Tuesday 17 August 2010

Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage - proposal

Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage
Installation/performance inspires from Vietnamese feminist literature.

Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage.
You are not allowed to speak your own voice.

In the recent months, as a female visual artist who loves writing, I have witnessed and been deeply affected by the rapid and massive changes in Vietnamese female writers’ novels and poems. From the past, the subjects of sensibility and humanity were so admirable and had touched so many people. Nowadays it is rather on self opinions from the individual, somehow coarser and superficial, more discourteous under the name of new liberation.

Graduated from a British Institution (Master of Fine Art 2007, UCA, Canterbury, Kent), I studied Feminist writing and am eager to understand more on this subject, specifically on the influence of Vietnamese female artists. The project “Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage” which I am proposing is an installation/performance of sounds, images, texts from Vietnamese feminist writings, especially from these typical writers Ho Xuan Huong, Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, etc. I have started to gain my interest on their works recently and somehow got them involved to my previous projects. This project obviously will be an active environment for the viewers come and discover themselves in the love for words and sounds.

“Only poetry endures,” wrote Vietnamese poetess Ho Xuan Huong. She is the first known Vietnamese feminist in 18th century. Like any great artist, she understood both the limitations of life and the limitless possibilities of art. Vietnamese society during Ho Xuan Huong’s lifetime – she lived from approximately 1775-1840 – offered no opportunities for a woman to possess political power, to express herself artistically, or to even obtain an education. Limited by both law and cultural norms to a status little more than slavery; Vietnamese women were in the possessions of their husbands. They were figuratively and almost literally voiceless, rarely even able to leave the family home.

Ho Xuan Huong was born in Thang Long, now Ha Noi, about 1775. Although she never attended school, she became renowned in literary circles for her mastery of poetry. Her work was powerful, witty and deeply emotional. She died about 1840; no one knows where she was buried or what she looked like. There have no portrait, no birth or death certificates, no contemporary biography. All we have are her poems. Before her death, Ho Xuan Huong collected about one hundred poems in a single manuscript that was misplaced for over half a century. It was rediscovered in an attic in Ha Noi in the late 1890s. As a literary craze, inspired by the colonial French, was then sweeping Viet Nam, her work was brought to light. Ever since then, she has inspired, amazed, and charmed Vietnamese and foreigners, and has become a symbol of Vietnamese literature and womanhood. She wrote about nature, Vietnamese culture, love and Buddhism with a style and tone that is unmatched to this day. It makes us ponder our own lives, and where Viet Nam, and the world, and women, are today, two hundred years after she wrote.

Being a Second Wife
Written by Ho Xuan Huong, translated by Eric Schafer and Tran Huynh Trieu An)

One sleeps under cotton blankets while the other freezes
Curse the fate of sharing a husband
I get it every now and then
Once or twice a month, it’s like nothing

You take a punch in the face for the sticky rice
but the rice turns out sour
You toil like a laborer but without wages

Had I known it would be like this
I would have lived alone

Arguably, Ho Xuan Huong was the first known Vietnamese person to write about what we now call “Women’s Liberation” and it’s all there in Being a Second Wife, Teasing the Herbalist’s Widow and Broken Drum. There is also the playful Xuan Huong in Bulging Snail, Small Coin, Paper Fan (II) and Day Sleeping Girl, the introspective Xuan Huong in Lonely Boat, Questions of the Moon, Floating Cake, On a Portrait of Two Beauties, and A Well; the earnest romantic in Offering Betel, the prankster of the Teasing Chieu Ho “call and response” series.

In each we see Xuan Huong’s depth of feeling, breadth of observation and stunning facility with words, words that even two hundred years later, translated from old Vietnamese to contemporary English, written by a woman who never witnessed a society outside her own, one that existed before the telephone, camera or computer, still move us. And they are brought to us, fresh as the day they were written, in a new perspective, by an artist who has already made her own contribution to a new view and understanding of Vietnamese culture.

If Ho Xuan Huong was the 1st known Vietnamese woman who dared to speak her own voice in 18th century, Vi Thuy Linh - born in Hanoi on April 1980 - is known as the first and youngest Vietnamese poetess who brought a new trend for Vietnamese literature theme “Sex and sexuality” in 21th century. In 2002, Vietnamese singer Ha Tran and musician Ngoc Dai held Solar Eclipse live show throughout Vietnam to introduce the same album. The live show was designed with all songs written by Ngoc Dai and lyrics from poems of Vietnamese feminist poetess Vi Thuy Linh.

