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Patricia Nguyễn discusses moving through memory in performance art

Patricia Nguyễn performs “Passage” at the Media Art Gallery.

By Maddie Browning

Patricia Nguyễn is an artist, scholar, and educator with work surrounding the aftermath of the Vietnam War and memory, loss, and healing. She utilizes performance art to understand how the feeling of water and land on her body reflect the emotions and experiences of Vietnamese refugees. 

Her work is a part of Emerson Contemporary’s “One Day We’ll Go Home” exhibition running through December 16.

Emerson Contemporary connected with Nguyễn via Zoom to discuss her journey developing performance art, her conversations with refugees and their families, and what she hopes people learn from her art. 

EC: When did you start developing performance art?

Nguyễn: I was trained in devised theater throughout elementary school, and then in high school, I did performance poetry and spoken word. It wasn’t until I went to Vietnam in 2010, and I encountered state surveillance and censorship [that] it transformed my work in performance poetry and theater into performance art to think about the power of how the body can help tell the story and what the body remembers. 

EC: What artists are you inspired by?

Nguyễn: [Okwui Okpokwasili]. She did this amazing piece called “Bronx Gothic.” A lot of the people that inspired my work are Black feminists and women of color, feminists, artists, poets, theater makers.

The person that trained me is the first woman performance artist in Vietnam, and her name is Ly Hoàng Ly, who I have this lifetime performance with called “Memory vs. Memory.” She really helped me understand what performance art is and what it can do through collaborating with her. “Memory vs. Memory” began because both of our fathers were located on opposing sides of the Vietnam War. We’re their children, their daughters, and we inherit the memories that they’ve had to go through in particular because they’re the same age on opposing sides of the war and were both incarcerated after the end of the war – her father in an old French colonial prison, my father in the jungles near the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. So, for us, delving into performance art, delving into the cultural memory of specific objects like water or soil or metal, conjures these memories that are linked to our own fathers’ histories of revolution and war and incarceration. 

EC: You say in your artist statement that land and water are crucial to your process. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about that. 

Nguyễn: So the word for homeland, country, and nation in Vietnamese is “Đất nước,” which respectively means land and water, but in the diaspora land drops off, so the shorthand for saying homeland or country is “nước” or just water. So a lot of my work delves into the materiality of water itself, like, how does water soak into my body? How do I understand the porousness of my own skin? And how do we tap into both the internal waters that we already have and the external waters that I play with in performance when I drown myself in water, soak my myself with drenched fabric. How does that evoke the memory both within and external to me about whatever question I’m meditating on in relationship to the aftermath of the Vietnam War?

A lot of Vietnamese were forced to migrate by boat and over water, so a lot of them are known as boat refugees. I think about the materiality of water not just as a landscape of where forced migration happens, but as this place of life and death. I’ve interviewed so many different Vietnamese refugees, and all of them have said, “I was so thirsty on that boat, and there was water all around me and I couldn’t drink any of it.” The ocean is made up of saltwater, and saltwater could help you if you have a sore throat – you can gargle it – but if the ratio of saltwater is too much, it becomes toxic. So what is this line between what is healing and what is toxic? So really thinking about water, not only as a metaphor, but literally what does it do to the body?

And then land, so my father was incarcerated on former US military bases that had landmines in them. So land was literally weaponized against the Vietnamese people, both by the US government, and also in the aftermath of war as people who were drafted in the south of Vietnam that were aligned with the US also were incarcerated on these very lands. The precarity of life and death is contingent on if the bomb will explode.

EC: Going back to you talking about how you have interviewed a lot of refugees, how do you approach people that are hurting and tell their stories?

Nguyễn: So for refugees, they have to prove what they’ve been through to even gain refugee status. So the process of conducting oral histories is hopefully more of a reparative act, where it’s not just like, “Let me extract your story to see if you qualify for this paperwork or the status for particular rights and privileges.” It’s like, “Let me actually listen and ask you your story.” The way that I conduct oral histories, it’s based off of a relationship that I’ve already had with people, so either I’ve known them for quite some time, so they can trust me with their stories, or I’m introduced to them by someone who they already trust and that person is either in the room with me or has done a lot of the prep work to help support that person. So it’s always based in rapport and consent.

It’s really just being as present as possible and doing deep listening and gauging what people are comfortable with and what people are not comfortable with. At the end of the interview, I always check in with them, making sure that they’re okay, asking them if there’s anything else they want to share. And I ask I leave them with a hopeful question like, “What do you hope for yourself or your children or future generations?” or “What do you want to leave us with and what do you want us to learn?” so that it’s not a line of questions that focus on trauma or pain. It’s more of a line of questions and invitations to share and understand these histories with one another. I try to help those that I’m interviewing feel empowered after the interview that their story is important and what they went through was significant and that they’re not alone.

EC: You received a Fulbright Fellowship in 2010 to work in Vietnam and co-founded Cây, “the first life skills and art therapy reintegration program for human trafficking survivors along the border regions of Vietnam,” according to your website. Tell me more about the program and why you created it.

