Memoirs of a Superfan Vol 11.7
Inside the Fantastical Mind of Việt Lê
Việt Lê’s work is intricate, imaginative, and unlike anything you’ve seen. He reimagines history via music video and costume, creating an experience that is evocative and haunting, yet also “uncanny” as he says, subliminal, and possibly obscure. His latest video ECLIPSE (ruby) plays again at THE OUTER LIMITS – SHORTS program at the New Parkway this weekend. You won’t want to miss this collection, from the psychedelic MOLTEN TEA by Laura Hyunjee Kim to spoken word AT&T Student Filmmaker Award winning DO NOT THINK FOR A MOMENT by Adria Siu and Vivian Wang. Việt was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.
So, Việt – who are you and what do you do?
When I was little, school kids would tease, “So,Việt, are you Russian?” Get it? Soviet! It’s ironic given the historical communist connections between the Soviet Union and Viet Nam (but I’m not sure if my then-fellow second graders were so tuned in). I’m a queer Vietnamese American artist, writer, academic, and cultural activist.
ECLIPSE (ruby) is part of a trilogy. Could you describe what this project is all about?
The project is a time-traveling, trans love triangle. And it’s trilingual (Vietnamese, Khmer, English). The “love bang!” trilogy comes from some of my curatorial work and also my academic work, trying to figure out what is the gap between historical trauma and pop culture, particularly pan-Asian popular culture. It seems like many people don’t talk about past wars but there is such an obsession with pop music—what is the relationship between the traumas of history and modernity, between war and pop (and agit-prop)?
“eclipse” specifically is about spiritual crisis. I filmed it last year in Hanoi on the fortieth anniversary of the military engagements in Southeast Asia, thinking about still-present pasts, the ghosts of history and modernity.
I focused on these lyrics (link here), which is translated at the end of the video:
Anh đừng xa nữa
Em bỏ tất cả
Em quên tất cả
Quên cả tên mình
Quên cả tuổi mình
Quên cả lối đi
I roughly translate it as: “Don’t be distant/ I give up everything/ I forget everything/ Forget my name/ Forget my age/ Forget the path.”
The lyrics and the video can be read as being about longing and loss (perhaps a sexual or emotional crisis)—losing a loved one or a country (as I did as a refugee) and desperately wanting it back, with no recourse. On the other hand, it can be about spiritual crisis –wanting to give up everything as a path towards enlightenment, towards ego-lessness (“I forget my name…”) but losing one’s way…. (“I forget the path”). This longing and loss –of the sexualized object of desire, of the spiritual object of “attainment” is indicative of our current moment, wanting to make “America great again” as political rhetoric goes: we’ve fallen from grace, lost our garden of Eden, there is no way back. Forgetting is both sign and symptom: historical amnesia. Again and again, newspapers headline “the lessons of Vietnam” for the Middle East… What is the real threat, terror to the capitalist logic of loss and gains? How do we regain our (spiritual, ethical) bearings?
There’s so much intricate planning and attention to detail in your work. What was the process for Eclipse?
I collaborated with many fantastic artists in Hanoi, including Jamie Maxtone-Graham, my director of photography, as well as conceptual artists Nguyen Phuong Linh, Tuan Mami, Nguyen Quoc Thanh. The dancer is Duy Thanh and you may recognize Phong (the trans M to F protagonist) from the film “Finding Phong.” Jamie introduced me to the ghostly guesthouse. I imagined my collaborators as ghosts or spirits in this haunted space. I asked them to perform a gesture which they thought was fitting. I wanted to have doubles, or twins, to evoke Freud’s idea of the uncanny.
Tell me about your interest in blending music, performance/dance and costume. Why this genre?
I have always been interested in music, choreography, fashion, performance art and architecture and this medium lets me combine all these formats. I was particularly interested in the music video genre because of its accessibility. It started off with my interest in the rise of K-Pop and pan-Asian pop culture—thinking through the links between consumer and national desires. I work primarily in experimental video (or “sexperimental” video). I queer – and query – (bad pun) the line between high and “low” cultural forms, want to engage with multiple audiences, ranging from film festivals, online platforms such as YouTube (“love bang!” is on YouTube) or in galleries or museums.
No wonder I like your work! Anyone who reads my blog sees high (hopefully) and low (definitely) and a lot of puns! What meanings are you working through in this project? How might a viewer read these meanings? I ask because so much of this is either subliminal or unsaid. I believe your last video used people from different SE Asian countries—but we wouldn’t necessarily know that. Also, the costumes are interesting—the mouth cage was perhaps reminiscent of the facemasks you see most moped riders wearing in Vietnam, and also something from BDSM.
Yes, I love the subliminal and the libidinal! The narratives are disjunctured and abstracted but do point at larger geo-political issues. I wanted to use the format of pop music videos to deal with difficult subject matter such as war, displacement, and refugees then and now because I believe beauty and humor are strategies. I didn’t want to replicate overdetermined and hyper-visible images of traumatized subjects.
The first video of the trilogy, “love bang!” was filmed in Phnom Penh and is an imaginary love triangle between a Vietnamese nightclub owner and Khmer songstress and her time-traveling lover. “eclipse” was filmed in Hanoi, and the last of the trilogy “heARTbreak!” was filmed in Bangkok in a fantastical, surreal boy bar-cum-refugee camp (connecting refugees then and now—Southeast Asian refugees and Syrian refugees). These are all currently presented as a large video installation for my solo show at the Kellogg University Art Gallery at Cal Poly Pomona.
As for the trippy costumes, I am my own stylist. I work with designers, but often cobble the costumes together myself. The mouth cage you refer to was from a Forever 21 in Bangkok—it was a bracelet which I restyled into this contraption. Yes, it references the motorbike face masks in Sai Gon, and also BDSM (Lee’s Manwhiches?). They also reference more historical “masks” or devices, ranging from medieval “scold’s bridal” in which female “gossips” had their tongues held in place by a metal contraption to enforce silence, to force-feeding devices (speculum oris) used during the African slave trade. It is about control and silencing, about overt and mundane violences, macro- and micro- aggressions, biopolitics and biopower (to echo Foucault).
What’s the next piece you’re working on? Where do you see your work going?
I’m actually working on another trilogy—instead of five minutes each, this trilogy consists of roughly 30-minute segments. The first trilogy took five years from start to finish, but I hope the following trilogy will be completed sooner. It’s still “sexperimental”—a cross between documentary and musical formats—in essence they are still experimental music videos, but I am interested in breaking down the boundaries between ethnography and ethnomusicology. To be short and cryptic (like me), it’s about spirituality and refugees in Europe and Southeast Asia. Hopefully it will also have a cameo by everyone’s favorite Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk living in France, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thanks! I look forward to seeing those! (And BTW, last I heard, Venerable Hanh is recovering from a stroke at UCSF – so maybe you can see him here!)
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Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger, now available for free download. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.