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A dialog about Vomit Girl: Mai Nguyen-Long talks to Elly Kent – New Mandala


Artist Mai Nguyen-Long has a conflicted relationship together with her Vietnamese heritage, which she has been participating with via her inventive follow because the mid-Nineties. At that point she spent a yr in Vietnam the place she studied Vietnamese language at Vietnam National University and the Art History of Vietnam and Life Drawing on the esteemed Vietnam University of Fine Arts. Born in Australia, her peripatetic childhood was spent in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, earlier than finishing her BA and Masters in Australia, and extra lately her endeavor a PhD in Creative Arts on the University of Wollongong.

New Mandala caught up with Mai whereas her newest physique of labor Vomit Girl (Berlin Cluster)—drawn from her doctoral practice-based analysis Vomit Girl Beyond Diasporic Trauma: Interconnecting Contemporary Art and Folkloric Practices in Vietnam—was on show on the 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. An additional iteration of Vomit Girl shall be on show in Sydney for the primary time alongside works by the esteemed photographer (and Mai’s mentor) William Yang, at Art Atrium in October, in an exhibition with the umbrella title Diasporic Dialogues.

The artist with Vomit woman on the Berlin Biennale in 2022. Photo by Stuart Horstman, courtesy the artist.

Your earlier works, particularly Pho Dog (2006), Aqua Mutt: an installation with Dag Girl (2007), and The Burning of Godog (2009)—your mongrel canine collection—have handled contested fields of political legitimacy within the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia, usually with traumatic penalties for you. While these earlier works used papier mache, Vomit Girl sees you working with clay and drawing on Vietnamese đình wooden carvings. What prompted the change in materials and medium?

After my 2014 “Beyogmos” solo exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery (WAG) I recognised that my total inventive follow stemmed from this unsure relationship with Vietnam. In specific I sensed an absence. Part of the method concerned reformulating two of these papier-mâché sculptural precursors: 2006 Phở Dog Corderoa mongrel censored in 2008’s Phở Dog Blackout —and a 2014 Vessel from “Beyogmos”.

Vessel is the splayed vivisected mongrel dog that set the visible language for exploring irreconcilable tensions throughout layered and fractured realities; it is usually a metaphor for going beneath the pores and skin.  I constructed Vessel with used garments gifted by my aunties in Vietnam, ripped maps, and damaged mirrors for the histories embedded inside these objects. Similarly, selecting supplies for the biographies they already maintain, Vomit Girl utilises clay’s embodiment of previous and hidden tales carried by the burden of human histories, as a method of transferring past “gated” narratives.

Staying in Bát Tràng ceramics village in 2015 uncovered me Vietnam’s various ceramic histories. In specific, Nguyễn Đình Chiến drew my consideration to the clay ritual vessels made in Thổ Hà with wealthy native iron oxide. This clay’s utilitarian historical past is interwoven with its ritual religious capabilities, similar to containing illness to guard life. In the modern artwork context, ceramic’s status as a lowly materials strengthened my resolve to make use of clay to attract out unofficial tales and histories, and relinking with narratives of the đình.

I first encountered đình woodcarvings almost 30 years in the past within the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. In 1994 I studied and wrote about them within the Vietnamese language I had simply acquired as a part of a self-imposed language studying regime – as I used to be by no means taught Vietnamese at dwelling. The đình woodcarvings that the majority resonate with me emerged throughout the Mạc Dynasty 1527-1592. When I noticed them for the primary time, as untreated woods, they had been climate worn and battle uncared for. But the areas that housed them felt dense with spirits and near nature. The woodcarvings had been a revelation, permitting me to think about my Vietnamese heritage past the battle pictures I had been saturated with.

Photo by Martin Fox, courtesy the artist.

The playfulness of đình woodcarving knowledgeable my clay constructing methodology. Clay and its firing embody intensive histories too, processes of transformation, and older mythologies connecting people to earth. This, and clay’s twin power and vulnerability, furthered its suitability as my decolonising medium to discover prospects for non-exclusive traumas.

