Ekphrasis: An Artist’s Studio in Hue

The image was kindly provided by Chris G Nguyen as a prompt for me.

The Artist’s Studio in Hue

Photo copyrighted to Chris G Nguyen

Leaving street dusted shoes
at the door, cool tiles find
the corners of my feet,
he places a pottery beaker
filled with fragrant tea
with deep green notes
in my hand, we smile.

Brushes arranged
with ikebana care
in jars that celebrate
clay unadorned
proportion left to speak,
hand wrought table
bearing gifts, a supplication
to the spirit of place.


Part 3 – Envisioning Vietnam

Conceptualisations of Vietnam in the West are heavily influenced by the visual archive of the American War with Vietnam. The act of remembering Vietnam is now a part of American identity and mythology. Feelings of disgust are prevalent in how the war is remembered. Throughout the 1960s millions of people in America, Australia and Europe were exposed to graphic footage and photographs documenting the war.  These help constitute collective memory and postmemory – shared repertoires of images that shocked and dismayed viewers. Hogopian[i] identifies the specific photographs, which continue to shape collective memories of the American War in Vietnam. Each of these photographs presents an emotionally charged image of Vietnam. Malcolm Browne’s photograph of self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in protest to the anti-Buddhist stance of the Diem government horrified and disgusted the world and raised uncomfortable questions about the role of a photojournalist. It also questioned USA’s support for Diem. The image retains its impact and the uncomfortable questions regarding intervention remain.

Eddie Adams still of General Loan shooting a Viet Cong suspect has gathered resonance over the years. Ron Haeberle’s photograph of the My Lai massacre was used in protest posters. His photo of women and children is heart wrenching in itself but becomes even more so given that Haeberle said that after taking the photograph he turned and walked away. He heard gunfire; he turned back and saw that the women and children had been shot. The image deals with the theme of disgust when trust is violated. Larry Burrows famous photograph of American soldiers resonates with epic Romantic paintings by Delacoix and has influenced cinematographers working within the Hollywood Vietnam war genre.

Perhaps the most haunting still image that continues to gather layers of meaning is that of Kim Phuc after Napalm Strike, Highway 1, Trang Bang, June 8, 1972 photographed by Nick Ut. It is hard to view this image without experiencing disgust for the napalm carpet-bombing strategy and love for the little girl. This image typifies the expanded field within which artifacts and expressions cross borders of time and place. The image inspired a book written by Denise Chong called The Girl in the Picture with Ut’s photograph used as the dominant element in the book jacket design. Street hawkers in downtown Ho Chi Minh City now sell pirated versions of the book to tourists. The photograph evoking complex emotions signifying the American War and its aura is a part of the patina of urban spaces popular with tourists in contemporary Vietnam.

What the Americans term the Vietnam War has also produced a sub-genre in cinema – that of the Vietnam War movie. This sub-genre which includes films such as Rambo, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July is typified by certain types of narratives and character types which sought to counter the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon in 1975: “The loss of confidence in paternal figures, social institutions and commonly held beliefs, coupled as it was with a sense of powerlessness in both the foreign and domestic spheres, all had a costly and even traumatic effect”[ii]. The films are typically ambiguous yet attempted to validate the American role with gritty, individualistic archetypal characters undergoing a necessary and character building rite of passage. They encounter a treacherous enemy that is largely invisible. Ironically the enemy are the inhabitants of the land the USA purports to be defending. American soldiers are caught up in events beyond their control that invite viewer empathy and identification in order to support USA’s ideological position and foreign policy. Invariably they are successful in skirmishes even though they lost the war. The human experience of the Vietnamese military on both sides is largely omitted from representation within this sub-genre. Perhaps it is a way of dealing with disgust and guilt through a spatialising strategy that excludes these emotions. This sub-genre provides an interpretation of history and is a major factor in the constitution of collective memory about the American War in Vietnam in both the USA and Australia.

