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Travels with an Artist

Vietnamese artist Danh Vo and Thai photographer Pratchaya Phinthong journey to Vietnam’s Central Highlands

Leaving the coastline far behind, Highway 14 crawls northwestwards out of the boom-town megalopolis of Vietnam’s capital, Ho Chi Minh City. I’m perched in a hired silver Toyota van, an air-conditioned cocoon symptomatic of the affluence of what has been termed the country’s economic ‘new era’. Nonetheless, I’m reminded of the fragility of cocoons as the near-miss traffic around us obeys the basic rule of toot-first-look-later, to the tune of our silent driver’s achingly sentimental Vietnamese synthetic pop. I realize that I’ve come halfway around the globe and don’t really have any idea what my host, Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, has in store for me or our travelling companion, Thai artist and photographer Pratchaya Phinthong. All I know is that our trip to Vietnam’s Central Highlands will have something to do with his research regarding various projects, which may or may not somehow become art, and that a number of them relate to his interaction with the endangered indigenous people and with Christian missionaries. But we also have 19th-century, coral-covered pirate swords and the funeral urn of an infant who never actually existed in our luggage. Danh wants me to be unprepared, perhaps so my culture shock really takes effect. He wants me to feel out of place. And I do.

Out in the countryside, nearly all of the coveted roadside real estate is lined with box-shaped concrete houses painted bright pastels. Many of them belong to families from the north who resettled in successive waves during the aftermath of horrendous and protracted warfare: initially following the division of the country after the 1954 Geneva Accords ended the war between the colonial French Union forces and the Vietminh, and again after reunification in 1975 following the Vietnam War. It seems as though every other open-fronted dwelling also moonlights as a shop, selling anything from tyres wrapped in silver foil through plastic paraphernalia to beer and cigarettes. At dusk, their interiors, lit by televisions and fluorescent strip lighting, glow against the deeply repetitive landscape. This is not the Vietnam depicted in dewy neo-colonial films such as Indochine (1992) or The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993). Instead it would be perfect for an Asian Spaghetti Western, or a local drama set in the near future on this new frontier of globalization.

In the hills, coffee and rubber trees are the new settlers’ flagpoles, although the colours they fly have changed with the political climate. The Robusta coffee variety dominates, because it is comparatively easy to tend and fast-growing. It has a strong caffeine kick but little aroma, making it ideal for instant coffee. By the late 1990s, Vietnamese farmers had become one of the world’s biggest suppliers of coffee, and the flood of their crops onto the market caused a devastating crash in its value. This disaster, which carried global repercussions, led some desperately impoverished growers to pull out their precious trees and plant maize instead. But although it is now farmed, this land was once a thick forest. A forester told Danh that, although the area had been subject to logging, bombing and the ravages of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange, with which it was drenched during the Vietnam War, it was the land-hungry new settlers who were primarily responsible for the deforestation. It was also suggested to us that the European craze for Scandinavian furniture partly made from illegally traded tropical wood also took its toll.

There are now more than two million mostly poor but aspirant new Kinh settlers in the Central Highlands. (The Kinh are a principally coastal and river-delta people, who constitute the majority of what we now consider the Vietnamese populace). For centuries, they had left the daunting, mist- and rainforest-covered mountains to the indigenous tribes known by the colonial French as the ‘Montagnard’ (hill people). These forest-dependent, subsistence-farming, self-sustaining communities were kept company only by their ancestral spirits, and a host of gods: the god of fierceness, for instance, and the god of the tree. Some kept elephants – now gone along with the forests that fed them. It wasn’t the Montagnard who could be seen queuing on the roofs of embassies towards the end of the Vietnam War awaiting helicopter evacuation, even though some had been first allied and then later bombed and poisoned by the American-led forces. Considered as ethnic inferiors, they also had little to expect from the victorious North Vietnamese, since some of them had been their former enemies. Whatever the outcome of the war, they were destined to be the ‘losers’. Outnumbered and surrounded on all sides, the indigenous hill people are slowly losing their way of life. Land is the currency on which the house of economy builds its foundations, and although land law reforms in 1993 meant some indigenous individuals and families regained rights over their or their communities’ traditional lands, those without the means to capitalize on those lands effectively often find themselves selling up to the Kinh settlers.

