Curated with great sensitivity by Vietnamese-Australian Boitran Huynh Beattie, “Nam Bang!” was a unique, vibrant combination of art by Vietnam War veterans from Australia and the United States, contemporary Vietnamese artists from the diaspora and from Vietnam itself, the grown children of veterans still fighting their fathers’ battles with illness and bureaucracy, and protesters. A video, Ssitkim: Talking to the Dead (2009), by Soon-Mi Yoo, a young South Korean artist, reminds us that there were other allies in the US-instigated disaster that never earned the name of an official “war” in the US—Congress termed it a “conflict”— despite more than one million deaths.
The exhibition’s cohesion came from neither style nor national origins, but was rooted in the passion still inspired in those irrevocably touched by the “American War,” as the Vietnamese call it. The artists represent at least six nations (France and Canada rounded out the lineup) and work in painting, sculpture, installation, photography, video and performance—from realism to surrealism to abstraction. The generation of veterans and protesters cannot forget the war, while the youth today cannot remember it unless it directly affected their lives, in which case they too are trapped in memory. The exhibition’s focus was on the “second generation,” in part because Casula Powerhouse had already curated other shows on the war. But Australian veterans were represented by strong and poignant works by Terry Eichler, Peter Daly, Dennis Trew, Ray Beattie, Peter Stephenson and Trevor Woodward, whose entire wall of furious cartoons focused on today’s “American wars” in the Middle East. William Short, a conscientious objector within the US military, continued Memories of the American War: Stories From the Other Side (2009), a series of photographic interviews in Vietnam that he has been conducting for almost 40 years.
The two major themes were anger and healing. Dinh Q. Lê (born 1968) has become the most important avant-garde intermediary between Vietnam and the West, living part time in both places yet rarely offered the opportunity to show much of his biting commentary—on the use of Agent Orange during the war and today’s My Lai tourism, for example—in Vietnam itself. In “Nam Bang!” his claustrophobic four-channel video installation of a cell, The Penal Colony: A Mapping of the Mind (2008), evokes the pain of confinement suffered by prisoners from both sides. Thirty-year-old French-Vietnamese artist Liza Nguyen offered a subtle series of photomontages about colonization, “Mos Maiorum, A Family Album” (2008), and a more intimate commemoration of her ancestors in the looped video work Ancestor Altar, while the young Vietnamese- Australian artist Mai Long exorcised her bitterness by destroying one of her recent sculptures (2008’s Godog, an oversized, brightly decorated papier-mâché mongrel) at the exhibition’s opening.
Conceived at a greater distance from the conflict, but no less moving, were works such as Australian Nigel Helyer’s visually impressive sound installation (linking the wail of warning sirens and the burble of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments tuning up) and Nerine Martini’s lovely overhead “sea,” Heaven Net (2009), a 30-square-foot net dotted with tiny paper fishing boats. The show’s varied perspectives continued with 45-year- old Tran Trong Vu’s installation—a jungle of 34 large clear plastic strips, in which paintings on both sides of the plastic show Vietnamese soldiers shadowing each other—as well as painful, vivid images, such as a choking newborn in The Same Pain for Both Sides (2009), a painting by Le Tri Dung, who was conscripted into the North Vietnamese Army as a tank driver in 1971.
If the war in Vietnam were remembered only through the words and images of returned veterans, the cultural impact would be powerful enough. However, the nation’s subsequent history and the arrival of waves of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants in countries all over the world have ensured that the impact of the war that ended 35 years ago has not subsided so much as it has expanded, rippling outward and keeping the horror of those days alive. This exhibition lends great weight to Michel Foucault’s notion of the “the ever-accumulating past.”