Solar Eclipse faced a burden of troubles with its commencement. In December 2001, it was hindered by the Performance Administration because the lyrics from Vi Thuy Linh’s poems were so "sensual" that they may "cause bad effects to the culture and ethics of Vietnamese music" (said Mr. Le Nam – Director of the Administration). Therefore, the album was delayed in order to remove and amend its lyrics. After settling the above matters, the show took place in April 2002, and then Solar Eclipse album was also published in May. The album includes 7 songs: Shadow of doubt, Don't sing the nomad’s love song, Other side of sunset, Weaving Tam Gai, Regret, Illusion, Solar eclipse. Two songs Dreaming and Introspection were removed; The tree of sister was changed under new name of Illusion. Solar Eclipse was a conceptual album, with a completed story told by a girl in love with her desperation, doubt, regret and obsession. Right after its release, Solar Eclipse made a shock to Vietnam’s music with its strange and new trend, including lyrics, melody, performance art and arrangement. Vi Thuy Linh had her name on the lyrics, and turned out to be the most famous Vietnamese poetess since that day. Showing no fear of public censure, Vi Thuy Linh's work displays the optimistic and adventurous attitudes of her generation. The anthology Black Dog, Black Night: Vietnamese Contemporary Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2008) had her works on it.

The tree of sister
(Written by Vi Thuy Linh – Translated by Tran Huynh Trieu An)

As the woman waited
Stretch out her arms
flounder with calls

Extremely red leaves
Plants grow in front of my house - a nunnery
Tree – of – Sister

Winter is rushing
Just listen the wind is hoarse with fright
Just listen through the night .. Sound of free empty pond…

Throughout season
The horn round about
No footsteps of true love, stop by the cloister
Tree - of - Sister endeavors last breath to paint the winter red
stays still

Leaves pluck out, fly like fatigue eyes
Poor dry bare tree
Save a wild laugh


Then spring comes
Sound still familiar
The horn sounds cracked, no one knows
Suddenly the dress on her body, flying violently
Green sprouts blink,
Tree - of – Sister stretch her body makes gray, white, black leaves
Simultaneously lash through the nunnery’s roof

Oh ... the birds!

Different from Ho Xuan Huong and Vi Thuy Linh, Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc is known as a Vietnamese successful writer/performer/director such as her contribution to the Women Playwrights International Organization. In April 2008 Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, New York presented the first professional theatrical production from Vietnam The Missing Woman, written and directed by Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, performed in Vietnamese and English. It enabled diverse audiences to explore themes of social justice and human rights through the lens of traditional Vietnamese art forms. In The Missing Woman, an artist's renderings of historical Vietnamese heroines materialize after the painter's wife leaves him for a better life. Through narrative; music and dance the painter journeys through legendary fables discovering the endurance and contributions Vietnamese women have made for their lovers and their country.

Vietnamese women are struggling between duty and desire. Somehow the DESIRE clashes the DUTY. The women’s movement, sexual relations and family arrangement in the countries consideration explores young Vietnamese female’s image of feminists and what they feel about themselves. This also explores their attitudes to controversial gender issues such as role reversal, sharing housework, abortion rights, homosexual relationships, nudity and pornography. Born in Vietnam, living in the USA as a playwright, Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc has been writing plays, novels and poems inspired by gender relations, the status of women,and the political programs of the women’s movement in different countries, especially on the stage and film industry where she saw things through a performer’s eyes. These writings claim that the rest of the world’s women (Vietnamese women for example) are reviving and treading the path to enlightenment and development that was forged by women in the West. Whilst there are striking parallels between countries and even across the whole sample, those similarities do not fall neatly into a simple dichotomy of the ‘west versus the rest’.

In October 2008, my performance was shown in Hanoi, participated in the Talent Prize Performance Art 2008 from the Embassy of Denmark. Reflection – Image was a dance with plate glass mirrors inspired from words of novelist Doan Minh Phuong and poem of writer/performer Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc. This piece talked about an exchange and psychological struggle inside one individual, a woman. The interaction between the reflection (in mirror) and image (in real) is the variation between the real and the virtual.

Reflection - Image
(Written by Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc - Translated by Nguyen Ngoc Minh Chau)

Tears are not from my eyes
Down your own face, they’re rolling
The truth is not that ugly
Please don’t hide
How can you cover the sun with such small hands?
Don’t lock yourself within the darkness of fear
Your solitude will crush me inside


How could you destroy the body in which I still live?
Don’t you blow out the only flicker of flame in my soul?
Because then, the last ray of hope in you will vanish
Don’t walk away from me
Because I’m the mirror reflecting you
Please pretend there is no difference between us
Please pretend that you simply can’t leave me.

