12 to 24 Dec 2010, Beijing—Long March Project participants Viet Le and Nguyen Nhu Huy collaboratively produce a written dialogue over 10 days of traveling together through Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. This journey is organized as Ho Chi Minh Trail project’s second curatorial residency and acts as a continuation of the project’s journey through Indochina in June 2010. The dialogue touches upon Long March Project––Ho Chi Minh Trail’s ongoing concerns with translation, political correctness, transnational dialogue, and contemporary engagements with historical memory.
Viet Le: Whenever I swam in a pool during my twenties, I’d stop halfway through each lap, desperately cling on to the lane dividers, disoriented and gasping for breath, feeling as if I were about to drown. These panic attacks were triggered by long-buried bodily memories of my midnight raft escape from Saigon with my mom at the age of four. Over several years I persevered in teaching myself how to swim laps. In my thirties, swimming is now a meditative experience—I swim for an hour four times a week. I now understand that the body has its own logic, its own memory. The afterlife of trauma leaves invisible traces. My dangerous ocean escape and the daily laps I swim draw invisible lines. These trails of water have shaped who I am. I cannot capture how it feels to drown—the panic and fear. I cannot outline the many passages—via barge, plane, and so on—to where I am today. The passages are physical and psychological. All I can offer is a tracing, a translation of my experience. As Derrida notes, it is the failure of language and logos. In this dialogue with curator and artist Nguyen Nhu Huy I would like to muse about the gaps inherent in such acts, as well as the possibilities of tracing and translation.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail Project (HCMTP) is a (re-)tracing of sorts: a historical supply route, a passage, a passageway of points north and south and in between—a network revisited that opens up new critical and creative possibilities. The afterlife of trauma leaves invisible traces. Through this ongoing transnational project, the historical and contemporary connections between Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China are highlighted: “This rhizomic map serves as a reflection of the interconnected, influential, overlapping histories of the region.”[i] Theorists Deleuze and Guattari have used the concept of the “rhizome” to champion multiplicity and non-hierarchical associations. This model is an alternative to the tree-root frameworks that stress chronological linkages, binaries, and linear models of “growth.”[ii] I also question existing dominant methodologies and their relevance in thinking about cultural production in ever-shifting “centres” and “peripheries.” Who and what constitutes centre(s) and margins has been questioned by postcolonial thinkers, a point Nguyen Nhu Huy and I will discuss later in this dialogue.
During the journey through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, many local participants have asked, “What is the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project”? The fact that the project cannot be pinpointed and summarized in a condensed manner may have caused some consternation. But this also belies the project’s strength: it is a process, a tracing, a rhizomatic engagement with space and history. The HCMTP is also an act of translation. As with any cultural exchange, there are mistranslations and gaps. Translation is almost always a failure—there is a world of difference between the sign and the signifier. But in these gaps and fissures lie opportunities as well.
Nguyen Nhu Huy: I really want to thank Viet Le for his deep thoughts on this project. I agree with his conceptualization of the project with two key words—tracing and translation. Yes, first of all, to me, the project is about translation (for me, the tracing is sort of translation).
I understand the concept of translation within two frameworks. First, the framework presented by Homi Bhabha in his interview “The Third Space,”[iii] which derives a deep source from his understanding and interpretation of the concept of translation by Walter Benjamin. In the interview, Homi Bhabha said that “translation is also a way to imitate, but in a mischievous, displacing sense—in such a way that imitating an original, in such a way that the priority of the original is not reinforced but by the fact that it can be simulated, copied, transferred, transformed, made into simulacrum and so on.”
The second framework I have used to understand the concept of translation here is from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s book Truth and Method. In conceptualizing the process of understanding, Gadamer tended to see it as the same as translating when “the translator must translate the meaning to be understood into a context in which the other speaker lives. . . . The meaning must be preserved, but since it must be understood within a new language world, it must establish its validity within it in a new way.”[iv] Gadamer adds another insight into the activity of understanding as he sees it, as interpretation, in which “ the translator has made of the words given him”
Both frameworks for translation proposed by Bhabha and Gadamer suggest a way of understanding translation not as an activity of imitating, but as an activity of creating which, for Bhabha, will open up a new space, a “third space where another position emerges,” and which, for Gadamer, will open up a possibility of a “fusion of horizons”, as in Gadamerian term.