The regional capital of one province of the Central Highlands, Buon Ma Thout, is loud, alive and well. Here, you can have your face massaged and your hair dyed by ladies with long fingernails. We stay in the brand new business-class Hotel Eden. Its name is a poignant echo of the town’s origins as the thriving village of the Ede, a matrilineal people whose numbers have dwindled to around 25,000, and the vestiges of which can be found on the outskirts of town. There is one street in Boun Ma Thout that cuts through a group of rotting, truncated longhouses constructed from massive, interlocking logs. Black pigs that know the road rules amble around and, in the gutter, illegal street gamblers dusted by passing motor scooters spend all day yelling at each other. At the far end of the street, past the trunk of a long-dead coconut palm, whose stability is threatened by the slightest breeze, is a narrow path. It’s only about as wide as a pair of thin local hips, and abruptly plunges down a slope under thick green foliage. Ten extraordinarily hospitable members of an extended multi-ethnic family, which Danh has befriended, show us the way. Loose steps have been dug into the red volcanic soil, although they are used far too often to last very long. We are told to stay on the path, as every open patch of ground to either side of it is filled with young green shoots in irregular rows that have been sown to be eaten, not trodden on by clumsy feet. Strolling down in single file, we hold out helping hands to each other and laugh when someone’s flip-flops slip in the mud.

Now and then the daughters of the family unthinkingly pull leaves from bushes. One of them has a black-American soldier father unknown to her. Her uncle-in-law, whose ears stick out prominently, was fathered by a white-American soldier: a long-kept family secret. His now 75-year-old Ede mother buried his GI father’s photograph in the forest, only unearthing it after the danger that her son might take advantage of a programme offering US citizenship to ‘Amerasians’ had passed. The family thinks I look like him, or like Rambo, or maybe both. Perhaps I do, but I’m a ridiculously pink, sun-burnt version. It’s only about 30 years since people like me were the bomb- and chemical-dropping enemy: a fact that I’m conscious of as the locals become increasingly amused by my ‘giant’ size – I must weigh at least 15 stone or more, they think. While my trip is not as controversial as Jane Fonda’s wartime visit to Hanoi, I still feel as though I am seen as something of a mammoth, fantastically rich exit visa. Otherness is a slippery membrane; ultimately, everybody is on the other side. Danh and his parents fled Vietnam on a boat in 1979 and were picked up by a Danish oil tanker. One of the war stories that his mother told him was that when she took the opportunity to see dead Viet Cong fighters displayed after the 1968 Tet Offensive, one of the bloodiest confrontations in what’s known here as ‘the American War’, she was shocked to find that the corpses looked exactly like her.

The path delivers you to the top end of the valley where there is a large freshwater spring, encased in a brick and concrete block with metal spouts. Here, beneath the steady streaming water, women and girls come to wash. Our presence is an interruption, as if we have entered a bathroom without knocking. But it is also here that you get the first hint of the valley’s idyllic meandering and the jolly, reliable stream navigating its base. Our two main guides are tough 31-year-old twin brothers from the Ede family, who would be hard to tell apart if it weren’t for the fact they sport rival brands of fake designer baseball caps. After the Vietnam War, twins of both sexes were considered so precious that the government devised a special programme by which they were guaranteed sufficient food to sustain them. This life-assuring bargain is preserved in their names, An and Toan, which were given to them at birth by the local communist authorities, and which when said together translate literally as ‘sa-fety’. They think it’s funny too. Elsewhere they would be cowboys, here they work for next to nothing watering coffee trees and carrying sacks. (One of their friends has a tattoo that wraps around his bicep – a version of the Statue of Liberty with a passing resemblance to Jesus. It cost him six US dollars.)