The hopeful relationship that I developed with Vietnam in 1994 was challenged after I returned to Australia unwittingly talking Vietnamese with a northern “communist” accent. I responded extraordinarily by “deleting” my experiences in Vietnam. This vitriolic encounter triggered earlier experiences of rejection I had skilled in Australia. I believed that in Hanoi I had forfeited my proper to be Asian Australian. I by no means spoke Vietnamese in Australia once more.

In the đình woodcarvings I discovered playful irreverence and unorthodox expressions of Buddhism that shaped methods to mock and critique authority. In the sixteenth century, they weren’t made by specialist artisans, so the energetic expression is relatively uncooked. After being scapegoated as communist, I forfeited them from my creativeness, as one thing too shameful to be related to.

Following my “Beyogmos” exhibition, I turned decided to return yearly to Vietnam, and after I was supplied a ceramics residency I grabbed it, regardless that it was a medium I used to be not notably fascinated with and had by no means labored with earlier than.

Making these clay Vomit Girl sculptures 23 years later helped me perceive I needed to reconnect with my đình encounters to assist as a gesture of grounding. The totally different clays I experimented with and the types that emerged instructed me to research the complexities of the importance of mộc mạc.

I first encountered the time period mộc mạc in a 1975 Vietnamese language Hanoi publication that includes black and white images of sixteenth to 18th century đình woodcarvings. This was at a time after I might discover no artwork books on Vietnam in Australia.

 Mộc mạc is mostly taken to imply rustic, tough, uncouth, or pure, easy. I consider it as earthy: an aesthetic guided by sensible rules of survival, offering a primordial hyperlink to Vietnam’s indigenous nature spirit consciousness. I related Nguyễn Phan Chánh’s 1931 silking portray Lên Đồng with the of mộc mạc aesthetic; depicting a Mother Goddess mediumship ritual, the portray’s subdued earthy palette was well-liked throughout the 1930s debates on aesthetics in Vietnam. I later discovered the Thirties was additionally a time when the struggles for independence from France noticed an increase in well-liked faith all through Vietnam, thus additional linking mộc mạc and Vomit Girl to resistance.

Considering additionally the chance that đình expressive types are linked to the pre-Chinese domination Đông Sơn tradition, mộc mạc as resistance to suppressive features of Confucian governance elevated my fascination with it. At the identical time, exploring mộc mạc via clay invokes its ties with various experiences of suppression and domination, tempering notions of privileging đình cultural historical past.

Photo by Elly Kent, Courtesy the artist.

Privileging the time period mộc mạc in my analysis gestured to religious performance slightly than European artwork historic views of magnificence, which decolonial theorists Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vazquez explain is inseparable from the colonial matrix of energy. Furthermore, referencing mộc mạc via the “lowly” medium of bare clay subverts debilitating disgrace by celebrating marginality.

Finally, transposing the mộc mạc of northern Vietnamese đình woodcarvings into clay disguises the supply of my inspiration, difficult the notion that đình woodcarvings are “communist” by advantage of their geographic location. I understood features of mộc mạc as resistance to dominance of aesthetic and colonising types of energy—an aversion to superficial “perfection”. These had been the the reason why I wished to embrace mộc mạc not simply as an adjective however as a posh, traditionally located, but marginal cultural idea.

Photo by Elly Kent, courtesy the artist.

Through my Vomit Girl types I took on mộc mạc on as my very own machine of religious resistance, but in addition sought to in some way deconstruct it. My need to construct objects to exchange erased reminiscences, generate new tales, rework harmful energies, and supply talismanic safety might by no means be ephemeral. Through my clay types I contemplated the dance between the aniconic and entrapment throughout the iconic.

My unglazed types don’t replicate đình woodcarvings and they’re typically fully abstracted, different instances figurative. They cross between human/animal and though “woman” by title they aren’t gendered. They are the messy edges of reminiscence and historical past.

The title Vomit Girl is provocative, and hints at a visceral connection between you and the works. Alongside the brilliant orange glaze and multitudinous, typically contorted figures, the physique and it’s struggling appears a powerful theme. Explain the way you join your bodily self with metaphysical realisations via the work?

