Installation view of HƯƠNG NGÔ’s “Lost from View,” at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, 2020. Courtesy The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.

Lost from View

Hương Ngô

Also available in:  Chinese

Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, a prominent communist revolutionary executed by the French colonial government in 1941, is a national hero in Vietnam, where many streets and schools bear her name. Yet, despite Minh Khai’s recognition, her identity exists only in politicized national memory. “Lost from View,” Hương Ngô’s solo show at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, brought together books, archival documents, play scripts, newspapers, and prints that explore who this historical figure was, and examine more broadly how women are written out of their own stories. 

At the outset, the show gestured to Minh Khai’s multiple personas with four metallic silver prints of official records—which Ngô had unearthed at the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer in France—detailing the revolutionary’s various aliases, forged passport, and places of arrest. Much of what is known about Minh Khai derives from such remnants, as well as tales circulated by her compatriots. Echoing this sense of fragmented identity, eight laser-cut prints of typewritten French letters by or about Minh Khai were discreetly scattered throughout the show. The laser-cut method “flattens,” in Ngô’s words, her imposed handwritten English annotations so that they appear to pierce through the source document. 

Mounted on a wall in the main gallery was Up Against The (2017), comprising a row of pearly sheets of paper. These pages are deceptively blank: using invisible ink made from boiled rice water, Ngô copied a letter Minh Khai wrote to her các anh (brothers, comrades). One can make out only the faint marks left by the nib; according to the exhibition guide, the text becomes visible with the application of the iodine solution presented on a nearby ledge. However, visitors were not permitted to touch the work. Minh Khai’s voice is therefore kept out of her own story, an omission that alludes to the broader marginalization of women’s narratives in historical annals. Ngô contrasted this with Calling All Women (2018), a set of enlarged phototex prints of a two-page leaflet from 1940, signed by the women’s committee of the Indochina Anti-Imperialist United Front. Plastered over a wall on a raised platform, the prints feature Vietnamese text galvanizing women of all classes to rise up against their colonial oppressors. Here, women are rightfully recognized as a formidable social and political force. 

Ngô’s revisionist approach was evidenced by the paired works Livre de Poche and Reap the Whirlwind (both 2018). In the former, encased in a glass box on a pedestal were five French and American romance novels from the 1950s. With colorful covers portraying sexualized Asian women, including one standing in the nude with a parasol, these books exemplify the sexist, colonial attitudes of White men toward their “Oriental” concubines. Ngô offered a counternarrative with the five-volume book Reap the Whirlwind, placed on a counter for visitors to peruse. Under the blind-embossed, monochrome front cover are fleeting excerpts from the novels of Livre de Poche that focus exclusively on female characters, and are legible only through touch due to the use of thermochromic ink. Similarly, in New Women (2017/20), a dramatic reading of Vietnamese playwright Vũ Đình Long’s titular 1944 play about a female journalist, the artist excises all male characters and their lines. Palpable in the filmed performance and copies of the edited script displayed at the show were respective gaps of silence and ample negative space. 

Ngô foregrounds feminist voices with Proposals for a Translation (2017), an installation of newsprint featuring anecdotes and essays contributed by contemporary artists and thinkers based in Vietnam or of Vietnamese origin. The copies are set in Đanh Đá (bitchy, determined, unapologetic), a custom typeface Ngô created in collaboration with Saigon-based designer Giang Nguyễn based on the font used in Ph n Tân tiến, a woman’s magazine published in Huế in 1932 that Minh Khai once mentioned in a letter to a fellow female revolutionary.  

“Lost from View” interrogated the many ways that language (or its omission) has entrapped or liberated Vietnamese women in recent history, while devising intriguing and refreshing modes of reading and reclaiming Ngô’s underrepresented subjects.

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