Letter exchange between Bill Nguyễn and Vân Đỗ for ‘Till later letters
Translated by Phương Anh

Tuesday 04/01/2022 

Dear you, I am writing to you again? It seems like a year ago, I was also answering the letter you sent for Within / Between / Beneath / Upon (a group exhibition featuring Thảo Nguyên Phan, Richard-Streitmatter Trần, Lê Hiền Minh, The Factory, 2021), the first one that the two of us worked on together. The rapport between us seems constantly changing, at times we are teacher-student, other times as colleagues, then artist-curator, or curator-curator, and sometimes simply friends?

You said you want to tell me more about your ‘empty space’ because you feel a little bit embarrassed to contextualise your own practice? Then, please allow me. I remember that in the first few shows you set up in the UK [could you send me a few pictures below?], you used a kind of negative space and in that piece, you hide yourself behind a piece of fabric so as to not let the presence of the artist, being you, be revealed throughout the performance. Audience, at most, could only guess through the lines your body imprinted on the fine fabric, creating moving shapes that were, in your words, sculptures. With this piece, Forget me not (1956-ongoing), are you not referencing yourself once again? Using a different colour of the paint with that of the current space of Á to construct a block of emptiness in the middle of the exhibition. It appeared to me both like sunken into or cut off from the exhibition space and also like a stage (the position that catches the eye of the visitors as soon as they step into Á). And once again you don’t show yourself in your material body, but visitors could feel your presence, and that is through what you choose to display, and the framework in which you set the piece. Likewise, I am reminded of the show Laughter Yoga (IN:ACT 2011 in the home of artist Nguyễn Minh Phước), when you invited a laughing yoga instructor to teach the artists participating in IN:ACT that year how to laugh at themselves. 

Although you shared some old devices, there is one thing I noticed that was totally new this time: you let the autobiographical be more central in this piece, though those elements of autobiography are performed as fiction. 

Thursday 06/01/2022

Dear Vân, 

Once again we are writing to each other, but in a different relational position: we are no longer two curators with duties to interpret or connect to the public, but two friends talking.

For me, ‘empty space’ is an element that has been associated with my practice for a long time. It goes hand in hand with other types of space that I’m interested in and use in my art work: negative space (in movies and photos), connective space (between one function and another in architecture, such as landing mats, stairs, under stairs, corridors, balconies…), static space (especially in performance. ‘Static’ here does not mean the absence of movement or sound; but means a performance without acting, or performing as if not performing: such as breathing, standing, sitting, tattooing, washing your hair, or as you mentioned, laughing).

‘Space’ is because my shows always start with a ‘place’, including the address, the context, the appearance, the mind. ‘Empty’ because I never feel quite satisfied, full, right. And like that, in the locus of this show, we have the capacity to be/to do/to fill up a part of myself; and at another show, we can be/do/fill up another part of myself. 

Quite an eccentric way to explain isn’t it? (even at this very moment, I still haven’t replied directly to what you were saying about the choice to create a space to showcase emptiness in this oeuvre; I guess I’ll get to it later). But generally, I come to performance art because it is necessary. I didn’t choose to do it – it chose me. At age 16, living in a far and distant land, indifferent to not knowing the world, the mind filled with psychological ponderings, all the different ‘selves’ fighting to take control… performance set me free, not tied down by the path of the Academy, and this has taught me more about myself, about what makes me me, and my ‘self’ in relation to that of others, from (other) culture (s), and (other) society (s). Yet, because of it, contradictions are always present in me and in my performance works. Perform because I want to better understand humanity, yet also to run away from it. Perform because I want to display, make visible, be seen, yet it could also be done to hide, conceal. Perform because I want to express, make a declaration, yet, it could also suppress, silence the things that cannot be uttered. Perform because I want to take my guts out to exhibit, but it’s also to make a wall, so that no one can hurt me.

