“I love Pho” is a travelling national exhibition curated by Cuong Le and Casula Powerhouse. It explores different notions of Vietnamese-ness through the starting point of pho, the Vietnamese national beef and rice noodle dish. Many artists were invited to contribute to this multimedia show, including Mai Long, a Sydney based artist.
Her installation Pho Dog provoked the most reaction from the Vietnamese Community Association in Western Australia where she was asked to remove her installation.
Phở Dog is an installation of 12 mythical mongrels named Phở Dog. The artist statement printed in the I love Phở catalogue (p. 44) explains Phở Dog as a ‘character that contemplates difference and tries to understand it in the broader context of human nature and complex political histories – a tribute to the idea that things will never fit into neat little boxes’ … and also… ‘Eating Phở in Australia as an Australian reminds (me) of the unhealed wounds of the Vietnamese diaspora’ … in addition … ‘This work embodies my wish for a healing, and a search for hope and humour’.
Keala, a dog interweaving a number of flags and symbols from parts of flags from various countries, was seen to be problematic by the Vietnamese Community Association, due to the five pointed yellow star on red background and the three red stripes on yellow background.
The yellow flag with three red stripes is often referred to as the “freedom flag” the flag of the former South Vietnam. Many Vietnamese diasporic communities fly this flag in Australia in defiance of recognising the Communist regime.
It was explained to Mai Long that seeing the Vietnamese Communist flag was like showing a Nazi swatstika to a Jew. The Western Australian Vietnamese councillor who saw the exhibition and prompted the complaint only caught a glimpse of it through the gallery window and did not come in to the exhibition. The gallery organiser in Western Australia and Mai Long offered to meet with the Vietnamese Community Association to discuss the issue, but no representative from the Vietnamese Community Association turned up at the designated meeting time.
In response Mai Long covered the entire installation with a black cloth.
“It is with great sadness that I have decided to cover the entire installation of Phở Dogs with a black sheet, as if a shrouding, a mourning, a death-ness, a frustrated silence with mysterious and alien bumps. This is a gesture to acknowledge the suffering of the Vietnamese Community concerned, and at the same time the suffering of all peoples who cannot speak out in the world, and who are censored in their own societies.” Mai Long artist statement May 2008.
Mai Long was contacted by the Sydney president of the Vietnamese Community Association and told that this was not good enough, they wanted the installation removed.
Ironically the issue was covered in the Saigon Times, with Keala emblazoned on the front page of the newspaper.
Peril asked Mai Long how this incident has affected her. She responds:
“What happened in Perth made me feel like I was facing personal annihilation. I felt like a certain group in Australia was trying to command a “monopoly” over the definition of “Vietnamese Australian”. I felt that I was being dictated that I had no right to be Australian; and no right to even think or have a perspective; which was really devastating because for so long I felt I didn’t have the right to have a perspective in Australia because I am not “white” enough. I felt like there is this war going on in Australia over “who is the most marginalized” or “who is the lesser minority”…”who is most traumatized”.
“I questioned the whole concept of minority voices and racism…everything was spinning out of control in my mind about who gets to speak and why and whether it was connected with Australia losing the Vietnam War and how. It became really huge and urgent in my mind and I would love this discussed in a bigger context with more opinions, with people who do understand and who are interested…but also feel there is so little understanding that things like this actually exist – and I’m sure that it is not just the Vietnamese community. It’s really a question of power; and of who writes history; it happens every single day.”
The reaction to the pho dogs is not an isolated incident amongst the Vietnamese diasporic community. In California an installation artist who used the flags and colours in a footbath provoked five days of demonstrations outside a Vietnamese community newspaper when the image of the footbath was run on the front page. As a result the editor of the newspaper resigned.
At the University of Santa Cruz a forum was held after the “footbath incident” which discussed the use of the flags and Vietnamese diasporic sensitivities.
This dialogue has yet to begin in Australia. Clearly there is still trauma for the South Vietnamese diaspora which is largely unacknowledged in mainstream Australia. The use of such potent symbols such as flags is a tricky one for artists to negotiate.
Who has the “right” to use these symbols and in what contexts? Is the artistic intention as covered by Racial Vilification legislation enough to negotiate community sensitivities? In this case clearly the Vietnamese Community Association in Western Australia wished to censor without dialogue. If the use of such symbols was dictated by community sensitivities is this censorship?
Larger questions have been thrown up by Mai Long herself, as to who gets to speak from a certain perspective, and who has the privilege to speak on behalf of communities or from minority perspectives.
Peril invites comments from readers to post their thoughts to begin the dialogue that has yet to be had about these issues.
Note: This story was also covered by Lateline on the ABC in December 2008.
Next year in 2009 Mai will be participating in the Vietnam Voices exhibition at Casula Powerhouse and be burning one of her pho dogs as a response to these events. Her works can be found at http://www.mai-long.com/index.html