To me, the journey in twenty-one days around the Indochina region, seen through the frameworks suggested above, is a process of translating the translation of the physical into the mental and vice versa, of the abstract into the concrete and vice versa, of the They into We and vice versa, of acting into action and vice versa, of the political into the artistic and vice versa, of understanding into misunderstanding and vice versa, of the bodily into the conceptual and vice versa, etc.
Viet Le: Nguyen Nhuy Huy’s two frameworks regarding the process of translation is pivotal in grasping how we come to understand things—it is a negotiation and transformation that is context specific. In short, translation is an open-ended path, a journey. Speaking of journeys, Nhu Huy and I are grateful to make another journey as part of the Long March Education Residency, traveling north and south and to points in between: Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai, and back to Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, respectively. This journey has been a tracing, an act of translation. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with key art places and faces, among them Lu Jie, China Art Academy, Gao Shiming, China Academy of Fine Art, MadeIn, 798 area, Liu Wei, Long March Space (and its generous staff including Sheryl Cheung and Song Yi), Ai Weiwei, M50 galleries, and Today Museum, among many others. Although I have kept up with the development and rise of Chinese contemporary art and artists over the past decade with avid interest from afar, for me it was an up-close and personal introduction of sorts. While our trip was relatively short, I hope our intellectual and creative engagement will be a long-lasting one.
Among many lively discussion and debates over meals and in public forums, I am left pondering a host of issues: the role of contemporary art and critical discourse; audiences and art markets; “local” and “global” divides; infrastructural requirements in developing art scenes, and so on. The two “West Heavens: India-China Academic Summit” public lectures we attended, featuring prominent postcolonial thinkers, gave us much food for thought. Dipesh Chakrabarty noted that there is a world of difference between the terms “civilization” (often associated with colonial civilizing missions) and “civility.” To treat another with civility is to engage in mutual respect, regardless of knowing proper social etiquette. In this age of globalization and high-stakes foreign diplomacy, a stance of civility, of respect, is required to negotiate complex social, political, and economic realities. Echoing this sentiment, Homi Bhabha noted that the lines between barbarism and civilization are blurred. In a touching personal anecdote about his first visit to Nuremberg and the Zeppelin Field, the heart of the parade grounds of Nazi Germany, he initially wanted to distance himself from that traumatic history. “It is another’s history, not mine,” was his first reaction. But he realized that this history, seemingly distant, was also his history. The afterlife of trauma leaves invisible traces. Bhabha traces the invisible line connecting us all. His call for a perspective that highlights interconnectedness is both hopeful and pragmatic. Both Chakrabarty and Bhabha acknowledge that the urgent issues humanity faces, including environmental changes, food and water shortages, cannot be addressed adequately with only national or local interests in mind. The world’s crises can be tackled only in the spirit of collaboration and civility. The mantra “Think Global, Act Local” comes to mind. This stance makes sense not only in socioeconomic matters but also cultural ones.
Our own presentations for the Shanghai Biennale highlighted art practice and spaces in Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam and Cambodia. Nguyen Nhu Huy spoke about the newly opened Zero Station, his alternative art space, which promotes exchange, experimentation, and dialogue. Following Bhabha’s logic in thinking about space and history, including art histories, we cannot say “It is another’s history, not mine.” Western (art) history, indeed histories, become part of our collective cultural and intellectual heritage. So yes, contemporary Chinese art has had a meteoric rise, but its development cannot be separated from the development of contemporary Southeast Asian art or contemporary South Asian art, however “belated,” to use Chakrabarty’s term.