Left: Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers 2009. Right: Hide or Seek series 2008

Truly though, my performance art is always akin to a personal memoir, and because it’s personal I always try to choose ways that can best create a distance with the viewer. The series Hide or Seek, or Finders Keepers, Loser Weepers, that I made as a Vietnamese university student in England, centering around the double action hide-seek between a person of minority and a community that they-will-never-belong-to, yet with which they always identify themself. Who has to hide, from whom, from what? In these works, I sometimes appear, sometimes things that represent me appear (like my breath, or a soft sculpture that is within my dimension). But that is an incomplete presence, one that is always evasive/hidden behind the walls, between curtains, underneath the floor, and always in the empty, middle, tranquil place that people tend to overlook. The performance would go on just like that, for a long period of time (until everyone has left), in silence, no movement, no interactions. 

This time is the same, Forget me not (1956-ongoing), which I consider an imagined performance, but stems from real events, and very personal (perhaps to a frightening level). And, this could be why I have chosen to take shelter in fiction. 

Sunday 09/01/2022

I guess what I meant is, knowing you, you don’t seem to feel comfortable sharing things close to heart like that, in a rather public space, laying it all out for strangers. Most of all, because I know you and your relationship with your father, I was all the more surprised this time. I feel that this time, the way you view your father (and mother, and even Wolf too), is at once empathetic yet also distant; at once closely intimate yet also removed; at once helpless and choosing not to participate yet also comedic in the way your relatives deal with real-life situations. Could this also be a mechanism to deal with the inexplicable things that happened to you, to make sense of it? And I think that fits with what you said above about what performance art means to you. 

Could you tell me more about your father and Sói? I believe your father, Sói and you have many things in common, if you look at a photo, those details will be apparent. Why have you decided to cover up the everyday activities of your father, especially when he begins to forget, doubling a scenario/guide, once by you, the other by your mother. 

Sunday 09/01/2022

Dear Vân

Words, utterance, poem, letters, notes, directions and afterwards script–somehow, the different shapes of language continue to appear in my practice and art works. At times words are inscribed onto the ground, stuck onto the wall, framed in pictures, sometimes echoes in sound and lights up in videos, but the method that helps to make me feel most at ease, is through utterance, sharing and only existing in the private moments of conversation. No archiving it, copying it down, the memory of the participants is the sole vessel. And you know, the act of recollecting, the struggle to remember what has happened, always goes with the dreaminess of imagination. 

Yoko Ono’s instructions (or propositions for the future, as I like to call them), take on a role like a prologue to the performance that I cherish. Try to read Yoko’s two instructions below:

Certainly, there will be people who think “scribbles like that, anyone can do”. However, to me being economical with words to the point of streamlining is essential to awaken the imagination. Here, the performance cuts all connection with the body (of the artist and audience), with the surrounding space, time and objects. Instead, the act is abbreviated as ink on papers, only coming to life when there is a reader. Their eyes trace the words, their minds create meaning. Thus, the performance is reincarnated into millions of images, of wandering thoughts and the poetic (or clichés/sến is fine too), everywhere, anytime the viewer wishes to summon it. This performative side of words, I believe, can change the world. 

See, my ‘fate’ with instructions in performance art happened like that. As for this work, I use instructions for a few other reasons.

To me, father is still an incredible person, moulded by life into being so. Born into a family with many siblings, he was the brightest, pursuing Western medicine, yet abandoning midway despite being at his peak, switching to traditional medicine because grandfather passed away, but with the potential bankruptcy of this practice always hanging over his head. In my memory, father was someone who worked tirelessly  from morning through to the night, with one hand continuing the family line of work, the other bringing food onto the table. His job always entails diagnosis, prescription– perpetually speaking, explaining, note-taking, for and because of patients. In a way, he granted them guides to recover life, to continue on living. 

So that, when he too becomes a patient, mother would become the most steadfast, the strongest, most magnanimous saviour I ever met.  I don’t think that it was an easy decision for her, when deciding to construct imaginary spaces in order to keep hold of father. Is it emprisonnement or protection? I feel sometimes, it’s both at once. What about father? No one could grasp what he was thinking, what his heart was feeling. To him, everyday is genuinely a new day, everyday is ‘today’. He truly lives in the present, where the river of time freezes. Behind the doors of his bedroom, everyday is a tormenting ‘battle’ with mother. I guess, I will begin to understand the bond that existed between them only when decades have elapsed. But in this moment, I could feel it between the lines mother wrote in the rules she set out for him, in the world she built for him– filled with absurdities and tenderness. Mother (who also stands in for so many other women) is so undauntable that life always has to bow down. And so, in a way, she has also granted him ways to recover life, to continue on living. One day at a time. 