Nguyễn: So originally, I was supposed to go to Vietnam or Cambodia to work with survivors of sex trafficking and human trafficking. But the Vietnamese and Cambodian government shut down the organization that I was going to work with a week before my application was due. Luckily, my friend worked in Vietnam and works with an anti-human trafficking organization and brought me on to it. 

I had a lot of pushback going back to Vietnam from my own family. They were like, “We escaped from there. Why would you go back?” For me, it was really important to see the other side of war and to see those that are still impacted by its aftermath, even if not in the way that we understand how people are directly impacted, but just in terms of the new neoliberal development policies and how that impacts indigenous folks who are also known as ethnic minorities. I wanted to see how development is impacting those who live in poor and rural areas, and who are being heard and neglected by the government and to work on young women’s empowerment through the arts. So I co-founded that program with my friend who was also interested in arts education, and we were interested in exploring how arts can be this tool to support people to express themselves and make sense of the conditions that they’re living in and feel like they can build community around that because art is the first thing that was used for the war in terms of propaganda and gaining public support, but it’s also the thing that is most censored and most surveilled. 

EC: At Emerson, you performed “Passage” on November 14. What story were you telling through that performance?

Nguyễn: There was this beautiful photo that I had seen of a Vietnamese woman with her conical hat, and she was surrounded by all these beautiful green fishing nets, and she just loved her, so that’s what inspired the material that I worked with. I worked with different color tulle that evoked the water itself, and the water at different depths. I played with different colors of tulle to show the different dimensions and layers of water. In thinking about the creation of “Passage,” when you walk through the gallery space, you first walk into Tiffany Chung’s piece, and her piece is really about the forced migration right after the war. And then in the middle, you have Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn’s installation video, “[The] Boat People” where they land on this refugee camp, so it’s from the journey of leaving to the refugee camp, and then my three channel installation is at the far end of the gallery, and it’s really challenging the notion of refugee resettlement. So it’s kind of like if you move through the gallery, that’s the story that I saw, from departure to this liminal space of the refugee camp, to this place of resettlement. 

So in the middle of the gallery space, I wanted to imagine that it was all water, and the tulle evoked that sense of water. So I started the performance in the middle of Tiffany’s installation. And part of what I did was, I sunk into all this tulle that was surrounding me to be with the material, meditate with her piece, and have it be infused into my performance work. And then I carry the tulle into the main gallery space, and part of carrying the tulle is imagining, “What does it mean to literally try to carry water?” And it’s spilling over, it cannot be contained in any way. Then I dive into the tulle, and I’m wrestling in the midst of it, trying to explore my breath, trying to explore tension, trying to explore moments of feeling like I’m swimming or floating or drowning or shifting and just thinking about what the space could be. And meanwhile what’s being projected onto me from the projector above are these incremental numbers that are going up and down in different ways to symbolize the number of growing refugees that are left to die at sea or abandoned by nation states or government.

So that’s being projected on my body as I’m moving under and with and through the tulle and exploring expansion and contraction and breath and thinking about the bodies that were forced to migrate by sea and those that drowned or were thrown overboard or couldn’t make it. What does it mean to dive deep into the ocean where these bodies have landed? So then I struggle to get out of the tulle and go back in because the answer isn’t resettlement. The answer isn’t, “Let me arrive at some place, and it’ll save me. Let me get out of the water.” It was really thinking about, “Let’s return to the water,” and “What can the water teach us, and how can we build other worlds and imaginaries through the water?” And then I worked with Fiona Fiona Ngô who created a really beautiful experimental sound piece that really framed the performance and was a call in response to the piece.

EC: Your Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow for New Americans bio states that growing up your parents told you stories about their experience escaping Vietnam during the war as boat refugees to Malaysia and Indonesia and resettling in the United States in the ‘80s. How do those stories inform your work?

Nguyễn: They deeply inform my work in that they are the ones that I’m theorizing with. They helped me understand the political stakes of war in how they’ve survived and how they don’t want that to happen to anyone else in any capacity. So I draw on their stories to create my performance gestures, and I draw on their stories and their legacies to think about, “What is the purpose of this work?” and really thinking about how it’s to connect with audiences to share these histories and these stories. That’s how they want their stories to be passed on.

EC: What do you hope people learn from experience in your art?

Nguyễn: I hope it offers a space for people to grieve and to mourn, especially as we’re witnessing different levels of violence all the time. I want people to understand that war and the process of nation building always results in forced migration, always results in the predetermination of who gets to live and who gets to die or who has to die for someone else to live. I want people to learn the human stakes of what it means to delve into these histories, not only just as something that’s happened in the past, but as a lens to think about the future, as a way to think about how we can build a better world by not forgetting and erasing the violences and the ugly histories and the heartbreaks of the past. How do we acknowledge them and also transform them so that we can build a better world, a better future for all of us and other generations to come?

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.