I dare you to break it…

Poetry is meant to be read aloud, and I believe that its real mission — to inspire thought and feeling—can be conveyed in many ways. Thus with “Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage” you have a thorough experience from the poems of “Women’s Liberation” Vietnamese writers, but you also create your own experience within your realm. The installation space will be an active environment, not a museum. You are there not just to listen and watch, but to contemplate, create and share your own feelings and images that are evoked by them.

In my project “Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage” I will produce sound versions of selected poems from Vietnamese writers; mainly from Ho Xuan Huong because of her influence to the contemporary Vietnamese women and few typical pieces from Vi Thuy Linh and Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc. It will be a large installation created by a cage with ivory painted walls. Texts will be written on the walls. Birds will be hung from the ceilings. Sounds will be listened inside the cage. Performer will sing her own song. Viewers will be encouraged to stand inside the cage to experience the sounds and images, and also to write, draw, and create their own songs.

“Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage” raises its voice for the controversial gender issue as devotion. Being a wife, you were asked to devote for family: parents, husband, and children. Being an independent woman, you were asked to devote for life: society, occupation, status. You are asked to be a person who people look on you, not the one who you want to be. Your freedom is in an ivory cage, not on the brightest highest sky.

Autumn verse
(Written by Unknown – translated by Tran Huynh Trieu An)

Please, don’t touch me as if you were drunk.
For years I’ve been accustomed to the coffee’s aroma and its mystic color of the night.
I’ve hidden myself closely
Like a snail sleeping soundly in its own shell.

Please, don’t wake me up, my dear!
Don’t arouse in me desires of boundlessness.
I must forget, I’m dying to forget, I wanted to
Just one cobweb you make, and there I’m trapped gullibly.
Oh credulity is but a woman’s holy Achilles’ heel
Please, don’t let me melt away, honey!
Like an ice cube in a bitter coffee cup,
Like a candle burning out in a sleepless night.
And night is immensity, night is coldness

Where can I hide when I run away from myself?
When my heart has lost its peace

You burn me away, burst me into flame
Body turns to ashes, the soul’s sorrow remains.

Please, my dear, for love’s sake
Don’t keep walking the old trail
I do not want another superficial act
Another time of foolish devotion

My dear, do me a favor, will you?
Let the snail sleep in silence
Within the dampness beneath the earth
As forgotten days pass her by…

“Fish in tank, Bird in cage” is a common Vietnamese phrase. An ivory cage has everything you want, pampers all your need and you feel safe. But you are not free. It’s because you are eating and drinking what people bring to you. You are living under a roof that people want you to stay. You are paralyzing your mind to accept what you are doing is right and want people appreciate your devotion. But you do not know that you have not seen the bright blue sky, the fresh water, flowers and tree, the Mother Nature, the true love yet. Thus you were hiding from your own forged happiness, one day surely will come to regret the decision you had made.

“Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage” takes approximately 50 square meters of space, 3 months to produce after the idea is approved. The main technique which I am concerning now is a proximity sensor which can switch on an audio play back when a person comes within 1 meter from the bird. The idea of the bird singing its song is inspired on Teddy Bear “I love you” toy when you squeeze the bear to make it plays the audio. The proximity sensor will be installed inside the bird. In “Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage”, the viewers will come into the cage. When within 1 meter from the bird, they will hear the song from it. The limitation of viewers would be 5 – 10 persons/ each time. Performer will present a dance/mute play within 10 minutes. As she moves around the cage, her movement will switch on the audio play back from each bird and create her own melody and rhythm.

Vietnamese artists nowadays face hardly with the society knowledge about the new art and struggle from time to time with the censorship. On the other hands, the Contemporary Art Scene (CAS) in Vietnam is falling to a disconsolate state. The golden time of highest contemporary art activities has passed away. As an art activist, I wish there were more approach, attention or from other culture activists in order to create a settled orbit for the Contemporary Art Scene (CAS) in Vietnam. As an individual artist, I believe the Vietnamese need projects like this that can broaden our horizons and vision on our art and society.

Presenting poems from Vietnamese feminists: Ho Xuan Huong, Vi Thuy Linh and Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc… to the new Contemporary art form would be a combination between East and West. It makes Vietnamese audiences accept and understand the new art easier. Many people first came to my exhibitions because of the curiosity. They learn about it after all and feel certain interest in it. The change in awareness comes slowly but can leave an imprint in one’s mind. I do hope I will be able to exhibit this project in my birthplace, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam as a gesture of gratitude to everyone who has been on my side and supporting me through thick and thin.

(*Series paintings: “Birds sing their songs in the ivory cage” - USA 2010)

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