Nguyen Nhu Huy: As with Viet Le, I am also impressed with what both key thinkers, Homi Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, expressed about civility. Charkrabarty explains his conception of civility through citing the example of the exchange of letters between Gandhi and Mr. X (I forgot his name, so I will call him Mr. X), who disagreed with Gandhi on a particular issue. Reading Gandhi’s text in a newspaper, that person sent a respectful letter to Gandhi asking him, “Dear Gandhi, may I ask you a question, that what was published in the newspaper is really what you think?” Gandhi answered by another letter, “Dear Mr. X, I must confirm that what was published in the newspaper is my real thinking on that issue.” Then Mr. X sent another letter: “Dear Gandhi, I must say that I do not agree with it, and I will publish a different opinion on it.” Of course, this example cited by Mr. Charkrabaty is about a sense of mutual respectfulness that to him is different from the concept of civilization. Civility is something as human beings we somehow possess without being educated. Homi Bhabha’s idea about civility is something that must be seen and conceptualized in comparison with barbarism and as something located in the our ability to connect with otherness. From my own perspective, a close, conclusive point was made by one of the Marchers at the end of the journey: “When you are told about a way called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this is what we call a political moment; and in this moment, you are not innocent. Anybody who has not been told about the Trail is also not innocent. The Ho Chi Minh Trail exists in every one of us.”[vi]
Here I would like to take time to propose my interpretation of the concept of civility as proposed by both key Bhabha and Charkrabaty. I see the conception of civility, as they expressed it, not as an abstract idealism of morality, which sometimes can lead to political correctness, but a sort of high wisdom (prudential) that only reveals itself in action.
The conception of civility here, as I understand it, has its source in the concept of phronesis (practical knowledge) as proposed by Aristotle, and is something opposite to theoretical knowledge. Practical knowledge is what lies outside the rational concept of knowledge. Aristotle considers phronesis to be an ‘intellectual’ virtue and sees it not only as a capacity (dunamis), but as a determination of moral being which cannot exist without the totality of ethical virtue,” which in turn cannot exist without it. Practical knowledge is another kind of knowledge. Primarily, this meant that it is directed toward the concrete situation.” Even Aristotle, in Gadamer’s understanding, sees that “practicing this virtue means that one distinguishes what should be done from what should not; it is not simply practical shrewdness and general cleverness. The distinction between what should be done and what should not be done includes the distinction between the proper and the improper and thus presuppose a moral attitude, which it continues to develop.”[vii]
To see civility relating to phronesis is to conceptualize it as something we cannot have if we try to only theorize but not to enter reality. To see it this way is also to capture it in its endless and fullest interrelating movement in the realm of actions built by differently conflicted forces and networks; that is, to see it as a result of an activity of engagement with the world. And finally, to see civility in this way is also to distinguish it from the model of a moral scheme that tends to impose upon the other through education or through civilization’s process.
Viet Le: Questions regarding theory and praxis remain ever relevant, and they are issues that come to the fore in the art world. In the shadows of war and the global economic crisis, where is the “centre” of the (art) world?[viii] As noted, postcolonial theorists argue cultural centres form peripheries and are given a marginalized status. The centre cannot hold. Margin/centre conceptions are outdated; there are multiple centres, satellite peripheries. Western cultural hegemony in the art world (exemplified by the European biennials) is challenged by the surge of Asia Pacific region biennials and triennials.[ix] This rise marks shifts in culture and capital.[x] Asia will have to “take up the slack” for economic downturns, noted the 2008 World Economic Forum on East Asia.[xi]
On the “rhizomatic” map traced by the Ho Chi Minh Trail project, there is no centre. Perhaps this map also functions as a mirror. For psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, the mirror stage is a crucial stage in establishing the formation of the ego, of distinguishing the imaginary from the real. But what is real and what is fantasy in the imagination?
