Phuong Ngo: Post-Apocalypse Now
A+a: Art and Australia, Melbourne
Since 2010, Phuong Ngo has collected over 10,000 objects documenting the “Vietnam War” (as it is commonly known in the West), these range from stamps to slides and postcards to complete photographic albums. For Conflicted: Works From the Vietnam Archive Project at The Substation, the artist fills 11 gallery spaces with the first installment from his project to re-evaluate dominant perceptions of the Vietnam War. Some of the most recurrent mediums Ngo employs to re-configure his archive include HD Video and light boxes, but we also encounter mosquito nets, blankets, and neon—most of which are presented in elegant arrangements or graceful steel structures. Indeed, Ngo’s subdued sensibilities counter some of the most gruesome content in the show, which notably includes images of splattered bodies printed on blankets. However, rather than lightening the density of this dark matter, these gestures appear to thicken it by presenting an uncanny reading of familiar war imagery.
The political layering of the show comes as no surprise to those who have been following Ngo’s practice, as his work is characterized by a continual assessment of war, diaspora and identity. An Australian artist of Vietnamese heritage, Ngo often draws from his personal history to comment on broader historical issues. A memorable precedent is My Dad the People Smuggler (2013) originally exhibited at Counihan Gallery. A video in which the artist recorded his father retelling his role ‘smuggling’ people out of communist Vietnam. Today, this work seems to connect with his current exhibition as a sequel of sorts in what very well could be an out of order ‘apocalypse trilogy’. In effect, while nihilistic white Australians love indulging in a twisted doomsday delusion (Brunswick is so hard, boohoo), artists from non-Western backgrounds are already marked by events that resemble the end of the world: invasion, displacement and colonialism.
Therefore, it is apt that Conflicted: Works From the Vietnam Archive Project begins with an appropriation of Francis Ford Coppola’s famous Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979) titled Apocalypse Now and Then (2013). In this video, Ngo animates a sequence of photographs that show a helicopter carrying supplies over a field of American soldiers in Vietnam, incorporating sound, dialogue and music from the film. The experience of looking at the banal helicopter pictures continuously looping amidst the sound of explosions, war hymns, and Martin Sheen is rather hilarious. However, it is an effect that indicates a gulf between two forms of representation: how the war was documented by the soldiers and the ways in which it was subsequently retold in American culture. As the exhibition progresses, Ngo continually forces us to stare at this gaping hole and reflect on how the West has shaped this narrative to justify or obscure its actions through the creation of images.
A playful encounter between conflicted perspectives takes place in his installation Phuong on the other hand was wonderfully ignorant (2017). The title of this room is reproduced in a neon sign mounted on a wall-sized photographic mural of soldiers enthusiastically ‘staring’ at something that lies beyond the frame. In front of this mural, however, a group of light boxes supported by delicate steel structures reveal what they were actually looking at: Vietnamese women stripping for the American soldiers. In a room upstairs, the artist extends this narrative by presenting us with Untitled (2017), a found photo album of pictures of Western women (presumably the soldier’s wives).
Turning the pages of the album, one can’t help to feel disgusted by the wholesomeness of the photographs. This is because the white women are photographed in quasi-puritan portraits, while the Vietnamese are captured in flamboyantly sexual and exploitative pictures. Contrasting these two modes of representation makes visible a Western delusion that constructs the Other as an inexorably sexual being that provokes Westerners to succumb to sexual desire—a myth employed to justify sexual misdemeanours. Even though some may disdain the sight of these chauvinistic images, they are revealing of the soldiers’ gaze.
Still, The Hunt (2017) is by far the most powerful room in the show. This tenebrous work consists of a light box mounted on a steel structure that depicts the picture of a cheerful soldier posing in front of a blanket made out of tiger’s skin. The figure of the blanket quickly takes a macabre turn as a series of gruesome pictures of Vietnamese corpses printed on blankets hang on a wall adjacent to the light box. That the Americans hunted the Vietnamese like animals is loud and clear, however, the comforting materiality of the thick blankets provoke a far more elusive sense of uneasiness. The sense of warmth usually communicated by these objects suddenly feels cold and ghastly. One may even be reminded of Western kitsch and its images of ‘noble savages’—most of which were grotesquely printed on domestic items (such as plates, ashtrays and cups). Through this lens, Ngo’s ‘photo blankets’ appear to parody the tendency to subjugate the Other by incorporating ‘it’ into household objects.
Conflicted: Works From the Vietnam Archive Project stands out in the midst of a succession of unappealing shows where white Australians (names shall not be named) travelled to conflict zones only to return to Melbourne with a career boosting exhibition and an exotic stamp on their borderless passport. This is timely given the current xenophobic political climate, however, it is a trend better suited to those who have been victims rather than beneficiaries of these histories. Presented within the context of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, Ngo reconstitutes narratives of war and diaspora from the perspective of someone who is actually impacted by these historical effects. A similarly enticing exhibition, and part of the same festival, is Reframe ‘Home’ With Patterns of Displacement by Rushdi Anwar, a Melbourne based artist born in Kurdistan that documents victims of displacement for his current show at No Vacancy. Artists whose surnames sound like they came out of a Harry Potter novel would be better off curating artists like Ngo and Anwar into a group exhibition, instead of wearing us down with their “magical” insights. Or to put it bluntly: please pass the mic, shut up and listen.