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Dislocate: Artist Bui Cong Khanh Deconstructs Vietnamese Identity

A beautiful large-scale recreation of a fortress, a photographic essay and a documentary video feature in Bui Cong Khanh’s latest exhibition, Dislocate, an impactful reminder of Vietnam’s heritage and intertwined cultures.

In recent years, Bui Cong Khanh has employed multimedia installations, paintings and performances in his ongoing exploration of the connections between Vietnam’s past and the contemporary narratives following the country’s economic resurgence. In 2015’s Fortress Temple, he staged an emotional live performance in which he sang and wrote the Vietnamese national anthem on a mirror, while another boy simultaneously sang “La Marseilles”, the French national anthem, and wrote the lyrics on the artist’s bare back.

The current exhibition, Dislocate, represents a continuation of the artist’s desire to connect the past with the present. Through a personal lense, he re-examines architectural elements as well as folk and spiritual traditions, questioning the notion of what constitutes “being Vietnamese”, an identity which is often restricted by race, nation and religion.

In the center of the exhibition space stands a large fortress made entirely of jackfruit wood. The choice of material already conjures up a series of cultural ideas in Vietnam as well as personal memories for the artist.

“After the war, my father lost his job so he had to go back [to being a] carpenter,” Khanh, a Hoi An native, tells Saigoneer. “He continued, with the jackfruit wood, to make furniture and to help people build wooden houses.”

In the lean times following the American conflict, Khanh’s mother also used jackfruit to feed her eight children.

“The jackfruit is very popular in Vietnamese culture,” he explains. “It is expensive, and it’s for middle-class people, [who] chose it to build their homes. Now, some rich people use it but it takes a lot of money and work. It’s particularly used in the center of Vietnam because it is easy to carve and insects don’t eat it.”

Motifs of the tree are also recurrent throughout Vietnamese art. At the Hue Citadel, for instance, Khanh found examples of this in a vase from the reign of Minh Mang, second emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.

“Minh Mang asked families to plant the jackfruit tree because houses built with it would last and would be handed down to their children,” explains the artist.

For Dislocate, Khanh’s fortress incorporates the familiar architectural elements of traditional buildings in Hoi An and Hue, but as the viewer moves closer, the finer details of the structure reveal personal, forgotten histories as well as the artist’s creative interpretations of them.

Using his own personal experience, Khanh begins to untangle those histories. When he was 20 years old, the artist learned that his grandfather was ethnically Chinese, a startling revelation for someone who had always viewed himself as wholly Vietnamese.

“I asked my father: ‘Dad, you’re Chinese?’” he says. “I said ‘Why didn’t you tell me about that?’”

Khanh's father never answered his question, and the artist was left to reconcile this new information with his Vietnamese identity.

Beyond Khanh's own experience, Hoi An also serves as an ideal example of the fusion between Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, not only in its architecture but also in many of the spiritual traditions which endure today. Above the front doors of Hoi An’s traditional houses, for instance, a pair of Chinese-style mắt cửa [yin and yang symbols placed above entrance doors] watch over the structure and its residents.

During the construction of these traditional houses, artisans hold fast to the belief that metal and wood are elements which cannot coexist. For this reason, carpenters never use metal nails in jackfruit wood houses.

“When I was working with the carpenters, they really believed in the spiritual aspect of the process,” says Khanh. In the exhibit’s documentary video, which recounts the building of the fortress, carpenters drive a machete into the root of the jackfruit tree before cutting it apart; this comes from the belief that jackfruit trees have a soul.

The collaborative process between Khanh and the local artisans who assisted in the creation of his fortress proved to be rewarding, though it was not without its challenges. During the two years it took to complete the fortress, Khanh worked alongside traditional Hoi An craftsmen, learning how to translate his desires into a new design language and challenging the artisans themselves to create new motifs.

“The most difficult [thing] for me was to build a relationship between me and the craftsmen,” explains Khanh. “Normally, they love to make a copy. All the traditional images [are] easy for them…they don’t want to do something different, but luckily I had some people who loved to work with me.”

Khanh’s unique ability to marry the historical and the philosophical, the folkloristic and the craftsmanship is exquisitely exemplified in the final result. The 12 roof beams are arranged steeped in tradition, representing birth, aging, death, sickness and birth again. The front door of the fortress is a real door, taken from a house in the countryside near Hoi An, however the carved details on the building’s side are unconventional 3D motifs reminiscent of the war: a grenade, a military jacket, a helmet and barbed wire. The diverse colors of the wood also represent the past; Khanh employed old wood taken from existing buildings as well as younger jackfruit trees to create his fortress. Finally, the four pagodas guarding the fortress feature design elements from China, Hue and Hoi An so that their Asian heritage is visible but it is not possible to associate them with a specific location.

“You cannot destroy history,” Khanh explains. “I care about the present and we have to create something new, especially in the culture.”

In Khanh’s work the recognition and investigation of our layered culture is not founded on a romantic idealism but more on the inevitable presence of it. No matter how hard we try to forget, it will always be there. 

 

Dislocate will be on display until August 23 at The Factory. Curated by Zoe Butt, Dislocate is part of the San Art program Conscious Realities and has been selected for the Singapore Biennale 2016.

10am – 7pm, Tue to Sun

The Factory Contemporary Arts Center

15 Nguyen U Di, Thao Dien Ward, D2

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