 My selection to make use of orange glaze was knowledgeable a number of private associations, together with the Agent Orange affected foetuses I noticed within the battle museum in 1978, and by wider observations within the southern province of Sóc Trăng, the place lots of my prolonged household dwell. Bright colors may be noticed in quite a few Khmer pagodas and the garish colors of informal avenue put on. Buddhist monks there put on saffron robes. I additionally affiliate it with the harmful properties of Agent Orange, and a secondary color shaped by mixing the colors of the flags of a divided Vietnam (purple and yellow). After a number of months of testing glazed clear colors, matt, shiny, on mild and darkish surfaces, mixing glazes, and layering colors I remained dissatisfied, torn between the “no colors” of mộc mạc, and the ‘kaleidoscopic colors’ of Sóc Trăng and my Phở Dog sculptures.

On one hand, mộc mạc aesthetics affirm my đình encounters, the bare clay talking on to the expansive histories and narratives suppressed by trauma within the Australian context. On the opposite hand, brightly colored glazes subvert the disgrace of my “kitsch” Sóc Trăng heritage. Ultimately, I included the glazed objects in Vomit Girl to honour my Sóc Trăng lineage and the tensions between concept and follow in my work.

My consciousness of my very own trauma as an outsider, and consequent discombobulation, grew after I encountered Bracha Ettinger’s method of “artworking.” Ettinger explores how artwork generates concepts and the innate qualities that supplies deliver to a follow. I used to be drawn to artworking’s deconstruction of binary ideas, which was related to my exploration of tales past mounted narratives. Through this course of Vomit Girl’s vomit turns into an ambiguous and tongue-like type. She takes on a number of names, the dominant being Vigit, my title for Vomit Girl: Goddess of Infected Tongues for all those that have misplaced their mom tongue.

Vomit Girl was first named after an impulsive pen drawing I made following an intense however undiagnosed bodily sickness in 2014. As she got here to dominate my drawings, I needed to ask uncomfortable questions and excavate the course of occasions resulting in what I now perceived as psychic rupture. I realised the supply of my bodily throwing up was religious sickness, associated to rejecting my Vietnamese heritage in a context of inflexible communist-anti-communist narratives, which limits area for extra complicated tales of “Vietnamese” id.

Orange was the color I selected for my first clay Vomit Girl iteration – from the saffron robes of Buddhist monks in my father’s hometown, a will to beat divisiveness triggered by purple and yellow boundary-marking motifs, and the continued destructiveness of Agent Orange.

Photo by Martin Fox, courtesy the artist.

Girl references matriarchal techniques stated to be dominant in Vietnam previous to the introduction of male-centric Confucianism. In Mother Goddess (Đạo Mẫu) ritual practices, feminine mediums may be possessed by male spirits and male mediums possessed by feminine spirits, like my unfixed psychological areas when working with clay.

Thien Do (Đỗ Mỹ Thiện) draws parallels between the otherness explored within the ritualised dances of the Liễu Hạnh Mother Goddess worshipers with the fluidity of water. The snake accompanying Liễu Hạnh in northern Vietnam mirrors this fluidity. The position of mediumship attracts marginalised and oppressed teams similar to ladies, homosexuals, and non-binary gender identities. The ritual is bodily, slightly than mental or textual.

These folkloric practices current a method for communities and people to create their very own histories, and in my work I mirror the decentralised nature of Mother Goddess expressions and their adaptive inventive engagements with a number of histories and identities. Vomit Girl resists monolithic narratives, her types swinging out and in of certainty. But central to her type is a will to construct – to be a visual cultural artefact to exchange my notion of what has been misplaced. An artefact as a gesture of hope, the hope to usher in numerous tales.

As nicely because the animal and human(woman)-like figures, you’ve additionally constructed quite a lot of bell-shaped objects that seem alongside them. What do these symbolize?

I name this cylindrical type Doba or my đình-bombshell-bell-axis; it’s the structural foundation for all of my Vomit Girl iterations in clay.