Toan tells us of the magic the valley once possessed. He shows us a pond in which the Ede believe that a stray chicken might be transformed into a fish. (Although everywhere there are signs of more insidious and tangible transformation in the form of property development and mounting, non-biodegradable trash.) Nearby I cut my toe and it immediately becomes infected, which they later interpret as a sign that I don’t belong. They patch me up with chewed leaves and a banana-leaf string. (My agnostic German antiseptic also helps.) We eat under an ancient, solitary rainforest tree that can apparently read evil thoughts and trap dreams, and which someone once tried to burn down. We traverse prickly log bridges straddling two rock walls: remnants of the French colonists who once dammed the stream to make electricity for their plantations and labour camps, though not, of course, for the locals. When they went, the valley was eventually partly drained again and the villagers reclaimed their gardens and stripped the infrastructure of all of its saleable iron. But part of the old dam still creates an undertow as it plummets off one of the largest remaining walls. It claims a life every year and is responsible for the turning of good magic into bad. Our guides are definitely not Catholics. One of their wives, a non-Ede Vietnamese, was for a while, but she gave it up.

It was this kind of belief that Bishop (Peter) Tran Thanh Chung, then still a zealous young Catholic priest, faced in the jungle while ministering to the indigenous people in the late 1950s and ’60s. He was the last to ride horseback, ending a century of spiritual track-making by French-founded missions. The persistent, omnipresent Catholic Church has experience in grafting itself onto other, deep-rooted beliefs. The charitable work and education, and the crusade, continues anew today. A volunteer missionary couple from the USA – once high-ranking, highly paid engineers at Boeing with top secret clearance, who have given up everything to live in a seminary in Kontum – tell Danh of their admiration for the indigenous people’s capacity and potential to believe; if only they could be persuaded to believe in the ‘right’ thing. A priest from Kontum thinks he may have found the very saddle used by Bishop Peter, although no one can be certain. Finally, after much ado and a lengthy deal-making process, aided by amiable, beer-drinking, indigenous nuns, god’s saddle descends on loan from the mountains once again, headed this time on a new trip into the contemporary art world as part of an installation in a performance art exhibition Danh is planning. I realize our trip is the performance and that the saddle is only its symbolic subject.

Out here, though, the art world feels like it’s on another planet as Toan jokes that he finds our safari camera harder to operate than catching and skinning a live cobra. (Danh, who has seen him bait one of the deadly snakes with a chicken, which they consumed after it had been killed by the snakebite, assures us he’s speaking from experience.) Eventually we arrive at a cave veiled by a waterfall, which once served as a shelter during aerial bombardments in the 1970s. In the damp semi-dark we are shown rocks bearing markings in memorial of those who died here. The cave was once massive, but sometime back its roof collapsed. Its interior can no longer be penetrated: we face an impasse. Eventually we turn back to the valley, with its path, gardens and troubled beauty. We have been welcome here, but I ask myself how much my presence is symptomatic of a long chain of destructive, if perhaps inevitable, change. And I find myself glad that the cave has sealed itself off and that no words I might write or pictures we could take can ever divulge all of its secrets.

Some of the artefacts, images and documents gathered on our trip are about to find themselves, or have already ended up, in the incongruous context of galleries and international art exhibitions, including the Yokohama Triennale 2008, Manifesta 7 and in a Statements booth at Art Basel. A typical characteristic of Danh’s practice is that he remains open minded about the final form his works and installations will take until the last minute before a show opens. For instance, his 2007 solo exhibition ‘Untitled’, at the Brandenburgischer Kunstverein in Potsdam, featured handmade blankets with wartime helicopters woven into them, casually folded and piled next to a door without further explanation or even being designated as a work. His research-oriented art is not the kind of issue-fed conceptualism that you are meant to ‘get’ or solve even while it raises questions relating to the construction of identity and the legacy of colonialism and war. Rather it exists in the relations and negotiations between people and authorities of all kinds, as well as in the multiple contradictory and revealing projections of his viewing public. The critically deconstructed or fragmented information his work offers always points to the telling fictions in all presumed facts and to that which is unresolved or unknown.

Dominic Eichler is a Berlin-based writer, former contributing editor of frieze and now co-director of Silberkuppe, Berlin.

Issue 116

First published in Issue 116

Jun - Aug 2008
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