I think, as a result of the intimate things above, that the form of the instruction is so important to this piece. Conjuring this space so vast, so distant between the audience and the piece is essential. Because, above all, I create the piece means I’m living with it, with my father – my mother, with the others in this play that has been dragged on. The fictionalisation is, at its core, to make it easier to breathe, because I know, someday, this play will (have) to come to an end. 


Wednesday 12/01/2022

Dear friend,

It’s great to see that you mentioned instructions as things not only you and your mother uses, but  something your father uses too, in his line of work as someone giving medical advice and care to others. I think of all the forms of instructions, rules, policy that are currently in place governing our lives, sometimes those boards of instructions done by an institution, a system that coerce people into the mould, making it easy to surveil and control, but it could also be instructions that are highly personal, like your mother wrote for your dad for example. Once again, I think, just like when I was discussing about Lê Vũ’s Cha con đọc truyện Kiều (Father and son reading the Tale of Kieu) with you, thinking about your mother, I thought of a practice of power that is at once oppressive yet loving, born out of the desire to protect, and naturally, to control too. 

I think the relationship between those who participated in building and those manifesting  a form of “self-instruction” can be fruitful: who is it good for, and who needs it? Usually, it is someone with power imposing onto someone with little the way they want to carry out something, and the ‘board of instruction’ comes into being to coordinate that selfish desire. Just as the way you wanted the CCTV camera people filming your dad the way you wanted by imposing a framework of a durational performance to the 24-hour long video. And you try to consider that the viewer may reject that way of seeing of the artist should they wish to, by re-organising themselves the elements you gave along their own logic? Because, since forever, a board of instruction is always to follow, yet also a method of resistance.

But I think the instruction must also exercise power over its creator, don’t you think? For example, for people who are prone to insecurities like me, the  ‘instruction’ in any  form will mean comfort, reassurance, telling me that everything will be fine, everything is in its place. …

Once again I think you are talking to me about the expressiveness and power of writing and language, and this is what we already talked about in the curatorial meandering written about Lê Hiền Minh, Thảo Nguyên Phan and Điềm Phùng Thị 🙂

Thursday, 20/01/2022

Hi Vân,

Right now as I am writing these lines, Sói is looking at my work about father (to new readers: Sói is the boy whose portrait appears in the pictures of Forget Me Not (1956-) ongoing)), and I’m watching the live pictures taken by you of Sói and shared with me via Facebook. Three generations, one way or another, are ‘living’ in the same space-time axis (whether virtual or real).

Live/live – Live (broadcasting)/live (life). This small example alone is enough to show the power of language. Two words, written exactly the same, can instantly change content, depending on different contexts. Ba/ba – Father/number 3. Má/má – Mother/cheek. Tám/tám – Gossip/number. Content/content – Happy/Content. For me, language is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Just by putting words side by side, we can become the commander, signal, and co-ordinator of the reader’s imagination. On the other hand, the board of instruction (or CCTV camera video from April 21, 2021; or pictures of the ‘rules’ written by my mother, with a slight difference in content; or a portrait of Wolf appearing in changing angles of pictures or objects on the table; or Jotun paint called Secret Garden, covering the walls and floors; or thick and solid white frames that overwhelm the visual content inside, etc.) – all are just the outer layers of the work, are symbols for the viewer to choose to rely on, play with, or follow the traces. Which way they go, and in what way, is no longer in their control.

In other words, the work (for me) is ultimately just an opening point for dialogues and fantasies. The form that guides it is there – yes, but it is not the key to getting to the ‘destination’ of the work (and in fact there is no goal for the work, because the work is path, not destination).

In another letter, addressed to another person, belonging to another work called Everyday for the rest of my life (1988–ongoing), I wrote the following:

“So, I let my artist self hibernate, only to come alive through words. At least in this way, intimacy and honesty—what I consider to be the defining characteristics of performance art—will still be maintained, and continue to live on. In the mind, and also through the imagination of those who trust and commit to that very moment, when a performance starts to exist as they read my instructions. No image or footage is needed to record. Only stories and memories to be held and shared. 

To remember. A durational performance.”


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