In preparation for our first meeting and to kickstart the project, I went through the folder that houses all of Thuỳ Anh’s works from early 2021. The project features a vast array of mediums from installation, video art, and painting to performance, and is deeply personal. It feels dispersed, and so is seemingly antithetical to any effort to frame the works within one classification at first. As I went over all the materials for the third time, I started identifying recurring themes or materials that make an appearance here and there across the project. Sleeping plays an important part in the project as a material, as well as a conduit for dreams. Echoing the words of Gaston Bachelard, dreams in Thuỳ Anh’s works bind together different dwelling spaces and accumulate “the treasures of former days.” Dreams are where all her elements make sense. She also displays a strong yearning for space expressed through many different possibilities: a reappearance of a room in her family home that she once lived in, an ephemeral virtual space where she could have muted encounters with strangers, simulations of space that only exist in her imagination. Finally, it is her interpretation of death and rebirth, which lurks around, sometimes as overt as the use of colours, poems or symbols, sometimes as subtle as giving new use to things or objects that are no longer in use.
We human beings identify ourselves through the act of home building. The home’s first and foremost role is to shelter its dwellers from natural phenomena and potential dangers from other species or rival groups. Its shape and size vary depending on the dwellers, and it does not limit to just one place. A mother is also a home: the carrier’s body makes space for the foetus to gather necessary nutrients for its development, undisturbed. It is not determined by the length of one’s stay either, whether short or long, days or years, a home is a home. The idea of a home could be seen in Virginia Woolf’s famous essay ‘A room of one’s own’ published in 1929. Widely read as a seminal feminist text, Woolf demanded the most basic need of human existence: a space of solitude, with that, comes the freedom to be anything at any time without having to conform to any social standards.
Space in Thuỳ Anh’s works functions just the same way as a home does. It is a shelter for her body and mind, where she could submerge herself in her own thoughts and feelings. A safe space where she could stay idle for however long she needs to, and lets her mind run free. A refuge for her to turn to as she weathers through the process of dealing with loss. The home now morphs from a space for confrontation and consolation to a space for confinement where time stands still. We are still social creatures at heart — that is as much as we enjoy solitude, sometimes we still crave companionship. When someone with shared experience comes into our lives, not only do the doors to our home open, but another home will also emerge. After all, a home is not a totally enclosed space, and the significance of beings is characterised by our sense of community.
With the home being built comes the need to fill it with things, both tangible and intangible. This could be understood as an impulse to archive. Under the institutional standard, only certain forms of information are allowed into the archive such as writing, photographs and videos. Inevitably, the home becomes the most ideal and indiscriminating storage for both written and embodied materials like memory, spiritual or folkloric beliefs and bodily experiences — the goosebumps on our skin, the pang in our chest, and the throb in our stomach.
Archiving reveals our deepest fear: forgetting. We fear not being remembered, and we fear not being able to remember at the same time. In the process of grieving for the loss of our beloved, we keep revisiting their belongings, or anything that reminds us of them. Depending on the relationship one has with the dead, everyone mourns differently: some avoid, some accept, and some choose to never let go. Keepsakes sometimes bring back the portrait of the dead, and at times they act as pieces of evidence condemning our wrongdoings. In other words, they are the phantom limb of the dead: we still feel the dead around us, and we are constantly reminded of the pain of losing them. In Letra muerta written by Linda Le in 1999, the protagonist is tormented with guilt for she kept delaying her visit, and thus missed the chance to be with her father in his last moments. Believing that she is the cause of her father’s miserably lonely life and death, she clings to her childhood memory of him, and the dead letters so that she could not forget him, and most importantly her betrayal.
Michael Cholbi (2022) presents the paradox of grief with one associated with negative feelings that should be avoided and overcome, and the other valuable lessons for which one should be grateful. This paradox poses a dangerous pitfall of discrediting or glamourizing suffering if one leans closer to one end of the spectrum. He continues to explain that grieving is an essential process for us to understand our values, which are shaped by our relationship with the dead. Losing a person is equivalent to losing a part of ourselves, and that affects our identity. As a result, as stressful as it may become, grieving is crucial in helping us understand ourselves better.
But what about someone whose existence is too flitting and brief that the connection with our identity is too frail? How do we grieve for such loss, when what remains of them is so little to the point that all we could conjure up is not even a face but a vague feeling?
In the 60s, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what later became known as the stages of grief: stage one — shock, denial, and isolation, stage two — anger, stage three — bargaining, stage four — depression, and stage five — acceptance. This framework soon after became the benchmark to rationalise a griever’s psychology to the point of being too generalised. Grieving varies among individuals, therefore, blindly assigning a rigid formula risks side-lining the complex nature of loss and pain. Kübler-Ross later acknowledged the threats that come with her model, and noted that not all go through these stages in the same order and at the same speed.
‘Chợt mộng tan’ could be interpreted as Thuy Anh’s attempt in understanding the multitude of emotions she feels as the sole witness to her loss. The exhibition compiles and then compartments the keepsakes she has — or fragments of her identity into three different spaces of no specific order suggesting the sporadic and unfathomable nature of grieving with the final stage could be anywhere and nowhere at the same time. Navigating through each room is like following the steps of Thuy Anh in her own journey — it is unclear which stage has been left out. Acceptance means the end of grief, but it could also mean the perpetuation of grief itself — like how Linda Le’s protagonist chooses to dwell in the Kingdom of Loss as a way to remember her dead father and the promises she fails to keep.