Michel Foucault notes that the mirror is a symbolic space of absence and presence, both a heterotopic (real) and utopic (imagined) space. It is a liminal position in which one’s image is negotiated, negated, and constructed. In describing this idea, Foucault writes, “I see myself there where I am not… I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent…”[xii] This space is both a reflection of reality and a site of fantasy and projection. Perhaps it is finally a way of seeing oneself, a process of self-recognition. One is both the object and subject of the gaze. Is Southeast Asia a mirror for China? Is China a mirror for Southeast Asia? As historical and contemporary interactions between Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China demonstrate, these regions are deeply enmeshed through trade, culture, and politics. This map, this mirror, this tracing is an act, a gesture, a process—and, as the title of the 2010 Shanghai Biennale suggests, a “rehearsal.”
As I write this I am on the verge of moving yet again, from Phnom Penh to Los Angeles and eventually back to Southeast Asia, a full circle of sorts. My movements by air, across oceans, and by land are also a tracing. This is my personal rhizomatic map, a fragmented mirror. It is a way of negotiating multiple times, time zones, and physical and psychic spaces; it is a process of translation.
On the eve of my departure, I am haunted by the memory of celebrated artist and HCMT project participant Leang Seckon’s empty evacuated studio on the edge of Boeung Kak in Phnom Penh, a lake area being filled in with sand by developers amidst protests by those who are being forcibly displaced. In the space in which the artist has lived and worked for decades, Leang Seckon has painted a sprawling dragon, a naga on the studio’s bare walls as a memorial, a counter-monument (following James E. Young’s phrase), a gesture of departing. After visiting his studio on the last day before he moved out, I drive past Calmette Hospital, where I see hundreds of photos of the recently deceased victims of the Koh Pich bridge accident (during a massive, festive annual holiday) displayed in a grid. Family members and friends search for familiar faces among the close-up portraits: eyes forever closed, faces and necks bruised blue and purple. And yet down the street on the walls of the French embassy are giant billboards of artwork featured in the annual Photo Phnom Penh international photo exhibition; life goes on, as the cliché goes. These disparate but related vignettes on the same day within the same city block capture the heartbreak and hope of a developing region. The afterlife of trauma leaves invisible traces. Like Bhabha, I am unable to say, “This is not my history.” I cannot say this is another’s pain. This too is my history, my heartbreak, my hope. But I cannot adequately express my despair, my love, and aspirations for this region. I can only translate these sentiments. I can only trace this path.
Nguyen Nhu Huy: I agree with Viet Le about his observation on the surge of Asia Pacific region biennials and triennials. However, here I would like to propose another understanding of this phenomenon. Viet Le sees these new biennials and triennials as proof of the outdated model of peripheries/centres when now in the world there are no locations that could be considered peripheries. Nonetheless, to me, the emergence of this phenomenon, even in creating some positive effects for those regions, which thus far have been defined as peripheries, cannot be overestimated as proof of the failure of the centre/periphery model. To see it from another angle, could we see this phenomenon as an invasion of the centre, at a discursive level, into periphery? Or in other words, is it possible to say that this phenomenon proves one thing, that the quality of the centre’s discursive models could be spread successfully into the periphery? Let me pose some questions here: Who are the curators of these new triennials and biennials? How is the process of selecting artists for these new triennials and biennials different from the process of selecting artists from similar events in the centres? Is it possible for us to think that the supposedly outdated model of centre/periphery is only the victory of the centre over the periphery, when the centre could possibly now be located in the heart of the periphery?
The model of centres/peripheries is not geographical but discursive, so if the artists and intellectuals from the so-called peripheries do not try to change, not only the locations of the art world, from centre to periphery, but the very framework for thinking and acting, the relationship of power, cannot be changed.
Of course you can say my reflection here is a bit negative, but the fact is that if we don’t have a different way of approaching political, cultural, and artistic issues that lie outside of the old conceptual framework, to me, the vision for escaping from the old cages is something a bit romantically illusive.
