Art, Memory, and a Continuous Dialogue

Alyse Blachly

Machida talks about how while memory allows the living to have a continuous dialogue with the dead,  memory is always changing and “revising” itself, presenting a potentially problematic complication. Both individual and social memory is affected by the time and social environment in which it is being enacted. Therefore, it becomes especially important to preserve the stories and memories of the generations who experienced trauma, but also to identify how those stories affect the present and future lives. The artists, whom Machida features in Chapter 3 of Unsettled Visions, use art to cast their own light on events in history that severely affected their communities. By sparking the social memory of their respective communities, not only is the silence often lifted, but new ways of looking and talking about the events push for a continuous dialogue on both sides—between Americans and Asians/Asian Americans and past and present peoples

One artist whose work I found particularly powerful is Hanh Thi Pham. Machida does a great job of detailing how much the effects of the American intervention in Vietnam affected the style of Pham’s work. Due to the US involvement with South Vietnam, after the end of the Vietnam War people living in South Vietnam were persecuted and even put to death, condemned as enemies for being supported by the US. This lead to a mass exodus of involuntary and voluntary migrations. It’s interesting that Machida points out that it is this trauma compounded by the US vision of Vietnamese and other Asian immigrants at the time that lead to the heightened “recollections of lives left unfinished.”

Pham, who is very interested in expressing the pain of her inability to return to her homeland, strives to confront a multifaceted range of dominant views— from the perception of Asians as inferior or vicious in the American context to the vision of women as quiet and subservient in a traditional Vietnamese context. Thus, she combines the history and memory of her people with the social environment of her present state to create her art. For example, in “Forever Avenging” and “Interrogation & Avenge II” she reenacts scenes of violence on both the “American” and “Asian”, often reversing roles of dominance. For example, she mimics the scene of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong; only she becomes the executioner of a white American man and fellow artist. In other scenes both of them are depicted committing brutal acts on the other—drowning each other in a washtub, and both are hung upside down like dead animals. By reversing roles of violence and showing pain on both sides, the work becomes both cathartic and creates dialogue between both sides. Pham says that she is recognizing that this event in history did not just affect one people. While the media may portray the Vietnam War in one way, she shares a “mutual kind of response between two people involved in a war situation;…both people were hurt” (183).

But Pham also acknowledges that the media who perpetuate visions of the Vietnamese and the war, only serve to gain off of others pain. By depicting the affects and acts of violence that happened during that time, she wishes to push the truth of the social memory into the American dominant vision.

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