(*) This poem includes featured works from the late visual artist and writer Lan Anh Lê.
to his counselor,
a long list
loss of appetite,
loss of concentration,
loss of interest,
language distortion —
the computer screen;
& she later
called them dukkha
for the sake
he went on:
nothing has changed
since I’m back
she would be
chanting the Vietnamese
of Jewel Sutras
a word of it;
once a week,
singing the same
with max volume
& doubled echoes —
exactly the way
his sickened head;
all of us —
her belief was
by placing Him
on the altar,
next to her
& the late
none of us
near nirvana —
& neither was
so she ended up
(his) the suffering
to rather have
bless the shit
a Buddhist would
claim such thing
as theoretically incorrect
& none of us
At the age of 5,
I was first introduced to coffee.
I used to drink ’em every morning
so that I could avoid breakfast at kindergarten.
How I drank:
in a bowl of hot water goes the cup of condensed milk,
a filtre à café on top of it.
Then, I studied the drink:
drops of black hitting the white surface
and blended it out slowly,
& felt a childish crave in the stomach.
When the coffee was one-third of the milk,
I stirred it up & sipped it — as many times as I could
& let the warm fluid penetrate my senses.
Recommendation: if you’re a 5-year-old,
you can skip breakfast
because a 5-year-old does not know
about colonialism —
At the age of 6,
I knew about Pepsi,
which was only allowed after a big feast.
Mom said it’s good for digestion,
but too much of it will lead to cancer.
In fact, I could never finish the whole can myself
even as a grown adult, plus a cup of ice.
I saw some American drank the whole thing up,
straight from the aluminum container.
“PepsiCo, Inc. is an American multinational food, snack and
beverage corporation…” —
Thoughts: maybe capitalism is both abundant and capacious;
Recommendation: “better when drinking cold”
Caution: too much drinking causes cancer (?) —
Is this just a Vietnamese thing?
I don’t know, & neither do I expect to finish the whole can;
I’m just simply curious about the people who can —
As I’ve drunk them both,
I write poetry.
busy street at 5 PM
the woman was on her motorbike
resting on the terracotta pavement
her forehead sparkled
a drop of sweat
filled with an orange sunset
with leaf and wind
with houses and buildings
a crowded T-junction
and flocks of migrating storks
she wore a black suit
but her bike’s handles
of crème caramels
and her backseat
tied a red box
with chilling milk bottles
I looked at her
and the sunset drop
but I didn’t want to make a guess
of her name
or her job
or her life
or even her suit
so I simply called her
“milk-woman in a black complet”
to keep myself grounded
to now and here
It was a mellow afternoon outside Le Van Mien street, still that iconic heat of Saigon, but became a lot milder thanks to a short but refreshing pour-down minutes before. As I entered the glass door into the elegant black painted art space of Vin Gallery, the first thing that emerged into my vision was a gigantic white wall positioned only two meters away from the entrance, with a still human figure pushing against the wall. On the other side of the wall stood a white hammer whose broken handle written “understandable” in red paint, separated into two halves: “under” and “standable”. It invoked the feeling of an extremely vulnerable and tottering structure, as well as the noticeable effort existing with the opposite momentum.
That was the gateway to the surrealistic world of Tran Trong Vu’s solo exhibition entitled “The Already Seen Never Seen”.
Tran Trong Vu is a Vietnamese artist currently based in Paris, who is the son of the famous Vietnamese writer/poet Tran Dan – a revolutionary figure of Vietnamese literature. Having his life and education in Vietnam prior to the following migration to French in 1987 to pursuit his studies abroad, Vu witnessed some of the most major changes in Vietnam society, including the Doi Moi period in 1986, and the normalization between Vietnam and the United States after 20 years of the on-end war that took place in 1995. Therefore, his experience varies between the Eastern and Western cultural and political context, which contributed to the vagueness and confusion toward his own identity as an exile Vietnamese artist. Consequently, Vu finds it difficult to divorce his attachment with the obsession of the war, as well as current changes within the Vietnamese society itself nowadays.