In the short speech that I gave on the first day we (the artists and curators from Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, and America) met at Long March Space in 2009, I proposed my understanding of the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project as a path, in the sense that Lu Xun had conceptualized it. I would love to repeat it again here. The path, in my own understanding, is something very different from the road. If the road is something that has to be built, that needs to be carefully planned and needs to be prepared very well on a logistical level, the path is something that we know only when we step on it. That is, the path is something that could be opened only by our own steps, and it always opens a possibility of bringing us some surprising encounters, both dangerous and promising. So the process of making a path is a process based on the method of trial by error, a method whose essence is based on the ability of daring to be wrong, daring to try new and alternative things.
From this perspective, I see the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, in its confusing essence, entering into the chaotic, complicated, and inter-related networks of politics, culture, and arts in the region, an entering that seems to not follow any existing model of knowledge production such as the mega-exhibition model or the symposium/conference model, but makes itself in the realm of actions and shows a possibility for opening up an alternative way of approaching reality.
It is in this possibility that I now see this kind of project as really necessary for us.
[i] HCMTP brochure, my emphasis.
[ii] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Athlone Press, 1988).
[iii] “The Third Space,” interview with Homi Bhabha, in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutheford (London: Lawrence and Wishart), 2003
[iv] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second ed., rev. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London: Continuum, 2006)
[vi] HCMTP brochure, 14. [http://www.hochiminhtrailproject.com/download/pdf/HCMTP-PDF10302010small.pdf.]
[vii] Italics mine.
[viii] The historic avant-garde shift from Paris to New York was due partly to diasporic movement during World War II, when top European modernists sought refuge in America. The confluence of European émigrés seeking artistic freedom and survival and America’s postwar economic might and rash of collectors, critics, and institutions responsive to avant-garde practices rezoned the cultural landscape to its current coordinates.
[ix] 2008 Asia-Pacific region biennales include the 1st Asia Triennial Manchester, 15th Biennale of Sydney, 7th Gwangju Biennale, 5th Busan Biennale, 3rd Guangzhou Triennial, 7th Shanghai Biennale, 2nd Singapore Biennale, 5th Media City Seoul, 3rd Yokohama Triennale, and the 6th Taipei Biennial. “2008 Asian Biennales,” Seoul, Korea: Art in Asia, March/April 2008, 67.
[x] These shows reveal the tensions of the politics of translation and transnationalism. These shows also reveal a concerted political and ideological effort to reshift the geography as well as the creative and critical terms of aesthetic engagement. “I wanted to imagine Asia as part of the new destination of the evolving system of global art and cultural markets,” states Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 2008 Gwangju Bienale. Tim Griffin, “The Medium and the Message: Tim Griffin Talks with Okwui Enwezor about the Gwangju Biennale,” Artforum, September 2008, p234.
[xi] This statement was made by Azman Mokhtar, Managing Director of the Malaysian government’s investment holding arm. The West, particularly the United States, is now a faltering empire, and new economic giants have emerged in its long shadow. Kai Bucher, “Asia needs strong voice for global action on food, energy, and finance, say leaders at opening of World Economic Forum on East Asia.” World Economic Forum, http://www.weforum.org/en/media/Latest%20Press%20Releases/EA08OpeningPR, December 20, 2008.
[xii] In his lecture entitled “Of Other Spaces,” Foucault states that between utopias, “unreal spaces,” and heterotopias—“real sites” such as cemeteries, prisons, museums, theaters, libraries, brothels, ships (changeable in their forms, but more or less cohesive in their respective functions)—lies the mirror, a space of absence and presence, both utopic and heterotopic.
13 It seems important here to mention to an interview published in artnet.com between Greek art critic Augustine Zenakos and Rosa Martinez, artistic co-director of the 51st Venice Biennale. In this interview, Augustine Zenakos mentioned an advertising slogan of David Kroff, the president of the Foundation La Biennale di Venezia: “There are people who cannot come to Venice, so we will take Venice to them.” See Augustine Zenakos, “Talking a Little Further,” http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/zenakos/zenakos8-2-05.asp.