In 1994 I encountered a big rusty bombshell in a village within the Red River Delta. It had been repurposed as a đình courtyard bell. Surprised to once more encounter such a bombshell bell in 2015, I adopted the image as a referential for Vomit Girl’s three-dimensional type; it is usually a conceptual pivot to unlock Vomit Girl’s evolution as a dis/join with the đình. I wished to acknowledge the bombshell with out amplifying its energy via replication. Translating the steel type into clay defused its horror. It turned an axis the place I might think about various and layered traumas converging, competing to cancel one another out. The markings I later developed from damaged chopsticks, extracted human enamel, and endangered porcupine quill signified scars of interconnected traumas.

Photo by Martin Fox, courtesy the artist.

During my time in Vietnam, I interviewed modern artists, and was drawn to Đặng Thị Khuê, Phi Phi Oanh, Nguyễn Khắc Quân, and Nguyễn Bảo Toàn’s materials and folkloric investigations. Đặng Thị Khuê shared with me a fascination with how totally different representations of dragons mirrored divergent attitudes to energy and management throughout altering dynasties. I got here to narrate the coil building method to the worm like dragons of the Lý Dynasty (1009-2225), a time the place the flourishing of Buddhism and tolerance for various indigenous cults stimulated the humanities. Đặng Thị Khuê described it as “not horrifying or bullying like a Chinese dragon,” sharply highlighting hundreds of years of aesthetics and id outlined by historic tensions.

Your work in Vomit Girl brings collectively folklore, heritage “crafts” and intergenerational trauma in a course of that paradoxically resists and embraces the previous and your individual id/identities. Do these objects have a perform in the way in which that we perceive artwork objects to have in “conventional” societies or religious practices? Are they cathartic?

Beyond cathartic, I might say they carry with them inventive methods for transformation and steady reassessment of established information techniques. I’m coming at this not as an entire insider nor an entire outsider. I’ve needed to continually query my very own legitimacy within the course of. These practices can supply different imaginings, notably in a context the place they’ve been discredited or changed by different techniques of “restore”.

However, like several system if it controls you and there’s no stepping again to achieve a important notion, then it might equally be a blinding mechanism…all of it depends upon context and nuance. In the context of intergenerational trauma, craft gives me a substitute for hegemonic Art Historical narratives generated by energy buildings supported by worry, divisiveness, violence, and erasure. I don’t suggest an alternate of 1 system for one more, however a posh co-existence with contradiction and hypocrisy.

Photo by Martin Fox, courtesy the artist.

I’m now extra aware about respecting my previous and the encounters which have come to outline me, regardless of if they’re meaningless or nugatory to another person.

Heritage is what one perceives it to be, if internalised racism is so highly effective as to enact a long time of systematic self-erasure, then it’s no surprise religious sickness and confusion outcomes. Sometimes these empty areas are stuffed with simplistic binary narratives as a result of there merely aren’t any systemic buildings to assist complexity.

By studying folkloric practices, my understanding of the convergence of infinite complexities was additional opened. My appreciation for inventive methods of hiding and transformation as technique of religious survival was enhanced. It has helped me contextualise the variety of lineages inside my very own prolonged household, but in addition to start to respect my very own story of being Vietnamese or/and Australian, not as improper however one thing each interconnected and autonomous on the identical time.

Creative methods embedded in heritage—on this case folkloric practices in Vietnam—supplied me alternative ways of pondering, feeling and imagining past binary narratives. My doctoral analysis emerged from an pressing must discover a number of interconnected traumas. Loss is a chance to re/create. This is the area the place Vomit Girl has emerged, past diasporic trauma, interconnecting modern artwork and folkloric follow in Vietnam.

The artist putting in her work at Art Atrium in 2022. Photo by Stuart Horstman, courtesy the artist.

Works from Mai Nguyen-Long’s Vomit Girl collection may be seen at Art Atrium in Sydney from 8-22 October and within the Woollhara Small Sculpture Prize from 13 October to twenty November.

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