As I ventured further into the space, I encountered more of his multimedia paintings full of representational imageries that illustrate Vu’s confusion toward the past and the present. Being hung solely on the black surface near the entrance was an oil painting with a clear blue sky occupying the first half of it. Among the colorful field of flowers spotted several green-clothed soldiers, pointing guns directly at one another. It was a critical reflection toward the nation’s not-quite-easy-to-perceive part of history, where the Vietnamese were being under the inevitability of mutual elimination because of the differences in what they acquired as the ultimate “patriotism”.
Interestingly, some other works of the artist embraced the application of Photoshop editing that hybridized the traditional paintings and real images. The realistic elements in resonance with the dream-like environment surprisingly enhances the tremendous surrealistic aspect that challenged the absolutes in our mere perception, and what should have been re-investigated for renewed justification. Thereby, he spoke up for the to-be-seen being under the manipulation of censorship (which Tran Dan and Vu himself experienced quite often as artists); at the same time, he questioned the true freedom, where he could be settled with his own true self. Still, it is not, sadly, appeared to be found even within the land where he originated, as in one of his interview sections, Vu shared: “even before I left for France, I had always felt like an outsider wherever I was”.
On the right side of the gallery space was a sequence of three like-structured paintings. Each of them depicted the image of a person posed identically: holding a saw, cutting through a certain kind of matter in different backgrounds: a golden frame, a green garden, a blue, and a punctured brick wall, signified a strong sense of alienation. Also excerpted from the aforementioned interview, Vu confessed his desperation and foolishness by clinging on the shattered memory of Hanoi, as well as the anxiety of confronting the chaotic realities in his motherland at the moment. As a result, the artist tried hard to escape from the (beautiful) long-gone past by breaking through the barriers between his multiple suppressed identities.
The moment I stepped closer toward the end of the room, I confronted a large-scale digital painting that depicted four men in black suit, standing among an overwhelming blue plastic-like ocean. It was not the first time those uncanny symbols presented in his works. According to UCLA Asia Pacific Center’s article, the blue shade in Vu’s painting represents memory and vagueness, and the men wearing suits symbolically described as the “epitome of conformity” – the sense of otherness. I directed my vision to the second large painting, which also consisted of several men in suits, holding guns, jumping up and down on a vibrant flower field. Despite not being conveyed in any clear extents, those imageries somewhat implied some kinds of exposed taboos – the controversy to be reconsidered and to be observed critically, in which the answer of Vu’s (and maybe our) own existential question might be responded.
There is something that always manifests in Tran Trong Vu’s artworks that would require us to constantly question our personal and collective history – what has led us to our current state of presence. In the end, it is always a necessity to comprehend the rooted attribution to our identity, and to what we believe to be “seen” but actually “never seen” since there are still many stories left untold.
Tran Trong Vu’s “The Already Seen Never Seen” is currently on view at Vin Gallery, 6 Le Van Mien, D.2, Thao Dien, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam until February 2020.
Find the links down below for further reading and references:
https://www.artspace.com/artist/tran_trong_vu https://www.andofotherthings.com/2014/04/03/tran-trong-vu/ https://www.international.ucla.edu/asia/article/8550
As Everything has recently become an internet phenomenon, those who have heard or experienced it will acknowledge Everything apparently as a video game, which is currently available for PS4 and Steam. Among the video game market, Everything is quite standing out in terms of player’s experience and interior narrative.
Disclaimer: I did not spend that much of my time for video games these days...
However, “Everything” just won over my attention and time so tremendously, because it is indeed an excellent piece of visual art.
Everything is developed by David O’Reilly, whose previous experience accustomed with conceptual and implicate 3D animations (Google his works and you will find out why). The game appears as a stimulation flat-form, in which you can literally become everything that presents within the virtual environment the game creates. Then what’s fun about this? For now, please sit down, we have a lot of interesting stuff to discuss here.
