Viet Le introduces us to the visual artist Hồng-An Trương and her compelling work–part 1 of 2.
In this two-part blog entry, excerpted from a longer anthology essay, I will briefly introduce Vietnamese American experimental filmmaker and writer Hồng-An Trương’s series of video shorts entitled Adaptation Fever (2006-07)—comprised of four videos. This first post discusses The Past is a Distant Colony (9:00) and A Story in the Process of Self-Alienation (5:00). The second installment details It’s True Because it’s Absurd (3:00) and Explosions in the Sky (Điên Biên Phủ 1954) (3:00).
“As a viewer, I’m constantly looking for my family. For me, the process of going through the archives, there’s always the process of looking for family members and not seeing oneself there.” (Võ)
A forty-something tender-eyed friend tells me about constellations and his family, his parents who died during wartime. I imagine him as a child with the same eyes gazing with his mother and father at the night sky, orbs glowing. Darkness and light. As an exiled adult, he couldn’t bear to look heavenward in the dark, the memory of loss unbearable, a black void. He too is looking for his family, himself; they cannot be seen, found—they are forever lost in the dark. At night he dreams of gaping holes in the undone sky which he tries to suture together with thread—the gaps immense.
Hồng-An Trương’s artwork also suture the gulfs in memory and loss, desire and void. National and personal memory, historical trauma, and colonial desires are undone, stitched together—the gaps immense. In these works, the past is ever-present in archival black and white, darkness and light—French colonialism, the American war: crisp white linen suits, somber Catholic tunics framed by white hands, white artillery sparks in a black sky. The legacy of Enlightenment and Cold War discourse upon “dark-skinned” people remains spectral, stereoscopic: carte postale Paris, camouflage and colons. Dark jungles and wide white boulevards, black robes and white heat. For Trương, the process of locating oneself, dislocating the gaze of colonialism and the Hollywood machine is an ambivalent one, a process of endless deferral.
The Past is a Distant Colony is formally striking in its symmetry—uncanny archival images of French-occupied Việt Nam mirror each other, framed by black borders. Dealing with the formation of colonial subjects and their ambivalent subjectivity, the video features panning shots of benediction, mass, and ecstatic gestures and smiling faces at what seems to be political rallies or celebrations.
The “true” visual center of The Past is a Distant Colony —“a thin demilitarized zone between opposing images” as Việt Nguyễn describes it—is void. Moving images mirror each other on the periphery—East and West, North and South Việt Nam. Desire and void, darkness and light. The legacy of the “scopic regime” of Enlightenment rationality, a singular Cartesian worldview, with its overarching mono-focal vision of civilization’s grand vistas is disrupted, doubly troubled (Jay 1988).
The verbal soundtrack for these disconcerting images are two women speaking intermittently in Vietnamese and in French, with minimal subtitles. The refusal to translate is important.
The female voices reflect a double consciousness—a stereoscopic, stereophonic, perhaps schizophrenic subject. The final sequence spoken in Vietnamese and subtitled in English reads, “We are constantly moving towards/ but never quite reaching/ is some sense of union with the ultimate being,/ a constant revelation./Like looking in the mirror at someone who is me/ who is not me” (italics mine). This doubling, mirroring speaks of how colonial (and religious) subjects are formed as well as the process of disidentification. Postcolonial theorist Franz Fanon has written about how the colonized mirror the actions and agendas of their colonizers. Yet the mimicry is imperfect, the mirror’s reflection refracted, distorted. In the mirror’s gaze, there is misrecognition. . . . the process of looking . . . but never seeing oneself there. 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 colonial imagination?
The dream-like vignettes of A Story in the Process of Self-Alienation opens with low-angle camera shot of a lone mysterious woman sitting on pavement edged by grass and a nondescript institutional edifice, her black hair obscuring her face. Her outstretched hand, rested above her left knee, slowly gestures. One is not certain where she is located in time and space—is she a seventies’ radical? Later a female voiceover details a Vietnamese parable about two twin brothers, a young woman, and ill-fated love (and betel nuts!). Intermittent subtitles translate this oration, interspersed with clips of crowds marching and parading. A Vietnamese tune is sweetly, sadly sung. The singer reveals that it is a song sung by classmates about farewell. Perhaps the mysterious woman is waving goodbye to the past, the present, to herself. Both the story and the song hint at the nightmare of separation.
Perhaps the process of self-alienation is a hallmark of both colonization and capitalism. Racialization is a process of alienation, whether in late empire or in late capital. Racial subjects are marked as other, alienated from themselves, from community. They are alienated from a sense of worth. Self-alienation becomes a by-product, whether in the name of work or the worker, whether under the cultural logic of socialism or capitalism (or any combination thereof—think China or Việt Nam).
Karl Marx has famously written about alienation—workers’ estrangement through labor and capital. Political scientist Robert Tucker notes that the young Marx’s original focus on the inward clash between man and himself shifted to the outward clash between capital and labor: “Self-alienation was projected as a social phenomenon, and Marx’s psychological system turned into his apparently sociological mature one” (175, italics mine). The psychological ravages of self-alienation become multiplied—again, note the video’s crowd shots—institutionalized. From the individual to the institution, from the psychological to the sociological, the course of estrangement is relentless. A Story in the Process of Self-Alienation is a fractured narrative—a love story, a bittersweet swan song—about late empires.
 For an insightful discussion of Hồng-An Trương’s Adaptation Fever, please refer to the online artist interview by Võ Hồng Chương-Đài. Thanks to Võ Hồng Chương-Đài for her generosity and friendship.
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