A response of to Till Later Letters by Linh Lê
Even death will not do us apart
Between life and death or the dead and the living there will never be a clear distinction — or so it is encapsulated through Derrida’s rhetoric of mourning as he bid farewell to his loved ones over the years. For him, mourning is never a complete process, it exists in an in-between realm and at different times takes different forms. He reasons that as we mourn for the dead, we interiorize an image of the dead in us and for us only. Vietnamese Kinh people’s funeral ceremony and death rituals, which vary among regions and religious groups, with their formality and deep-rooted beliefs, somehow have always authenticated how we should mourn for the passing of our loved ones. These rituals, in their traditional setting, forcibly place mourners in a collective performance, which often require them to fulfill their social duties as relatives. In August Letters, Mai Huyền Chi confides in Xuân Hạ the detachment she feels as she starts pulling out a string of black and white photographs taken on the day of her father’s funeral. Evidently in those photographs Chi, her mother, and her sister seemed static — perhaps, the loss was too great and sudden, it caught them off guard, or it could be the pitfall of photography as it plays the role of a mere spectator and them performers (whether that was ever their intention or not). Years later, only through an indirect correspondence with Hà, which then prompts her to revisit the story together with her mother, Chi is able to come to terms with her enduring loss and grief. (Re)-activating their memories through conversations, they — the living, finally manage to remodel their own image of the dead in them — a cathartic process that slowly calls for more emotions, anecdotes, and forces them to reflect upon their life and regrets.
Mourning is the liminal stage between life and death, yet our internalised image of the dead in us is fixed. In Nguyễn Thị Điểm Ảnh, the cyborg Điểm Ảnh (or Pixel in English) — a corporeal creature made of both fiction and reality, borrows words from a Vietnamese pop song to reassure their late friend, and perhaps themselves too, of their unwavering friendship. As the music stops, they lag and then reappear as if they are preparing themselves for their own transfiguration into a pixelated mass — one that outdoes any frame and boundary. In so doing, it seems as probably one final attempt to bid farewell to their friend, they in turn offer an imagined vision of themselves that the other could also internalise. The evaporation of their pixelated mass in a way also reflects the nature of our memory: with time it stretches, scatters and even shapeshifts.
The absent interlocutors
Through The Confess[i]onal, Nguyễn Hải Đăng forges his own sacred ritual based on his Catholic belief — one that dominates a significant part of his life, and the repetitive nature of lacquer — an arduous art-making process that now contributes to the making of his identity. Confession in Catholicism allows sinners to reflect and then make amends for their wrongdoings, which usually takes place in the masked physical presence of a God’s direct delegate. Although holy, the ritual could sometimes risk becoming a cliché for the lack of sincerity from both sides. As he personalizes his own redemption space — now being completely liberated from its natural habitat, mobilized from one place to another — Đăng shows his utmost respect for tradition, while simultaneously reinventing it. Referencing religious rituals, identifying similar characteristics in his art-making technique, then integrating with details of his private life, the work is loaded with meanings and questions. God’s delegate could be a Father and/or his own biological father? What exactly is he trying to redeem? Is he even redeemed? Could this be an attempt for his personas — a religious follower, a son, an artist — to exonerate one another?
Nguyễn Thị Diệp’s 9 steps offers another take on personal ritual, this time according to the artist with one rather mundane action: walking in the footsteps of her mother and mother-in-law. In each repetition, Diệp mimics each owner’s ways of walking regulated by her rhythmic breathing. To walk the same path is to think the same thought, to establish a deeper connection with the selves and to set the stage for becoming the same person. With practice comes perfection. Perhaps, one day as this performance drags on, she could be all three of them at once — like an actress who never manages to escape her role, she borders between the real and the represented. Echoing a common proverb, which calls for our empathy — “put yourself in other’s shoes”— Diệp allows herself to live the lives of the women whose journeys are steps ahead of hers. While regarded as an ordinary action, 9 steps in its repetitive, imitable, and meditative nature somewhat coincides with that of a Christian pilgrimage as described by Rebecca Solnit. The author argues that modern-day pilgrims are no longer required to be in Jerusalem, as through the means of walking and imagining, they could still enter the spirit of the event anywhere else as what is real is “nothing more or less than what we inhabit bodily.”
Staging the already-lived and living and going-to-live spaces
Through the restoration of behaviours, all three remaining artists construct their own theatres of anxiety, obsession and longing. Forget me not (1956-ongoing). 21 April 2021 stages Bill’s fascination with the duality of a make-believe space: a safe space for one could be hostile for another. To grapple with such contradiction, Bill reappropriates the hotel owner’s instructions for a daily routine — albeit noticeable changes, each day is not much of a difference from the one that follows — which is then juxtaposed by CCTV footage of the man’s actual day in his room. As he proceeds to write another set of instructions, now a twice-behaved act and thus performative, Bill conjures up the space of life-is for the man in question, and a space of life-as for anyone that passes by.
Lạc Hoàng uses make-believe landscape as a way to blatantly confront an unhealthy relationship pattern in which one person is only infatuated with the idea of their counterpart. One could not help but see in Địa thế giả lập the Garden of Eden or commonly known as paradise — where Adam and Eve once cohabitated in naivety and pure love. Lạc Hoàng’s version of paradise, in its imagined climate, first appears picturesque and romantic only to reveal its wretched subtext as it changes. The dwellers of this garden project on one another their own expectation, impose upon themselves a perpetual life-as, which in the end they never really coexist in theife-is.
Red’s series of nine visual poems in vide-ô cách is laden with words, sounds and images most of which come directly from her family’s collective repertoire. As the dramaturge of her own theatre of longing, Red disperses the immense data she has just restored among acts/scenes/verses through re-enactment and self-insertion. Here, Red strives to materialise alife-is —onethat existed in time past — in its most comprehensive rendering, so that she could assume the life-as (activated through the “as” in performance) and transfigure herself into this otherworldly realm.
Though it seems life-is and life-is are two separate affairs. In reality, they often mingle, coalesce and influence one another depending on how we choose to perform for the audience. The audience could be someone, and occasionally it could be the self.
Byung Chul Han considers rituals as the “architecture of time, structuring and stabilising life, and they are on the wane.” Even though rituals sometimes take freedom away from us, he reasons, it helps “anchor values and symbolic systems in the body, reinforcing community.” Indeed, as I started thinking about different types of rituals presented in this exhibition, I too experienced an emotional cleanse — one that requires us to acknowledge, confront and reconcile with our flawed self. Vân, I am very grateful for your trust and hope in me, in our friendship.
Till next time!
- Derrida, Jacques. 2001. The Work of Mourning. London: The University of Chicago Press.
- Solnit, Rebecca. 2001. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. London: Verso.
- Borcherdt, Gesine. 2021. Byung-Chul Han: “I Practise Philosophy as Art”. December 02. Accessed January 2022. https://artreview.com/byung-chul-han-i-practise-philosophy-as-art/.