Emerging into the world of Everything, you will be randomly assigned to be a “thing” (in my case, I was a Addra Gazelle). You will start with getting used to the control system of the game, as well as some certain instructions to make sure that you stay resilient enough make progress, since there will be a lot of daunting and clueless moments to encounter. The instructions include 3 types of different symbols for you to approach: the bubbles – listen to the thoughts of your surrounding objects (yep, they all have thoughts and unique voices, event a rock); the interconnected hexagons – get access to new actions and features;
and the circles – listen to Alan Watt’s narrative speech.
First thing first, David chooses Alan Watts – a Western philosopher who passed away in 1973, to be the narrator of the game. In his interview with Vice Tonight, David empathized:
“…there was a strange reflection between what he (Alan) was saying and what we were making…the totality of existence, or the universe, let’s say, or nature.”
The interconnection of everything – being strongly fascinated by Buddhism study, I recognized the ideological appropriation in Watt’s narration after just a few lines. The interconnection among every existing objects has always been a fundamental of Buddha’s teachings, ever since Gotama Siddhartha accomplished his ascetic practice and became a bodhisattva, or an “enlightened one”, who later determined co-existence as an essential element that constructs the world of correlation (or the so-called karma) we are living in. That was before I did research about his legacy as a Western philosopher, who helped implement and penetrate Eastern philosophy into the Eastern world, including the Buddha’s teachings. Up to this point, I was amazed by how an Eastern concept had become more and more universal, and now being illustrated in a video game – a very particular medium for conveying such ideas.
Then, after navigating for a while, you will encounter more interconnected hexagons and get access to performing more new actions, including manipulating different objects and living creatures. You can be an Addra Gazelle (or micro-sized bacteria) at the beginning, a few seconds later, you already become a middle-sized rock. Exploring a little bit more, you’re now a galaxy floating in the infinite outer space.
The shift in perspective was illustrated quite visibly through the movement of the day-night cycle. The larger the object you manipulate, the quicker the cycle’s rotation will be. As you shift to another object with another perspective, the appearance of the environment around you will change accordingly, though it’s quite clear that you are still located in the same dimension. It was satiated in a sense that my (our) dreamy desire of being the sky, the cloud, the universe – something that broaden our perspective far beyond what we assume as human limitation, becomes actually doable in this world of Everything. At the same time, I came to a comprehension of pure understanding among individuals – an “objective perspective”, which is quite “impossible” in any extents, according to David. However, as we strive to pursue objectivity, we attain a better state of mutual understanding and connection.
And now, most interestingly, there are a lot of disturbing illogical and physically uncanny details inserted into the game. At some points, I can say that they have become a direct facade for the internet’s jocular criticism (“Why are there WEIRD ROLLING animals???” – see the trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYHp8LwBUzo&t=431s ), however, are the most essential factors that make Everything the Everything we see.
The idea was actually inherited from David’s previous Youtube animation episode called “The horse raised by sphere” (which is another story). In Everything, he brings up the sense of abnormality to see how we perceive it within the context where the alien 4-legged animals’ movements become contextually ordinary. Consequently, this implication challenges our judgement toward the inversion of norms and abnormality, as well as the values and qualifications that construct one’s identity, through a distinctively rich visual concept.
“What I am involves who you are”Alan Watts
I profoundly treated this game as an artwork, because of its creation in a very particular time and space, where there are more than one issue triggering the world greatest nations, internally and externally; where climate change is threatening human existence without a sense of ceasing; where trustfulness and humanitarian values have seemingly vanished into a long-gone past.
We bring up the question of true human nature once again.
To achieve the most in-depth experience, you may want to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little bit, as well as prepare for the unexpected strikes to your current mindset and perception.
Keep going until the very end (?), you may find yourself going on one of the most reflective journey ever; you may want to sit down and re-question your own identity and the true meaning of existence; or you may even end up with looking at the world in a way that you never thought you could back then.
Who knows? It’s everything anyway.
“Ice-cream!” – A guy pronounced it out loud, looking at a sticky note he just picked up from his chairs. Everyone had one attached somewhere around the audience seats.
“Watching people falling over.”