[i] Hagopian, ‘Vietnam War Photography as a Locus of Memory.’ In Locating Memory: Photographic Acts eds A. Kuhn and K. E McAllister, (New York:Berghan Books, 2006) 201-222.

[ii] Dittmar, Linda and Michaud, Gene. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000, p7

To find Parts 1 and 2 use Vietnam in the word cloud on the side 🙂 Your comments are very welcome! So if you feel inclined please let me know what you think.

Part 2 Affective Connections – Expanded fields – draft

Emotional geographies and geographies of emotion are concerned with spaces constituted by material places. There is a distinction between emotion and affect whereby emotion connotes personal responses and affect refers an objectified approach (Probyn, 2004; Anderson, 2009), however my aim here is not to provide an analysis of the distinctions between the two terms, rather I embrace their ambiguity.

Feelings about place matter and places have atmospheres. Places can be familiar or other. Feelings influence relationship to place and the meanings and narratives that may be ascribed to experiences of places. They affect our sense of the past; present and future in particular places. At the start of the introduction to Topophilia, Tuan (1974/1990) asks, “What are our views on the physical environment, natural and man‑made? How do we perceive, structure and evaluate it?” (1) He defines topophilia as the affective relation that exists between people and place. The symbolic importance of places can derive from their emotional associations and the feelings they inspire such as love or disgust.

According to Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion (1980), disgust is one of the eight primary emotions. Usually it is characterised by a disproportionate fear of bodily secretions and waste products. It is also associated with fear of the other that is alien and separate from us however we happen to define ourselves. The basic opposite of disgust is trust. Love, on the other hand, is classified as an advanced emotion and is composed of joy plus trust. Each of these emotions is also a spatialising practice. Disgust creates boundaries and zones of exclusion. Love blurs boundaries extending zones of inclusion. Each emotion has a substantial role in shaping public imaginaries and perceptions of places.

Material spaces have emotional charges that draw on both the past and the present that can structure the experiential. Relationships to places are coloured by memories and projections of memories. Places with a history of occupation by colonial or invading forces may contain patinas that stimulate emotions of love and/or disgust. Places that were the sites of significant cultural or historical events will have symbolic qualities, which affect their meanings and processes.

The built environment in Vietnam is in constant transition since the economic reforms in 1986 known as Doi Moi, which aimed to shift the economy from socialism and central planning to one that is market driven in Vietnam. The past remains inscribed to create urban palimpsests where its traumatic history leaves emotional charges. Cultural memory, an integral part of national identity is contested and adjusted to reflect new aspirations. There are tensions between generations, between the colonial past and the present, and between memories and postmemories of the American War in Vietnam. Acts of remembering are framed by desires; identities and national mythologies and these in turn give rise to different way in which places are conceived in both public and private. These underlying preconceptions are often unconscious; indeed they often can appear to be self-evident common sense. However, there are tensions with both material and affective dimensions between how public and private spaces are conceptualised, as well as collective and individual memories of those places and spaces. Each of these tensions is played out in the public places and non-places in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The turbulence of the 20th century from French colonialism, through to the American War, its aftermath and Doi Moi was and continues to be framed by different competing and contested discourses inside and outside of Vietnam. For many of the young in Vietnam the turbulent history of the 20th Century through French Colonialism, the American War and its aftermath are events in a distant and epic past which has little bearing on the here and now. For the old these events occurred during their lifetimes and continue to frame the here and now. In Australia and USA collective memories of Vietnam include the American War and the flood of refugees after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and their stories of survival in tiny boats. Vietnam is at one and the same time “a war-ravaged landscape and a symbol of American failure” (Stuteman, 2006, 37) as well as a symbol of a heroic nation that freed itself from colonialism and imperialism. Memories, in turn, are framed by emotions. In this article, I will draw substantially on Plutchik’s psychoevolotionary conceptualisation of human emotion as a means to showing connections between place, memory and emotion.

