On the occasion of Tiffany Chung’s solo exhibition Scratching the Walls of Memories, [November 4 2010 – January 8 2011], Asia Art Archive in America invited the artist to discuss her practice with AAA-A and art colleagues.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Tiffany, we are delighted to have you here with us tonight.
I first became aware of your work during a trip to Vietnam, and wanted to learn more. I was delighted to find out that Tyler Rollins [Tyler Rollins Fine Art] was holding an exhibition of your work [Scratching the Walls of Memories, November 4 2010 – January 8 2011], and made sure I had the opportunity to see it and to bring you here with some friends to hear more about your practice. For those who do not already know, Tiffany was born in Vietnam, educated in California and has resided and exhibited all around Asia. Her practice is now based in Ho Chi Minh City. She is also a co-founder of Sàn Art [www.san-art.org], an independent artist space in Vietnam that we, at Asia Art Archive, feel close to and with which we have collaborated.
Tiffany Chung (TC): Thank you so much for having me here, and for putting this event together. I would like to run through my slides, but to begin, there is some text, a story about my mother and father that has been sitting in the back of my mind for quite some time. It doesn’t need to be explained in full but does provide an idea about my work. I think the images will help explain things too.
As most of you know, in 1954, Ben Hai River became the demarcation line that divided Vietnam into the northern and southern zones, along the Seventeenth parallel. In 1971, my father, who at the time was a helicopter pilot, got shot down in Laos, captured, and imprisoned in North Vietnam. In 1973, there was a big POW exchange between the north and south. Usually, those POW swaps would take place on the Ben Hai River. But by 1973, the northern communists had already advanced beyond this river towards south. So another river called Thach Han would mark the ground for this POW swap. And here is a picture of the Thach Han River taken in 1967:
There were two bridges on the river, one built by the French, and a newer one built by Americans. By the time these prisoner exchanges [Operation Homecoming] took place, both bridges had already collapsed. They were bombed. In the end, the North decided not to let South Vietnamese and American prisoners free. It was a one-sided release. Anyway, this river was very shallow, so many prisoners just ran across the river upon being released as you can see in this picture:
At the time this story came to mind, I came across several documentaries on NHK – NHK is a Japanese broadcasting company – one which spoke about the story of Fukuromachi Elementary School around the time the atomic bomb was dropped in Japan in 1945. Right after the A-bomb was dropped in Hiroshima in August 1945, the school acted as a temporary shelter and relief hospital for victims. Almost fifty years later, around 2002, when the school was to be renovated, there were plans to turn part of the school into a peace museum. When they removed all the old chalkboards and layers of paint on classroom walls, they discovered a variety of messages on the black-burned walls, inscribed with chalk by the victims, fifty years prior. The messages were simple, often written in search for family and loved ones.
This documentary triggered something in me and influenced my desire to pull together a body of work that I later exhibited at Tyler Rollins. I started off by thinking a lot about all the different walls that have divided people and nations- physical and intangible walls. I thought about the story of my mother waiting at one side of the Thach Han River, with walls of fog surrounding her small body. About my father who never got released to cross that river and reunite with my mother in 1973. The wall between North and South Vietnam was invisible but nonetheless one of the most painful ones. I then decided to focus on the most traumatic conflicts of the 20th century in hope of shedding light on unspoken stories of people who lost everything to those ridiculous conflicts. For my research, instead of reading history books or textbooks, I conducted my research through community/victim forums, like the message boards at Fukuromachi Elementary School, and continued to think about the victims whose voices were lost. I engaged some of the people who spoke on these community forums. The works in this exhibition bring forth the messages from different groups of people and communities, including Cambodian & Tibetan refugees, Vietnamese boatpeople, Japanese a-bomb victims as well as those who have gone through experiences with the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.
Audience member: Could you please explain the inscriptions on this work? I am curious about the content – what do they say?
TC: They are all quite different. Here is one about a girl who had a baby at fifteen. Some of the notes are poetic while others are abstract and sometimes graphic too.
Audience member: How did you think about the arrangement of these quotes, and their relationships when placed next to one another?
TC: I grouped quotes by geographic location. For example, the Tibetan quotes are clustered around the top, then those of the Berlin Wall…another cluster for Cambodian refugees, and then a section for Japanese A-bomb victims. I arranged things in groups, but they grew organically so people from different ‘groups’ would come together but their context (through grouping) would also be given significance. It takes some time to figure out which quote belongs to which group. The concerns of victims of conflicts were often alike.
Audience member: Are these mostly things that you found on the Internet or were they sent to you by the people who were in these conflicts?
TC: I spent almost two years doing my research on this project and used a lot of maps. At first I was mainly interested in different communities, victims and their experiences – but I would always turn back to the map to regain context. For me, the project was like a surreal re-staging of the Japanese elementary classroom as a means to re-visit history.
Here is the installation of the chalkboards.
Here is another work: a map made with embroidery, grommets and beads.