There was a list of things, none of them seemed to be serious in any extents until D invited a female audience to be his assistant. He asked her handbag, then offered her a ballpoint pen, and pretended it to be an injector. He told her to act out the scene of giving the injection to his imaginary “wolf-wolf”, who was being held his two big and shaky arms, weak and breathing interruptedly. He had everyone to imagine his “wolf wolf” taking her very last breath, right on his arms.
My heart fell into complete dead silence.
It was his very first experience of death.
A boy, who was born in a not-so-perfect family, in fact, it was full of blemish. Mom had been suffering from some sorts of chronic depression, thus, he somewhat lost the privilege of being an “ordinary” child. Despite having a thoughtful and empathetic father, he understood he had to be precociously independent and figure out the world himself solely. He created a list of things that make him feel happy. The title was “Every Brilliant Thing”, big, bold and stood out right on the top of the list.
The next scenes were indeed D conducting a “draw my life” in one hour, but instead of drawing, he used his own voice, emotional expressions of an actor, and the audience participation. The show itself had been played several times before I came. However, I heard that every time would happen to be slightly different though, the version (I was watching) was way too natural and smooth to detect any visibility of improvisation.
I would say he successfully engaged everyone’s mood in the “number six”: roller-coaster and the ridiculous story behind that. As much as we laughed, and there were moments of silence. The “Every Brilliant Thing” was filled with on-end changes in its own theme, where happiness is defined very uniquely in different stages of the character’s life. When he was younger, happiness could be as simple as an ice-cream, of which sweetness and a momentary brain freeze would chill a child out so quickly. It was brilliant.
Time flew, the “brilliance” would shift to something more maturely sophisticated like the voice of his favorite singer, or a favorite track that would engage him into the mood instantly. It was also brilliant. At some points, the list of “brilliance” was temporarily forgotten, until the depression came to say hello, when he coincidentally found the list, dusted and oddly attractive, again. He continued to fill out more things out as he always did.
Someone’s voice raised by reading the given note.
The light remained a mild and soothing warmth across the room. The themed tracks were playing harmoniously in the background. There were indeed so many “brilliant things” mentioned that apparently went beyond my capability of memorizing. I witnessed him and the list growing together, getting over the griefs and sorrows.
Number “something” – “Waking up next to somebody”,
Number “another something” – “sex”, everyone laughed so hard. As the list of wonders just kept going on like, until he found his first love. He was so naïve that did not know that love would be attached to for such a long time.
Life is filled with on end struggles, neither is the brilliants things you have. In fact, you have never actually had it since everything is impermanent in its nature. That was what I learned, life is a series of unpredictable changes that require you to adapt to any prices. One day, the knell was sent, unpredictably, the death of his mother, after all the sufferings from an inveterate depression. It’s clear that he genuinely lost something, though, lost will always be refunded with something equal. Death is apparently a not-so-brilliant thing, but there are thousands of others to bring the brilliance back to the soul of yours that has been thought to be seemingly arid. Looking back at the journey you have gone, you would be able to realize that you’re much more resilient and resourceful than you could ever imagine.
People with mental health issues were also portrayed so vividly in this theater show. In Vietnamese context, those such things would not be so considerable in contributing to sustainable well-being, in fact, the attitude toward it would only be ignorant, until something really bad happens: over-stressed, depression, self-harm, even suicides. Not everyone is either able to survive in the battle or aware of such disastrous consequences of mental illnesses.
Many more tracks were played, from the 80s I supposed, of which melodies were lively, there were some kind of chemistry to make everyone dance along with it, but no one did, it was his show anyway. Yet, D himself was dancing the whole time.
As the show ended, the applause went for so long that my palms almost turned red, he was going around introducing the audiences who assisted him during the show. It was one of the most adorable things I had ever seen indeed.
Not until I went outside that I saw a black wall full of posted notes, with people handwriting on them. There was a special list of “Every Brilliant Things” of Saigon, contributed by everyone attended the show. I picked up a green one and wrote “random nods from people :)” (it is another story, until next time!). As I gently pinned it to the wall, I saw myself joyfully surrounded among hundreds of other colorful notes that hold the most brilliant things in the world.
It was really great for a night out!