Saturday, 1 July 2017

Things (1)

It was the last day of the financial year yesterday. For the first time in my life, I work in a place where this fact has consequences for me. The consequences yesterday, and most of last week, consisted mainly of a panicky and strained quality embedded in many otherwise normal interactions. In the afternoon I spent an hour and a half searching the building (2800 sqm) for the inexplicably missing green copy of a purchase order written out in February. It did turn up before I had to resort to dumpster diving but not until after I'd had a series of very awkward conversations about where it might have disappeared to with a string of people who all had very much better things to be doing (as I did too, I hope it goes without saying.)

After work several of us went to Newport Substation to visit an art exhibition on there. Conflicted: works from the Vietnam archive project by Phuong Ngo is what it was. The artist met us there and gave us a floor talk. I really enjoyed the whole expedition and I've been thinking about it since, in a sort of background reverie way; it took me to some places I certainly didn't expect to be taken, and I'm now going to try to write at least some of that down. It's going to take a few posts to get it all out. The tl;dr version is that I think it all adds up to feeling certain again, despite things being quite terrible at work recently, that a museum environment is a good place for me to be and I think I'll continue to thrive in my job and be absorbed by it.

Ngo's show is about the Vietnam War seen from the point of view of a person who knows he exists because of it and whose life has been shaped by it but whose experience of it is entirely mediated through the same media reifications everyone recognises and through his own family history. He's got this vast collection of found photographs and slides from the war - mostly bought on eBay, he told us, so real flotsam and jetsam, no longer the property of the people who took them and thus doubly displaced from the times and places and landscapes and people and events they depict - and the show used selected images from this collection to make a series of readings of that past and stake claims within it. One of the many confronting sections of the show began from three kinds of photographic images of women. A bunch of TV-sized light boxes stood in a room, all displaying enlarged snapshots taken of Vietnamese women, their faces mostly hidden in their wildly swinging hair or out of sight because of their contorted poses - dancing grotesquely and sexually in sequinned and feathered bikinis on a dingy improvised stage. On the wall of the gallery was a grainy mural-sized enlargement of a photo showing the audience at this spectacle - black and white American servicemen and a few Vietnamese women. Over this, in red neon, was a handwritten phrase from The Quiet American: Phuong was wonderfully ignorant. (Phuong is the name of a woman character in Graham Greene's novel) Two sets of stairs led out of this room. On the mezzanine above stood a 1960s telephone table bearing an orange 1960s photo album with decorative lettering reading 'Views of Vietnam' on the cover. Inside, one per page under that destructive sticky plastic film, there was a series of photos of American women, white and black, which the artist had extracted from collections of servicemen's photos of Vietnam and which presumably had been carried by those men. In the basement a monitor played a version of Philip Noyce's film of The Quiet American which the artist had recut to make Phuong the central character.

Those were all sexualised fantasies and the images they started from were correspondingly arresting but the show pointed to ways that projections of fantasy dominated all kinds of image-making about the war in Vietnam, even boring pictures. One work started from a tiny snapshot of a rifle standing on a perfectly made bed in a tent on a base somewhere. Another used a sequence of pictures of a Chinook helicopter either taking off or landing.  The things Ngo did with the pictures brought out and made explicit and readable some of the latent content of those fantasies.

The show was quite beautiful in itself but another layer of interestingness came for me from exploring it with a group of colleagues who are historians and curators (and at least one of whom is also the child of a man who was conscripted to fight in Vietnam) and have varying levels of investment in seeing the Vietnam war.

I was interested in the overlaps and differences between Ngo's show and the Patrick Pound one at NGV Australia. They have different purposes but they're both photographers working with collections of found photographs and objects as their medium, and they've both got very interesting things to say about collecting and collections as a conduit to the past. Both artists use their objects like language - as vehicles for expression and figuration -  and historians are maybe not all that comfortable with this, especially when the object's disconnectedness from history is taken advantage of, is used, rather than redressed, and the object is explicitly provided with a new context and no visible attempt is made to re-root it in a verifiable historical narrative.  (to be continued)  

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