In 1986 Vietnam instituted Doi Moi, which comprised a set of economic reforms to allow private enterprise within a socialist state. This in turn led to a relaxation of visas to encourage tourism in 1989. Vietnam has become a desirable destination for Western travellers looking for an encounter with the exotic other. Such encounters often have strong emotional charges including love, trust and disgust.

In 2011, Vietnam is a robust participant in the world economy. Memory narratives about Vietnam participate in a field, which has been expanded and altered by the forces of globalisation and developments in internet technologies. Free wifi networks are ubiquitous in urban environments in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City providing almost instant access to information and images as well as the ability to upload and share these through social media. Mass media and the internet “contribute liberally to the vertiginous swirl of memory discourses that circulate locally and globally” (Huyssen, 95). The expanded field thus created means that artistic expressions and acts of remembering may readily cross borders of time and place. On the internet images of Bui Xuan Phai’s Hanoi may sit side by side American War photographs and contemporary video art by Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba exploring the Vietnamese diasporas. Artistic expressions that provide a commentary on places and change are framed by emotions including love, trust and disgust.

Affective Connections to Place and Memory – Introduction

I wish to deconstruct some of the different types of Western observer lens and emotional responses that Vietnam is encountering. While I refer to Vietnam because that is the site for some of my creative practice, my article points to the different ways in which we ‘desire’ and ‘want’ to approach place based on our own individual and collective experiences. These experiences include the consumption of mediated experiences through news broadcasts, cinema, visual art and recounts of the personal stories of others who have been there. I have been to Vietnam eleven times between 2002 and 2010 and observed the transformation of places in urban centres. Each time I visit my preconceptions are challenged by changes. I have also observed that colleagues’ preconceptions are invariably framed by cultural memory as well as their emotional responses to places. In this article I argue that creative practice including video and photography provides a way to help deconstruct the affective tensions between place, memory and emotion.

I am using my lived experiences as a “theoretical manoeuvring” (Probyn 1993, 106) so that my enunciative position is reasonably transparent in this essay. I documented my observations including emotional responses through visual media and notes which maybe be treated as Geertz’s (1973) methodology towards a thick description. Obviously there is a difference between the field notes of a trained anthropologist and a creative practitioner; nevertheless, the visual diaries and written journals of a creative practitioner do contain thick descriptions. I documented street life through video and photography as a part of my creative practice in post Doi Moi Vietnam as well as keeping extensive diaries of found images and observations.

The validity of photographs and videos as ethnographic data “revolve largely around the problems of the act of picture taking itself” (Horvat 2010, 127). The argument centres on the construction or framing of the image, which is associated with subjectivities and emotional registers beyond the visual apprehension (Edwards, 2005). Nevertheless, “an ethnographically based photographic image indicates one culture viewing another” (Horvat 2010, 127), in my case an Australian viewing Vietnam. I do not shy away from my own subjectivity and emotional registers, instead, I suggest that rather than detracting from knowing, they can add a “critical edge” (Bondi 2005, 433) through challenging rational objective ways of knowing. Photographs and video are playing an increasing role as ethnographic data. Sarah Pink argues:

Photography, video and electronic media are becoming increasingly incorporated into the work of ethnographers: as cultural texts; as representations of ethnographic knowledge; and as sites of cultural production, social interaction and individual experience that themselves form ethnographic fieldwork locales (Pink 2001, 1).

Conceptualisation of places and the spaces derived from places through photography and video (literally) is increasingly being appropriated by ethnography as well as by memory studies scholars (Hirsch, Huyssen) to analyse a landscape’s or urbanscape’s meaning in terms of memory and the ambiguities imbued in its affective atmosphere (Anderson 2009). I will focus on expressions and images that invoke feelings of love, trust and disgust within some memory discourses that frame perceptions of places within the urban environments in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My approach through creative practice deliberately “unsettles claims to the position of the rational knower” (Bondi 2005, 433) in order to expose some emotional connections to the patinas of places and their affective atmospheres in the urban landscapes I encountered numerous times over a period of eight years.