welcome them the same way: greeting, offering warm clothes, asking them if they would like to have anything. But when Phương Linh entered the room, she immediately cared for me. She asked if I was fine, as she immediately saw me as an artist, not a hostess. That’s when I felt my true self, like taking a break from the performance. There was also a Japanese woman who shared all about her life when she just saw me, and I had to follow her act.
Among the many people you met, though you said you had expected it all and that you made the rules, was there any case that surprised you? Or was there a factor that affected you, made you feel worn out and no longer want to go to work at that club again?
At that time, that project was like a closure. In some cases, I did expect how it was going to work out and it worked well, even beyond my expectation. At that time, truth be told, I was fulfilled, exhausted but fulfilled. I needed to take a break to review the whole work. After the performance, I had clearly seen the whole process from the first day I worked as a hostess until the end
of the performance. It worked completely, a devoted and committed work. And this was when I knew that I needed a break to think about what I had done, what to do next. That’s when I felt tired for the whole time I worked before.
And after that performance, is it true that you took a break for a while before pursuing the next project? Almost like a break from art?
To be honest, after that performance, I didn’t do much because people talked about it for a long time. I was quite overworn because the performance had ripped me out emotionally. I was also stressed because I felt work had to go this certain way. At that time, I was young and I always expected how the work should be, how to identify the work. And for a while, I saw that I wasn’t me anymore. I decided to take a break temporarily.
So do you think your previous projects were more ephemeral?
It is also very timely, with many interactions. Actually I still like creating situations and my works are still very situational, even though it is also object-based. In the past, I always created situations involving many people. Now it’s very different. I find my practices very studio-practice right now but I also quite enjoy it.
If I remember correctly, you performed the karaoke room project again at another event at Nhà Sàn Collective Space in Hà Nội, right?
Yeah, but it’s not the same as the performance in the mountain. At that time, I rode around the city and put posters on streets that said: “If you see this poster, you have 15 minutes to tell me all your secrets.” They could call me on the phone, or come to see me—kind of like a confessional box. Many people came. There were strangers and there were acquaintances. Even my
college friends came. It’s like I wrote a love letter, spread it all over the city, and people responded to me, to my love letter. I find it very romantic, even though it did not have not much to do with “identity”, rather like a clumsy love letter to my old beloved city that I have been away for a while.
I find that after a while, when you go to another country, you can start all over again with something completely new, not related to anything you did in Vietnam. You also travel a lot and have many experiences. I think maybe to you it’s just an experience and you don’t consider it as a piece of art, right? Because when you go to a different social and cultural place, you might have a different identity?
Yes. That’s totally true to my case. I find it very funny because when I go to different places and people ask about my career, I answer them differently. There was a time when I told them I majored in journalism, and people criticized me in a different way. There was also a time when I told them I worked for Toyota, and sometimes, that I practised art. Three answers created three different identities and three different interests. It shaped my practices a lot. When I worked for an advertising agency in a very commercial environment,
it was funny, and was a completely different environment, but still very interesting to me. I find myself very playful with my identities and I also see myself as a quickly adaptable person. However, sometimes I have to question myself when and where exactly the adaptability appeared. My family situation or even my transnational life forced me to adapt. It makes me feel like I don’t have a work identity in a way. People have formed their work’s identity very early and clearly; like in Vietnam, I feel other artists have their own work’s identities and it was quite vivid.
As for myself, I’m not so sure if I know how to create one, or if I want one, or if the identity of my work is always deforming, transforming, all about adaptation or failure in adaptation. That’s what I feel more clearly and I express more clearly in my work and studio work. But I also see through the nature of who I am and the identity of my work—it is always about changing and trying to fit into something, but never being able to fit in.
Đỗ Tường Linh studied art history at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts (formerly École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine) in Hanoi, and at Contemporary Arts of Asia and Africa at SOAS (University of London). Her research concentrates on avant-garde and contemporary art in Vietnam post-1986, and the relation between Vietnam and post-socialist countries, as well as connections between Vietnam and Africa. She is currently based in Hanoi and works as a curator, researcher and educator.
Thuỷ Tiên Nguyễn (born in Hanoi, Vietnam, lives in Frankfurt am Main). Thủy Tiên is interested in how personal and collective memories are deformed, transformed and reconstructed. Her recent works respond to the notions of home and homeland as well as the shifting inability to navigate between landscapes. Whether using sculpture, active installation, photography or situations, her practices often wear the form of clumsiness and accidental happenings, creating spaces of disorientation.