JD: So this is, in a way, another series about the interrogation of maps, of how maps came about, how they change, and how they are sites of conflict and trauma.
TC: Yes. I’ve been working on this map project and making map works since early 2007. The title of the exhibition [Scratching the Walls of Memory, November 4 2010 – January 8 2011] gives you an idea of what I think maps are about.
Audience member: Do these map works all relate to the river that runs around the Seventeenth parallel?
TC: Oh no, these maps represent different periods and different conflicts.
Audience member: Which ones represent European conflict?
TC: This one relates to Europe and details the Berlin Wall.
And here, the red part represents the Soviet Union border, when it existed.
Audience member: Why did you decide to use this medium for this work?
TC: In some way, embroidery is reminiscent of war. During the time of war, women would sit around patching up the torn clothes of their husbands or sons, waiting to hear news from or of them. It is domestic and resilient; something that everyone can relate to. And for me, it is also meditative.
Audience member: How long did it take you to embroider a work?
TC: I usually work with an embroidery craftswoman. I draw out my maps for her, and after she completes directed foundation stitches, I often go back and make additional hand stitches. I also add the grommets and buttons myself.
Audience member: Are there political statements you are making with the thread colors you use? Why is half of Iceland white, Ireland white, and Spain not so densely embroidered.
TC: Yes, the maps are coded. (Laughter) For example, the buttons signify all NATO nations and then the nations with white and pink grommets are nations that joined NATO a little later. With Iceland – well, I began using white beads because I was thinking about how icy-cold it must be up there, but it is a NATO nation too, so I had to give it a mix.
Audience member: Oh I see. Well, that’s political fantasy, I’ll say. (Laughter) And the same theory goes for Ireland? Because, you know, the Irish would probably be bothered by that. (Laughter).
TC: Some nations are neutral, so they were not given buttons or grommets, like Ireland and Austria. Most of my maps are based on real maps, and I made sure to study them carefully!
This series of Tibetan maps comes in four different shapes, completely different, depending on which side claims what. Here is Tibet as claimed in 1914, and here is a representation of Tibet in 1950…a lot of my work is based on treaties, which are not obvious illustrations but which hopefully get people to go home and learn a little more about the countries around them.
Audience member: Are these works on paper?
TC: They are made with micro-pigment ink and oil on vellum and paper.
Audience member: Why do you use the circles? What do they represent?
TC: The big circles enlarge certain areas that I think are special or important. For example, this circled area holds several monasteries, and I wanted people to know that they were there. It would also have been hard for me to show this on a small-scale.
One of these maps reflects Tibet as claimed by the Chinese Nationalists, in 1914. Basically, these maps are related to the Tripartite Simla Convention that took place on the 3rd July 1914, in which the Chinese delegate refused to sign the agreement and walked out of the conference. There was a big dispute between the parties over a signature; it’s a long story, but in short, the Chinese official statements rejected the right of the Tibetan delegate to sign or ratify the agreement without authority from China: ‘…this is illegal and that Tibet has no right to conclude treaties separately.’ (Indian White Paper, page CR 26; Chinese Red Paper, page 30.)
Here is a map of Los Angeles in 1934.
Sometimes I make comparisons between past and future. Here is an example: this is the map of Dubai in 1973 and here is Dubai in the predicted year of 2020. The map for 2020 doesn’t exist out there in the world, but with my research team in Berlin, I was able to format the city based on anticipated projects and proposals. I then combined them altogether onto one satellite image.
Here is another project that I have been working on this year. It is called ‘the River Project’ organized by Campbelltown Arts Centre in Australia, about river systems in the Asia-Pacific. I worked on the Mekong River and its affect on the locals.
These were made much like the others, with micro-pigment ink and oil on vellum and paper. Each map consists of two layers. One, vellum, and the other, paper. The first two images above show the complete two maps. The 3rd image shows the detail of the drawing on both the vellum and paper layers. Then the 4th shows the detail on the paper layer without the vellum.
Here are some images from the research for my project in the 2011 Singapore Biennale, which opens in March. It engages houseboat communities in the Asia-Pacific. Responding to the reports on extreme flood prediction of 2050 in the lower Mekong basin countries and the media’s excessive coverage on rising sea levels due to global warming, I decided to construct an ‘alternative urbanism’ where ‘floating life’ is a way of life. Being familiar with houseboat communities on the Mekong River in Vietnam, I went on to study the architecture of vernacular housing in other floating villages such as Tonle Sap Lake (Cambodia), Halong Bay (Vietnam), Sanglaburi (Thailand), Srinagar (India), Sausalito (California, USA) and Japanese traditional farmhouses in Gifu and Yamaguchi. I then modified and combined the architectural designs of these existing houseboats, and kept the basic elements of ‘arcology’ in all of the designs. In fact, these vernacular housing communities have already been using some of the ‘arcological principals’ for generations – rainwater harvesting, vertical and floating gardens, no usage of electricity, etc. The final installation is a 1:50 scale model of an imaginative floating town suspended from the ceiling to appear as if it were floating on the water. The town’s architecture is all mixed: exterior charcoal wall of Yamaguchi farmhouse and its gutters & drainpipes added to Tonle Sap houseboat structure; Gassho-zukuri farmhouse built on a raft, complemented with floating gardens of Sanglaburi; Halong fish farm equipped with rainwater storage system under the raft and a vertical garden; a rooftop garden added to Srinagar houseboat.
At first glance, this ‘floating town’ project might seem to be inspired by ‘arcology’ – a design movement that seeks to combine architecture and ecology in responding to global environmental issues, starting in the 1970s with Arcosanti in Arizona by Paolo Soleri. This floating town keeps the basic principles of arcology- using solar panels, a rainwater harvesting system, vertical and rooftop gardens, as well as floating rice paddies. But moving beyond this, my work in fact questions the failed utopias by twisting the key ideas of arcology: rejecting its vertical hyper-structure and instead having the town spread horizontally; keeping the vernacular architectural forms instead of designing futuristic megacities. It examines the utopian ideas of ‘arcology’ by questioning the self-sustainability and effectiveness of hypothetical mega-structures, in which the designs and building materials are mostly alien to local inhabitants. It attempts to focus on building a public space using the traditional floating market setting, in contrast to the failed utopian community model. As a form of comparative global ethnography, this project also reveals how vernacular architecture and arrangement of these floating communities is a fluid form of urban planning; that ‘arcological’ principles have already existed in the ways of life here.
Audience member: It seems like such a departure from what you’ve been doing.
TC: Yes, but I’m very excited about it. I think it is still based on my ongoing research on urban planning, but this time offering a global solution to a local issue. So far too, I think all my work has stayed close to water. For the Singapore Biennale, I’m going to create a floating town of model houseboats. That’s the plan.
I was at the Museum of Modern Art today perusing an architecture exhibition titled ‘Small Scale, Big Change.’ Architecture and sustainable living systems are something I have wanted to engage [in] for a while because it is important to respond to local and social needs.
Audience member: Will these houseboat models be usable spaces and are they going to work?
TC: I hope so. I’m going to try. (Laughter) For me, this isn’t just a project about making a floating community and bringing about change on a local level – it also represents my critique of failed utopias. There have been so many.
Audience member: Can we revisit the first image, of the chalkboards? It seems like so much of your work is research driven, but this piece is more overtly pedagogical than anything else you have made. Could you talk just a little bit about the pedagogical impulse in your work and how you are thinking about it in this piece?
TC: Okay. (Laughter). The surreal classroom setting is, for me, a way to re-visit the past and re-learn history. When I was in school, in Vietnam, the Communists were controlling what we were allowed to learn and what [we were] not. There was so much I missed out on – so much was kept from us, so there is much to re-learn now. The work is not so much about educating people, but an autobiography that I hope people can relate to.
JD: Can we talk a little about Sàn Art? What was the impetus behind setting it up? How do you think it is going?
TC: I think it’s going very well and from the start was well received and welcomed by the local community. The media and press love it. It started off as a very simple organization. We have built a community of artists and Sàn Art has now become a hub artists turn to for resources on contemporary art as art education in Vietnam is generally lacking. The Vietnamese government does very little to support access to foreign literature, so somebody has to do it. Sàn Art has also become a platform for young, emerging artists to showcase their work, and we have also begun seeing an influx of foreign artists coming through to collaborate with some of our local artists as well. The platform is primarily funded by the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts, a foundation started by artist Dinh Q Le, who also helped co-found Sàn Art. Despite the vibrancy of the art scene, Saigon, a city of almost nine million people, only has two professional contemporary art spaces. Saigon has one commercial gallery, and though commercial, it is still difficult to sustain. And then we have Sàn Art, a non-profit educational platform that is supported by a strong volunteer effort.
Audience member: Isn’t there a strong commercial art market in Vietnam?
JD: Yes, the commercial market is active, but it is fairly tourist-driven. The support for experimental, innovative work is lacking, and therefore the work that Sàn Art does is very important to the development of experimental art and new thinking.
Tiffany, thank you so much for your presentation. We look forward to hearing more about your work at the Singapore Biennale.
Disclaimer: All the watermarked images are the exclusive property of their respective owners. Asia Art Archive in America does not hold copyright on them.
Born 1969 in Danang, Vietnam.
MFA in Studio Art, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA.
BFA in Photography, California State University, Long Beach, USA.
An active artist and co-founder of San Art in Vietnam, Tiffany Chung works in a wide variety of media, from sculpture, video, and photography to drawing and installation. Chung has been featured in a wide range of museum exhibitions and biennials in Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US, including the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale (Fukuoka, Japan); the Incheon International Women Artists’ Biennale (Incheon, Korea); Zendai MoMA (Shanghai, China); Centre de Cultura Contemporánia de Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain); and Campbelltown Art Centre (Sydney, Australia). She participated in the Singapore Biennial in 2011.
Transcribed by Jin Calello and revised by Ali Van