‘House in Movement’ of Tuan Mami – The Art of Hybrid Gatherings / Part 1

Yuto Yabumoto

Photo by Shimoda Manabu

What is the relationship between ‘Community’ and ‘Art’? Referring to Suga Koko’s The Art of Community, which presents the deeply intertwined relationship between the two concepts, the author will examine the relationship between ‘Community/Hybrid Gatherings’ and ‘Art’ in our time, based on previous studies on ‘Community’ and the recent theory of ‘Hybrid Gatherings’ developed by Kizo Ogura and Toshiaki Ishikura. This paper will analyze the idea of ‘Nha San’ (house), which continues to generate ‘Hybrid Gatherings’, following an interview with Nguyen Manh Duc, founder of ‘Nha San Studio’, which played an important role in the history of contemporary art in Hanoi, Vietnam from 1990 to the 2010s. It will then introduce the artistic practice of Vietnamese artist Tuan Mami, founder of the ‘Nha San Collective’- which is in the genealogy of the ‘Nha San’ Studio, regarding the ‘house’. Based on the art practice of the ‘House in Movement’ that Mami continues to develop, going beyond the visually-centered art theory- the art of ‘Hybrid Gatherings’ in today’s contemporary world will be presented.

Keywords: Community, Hybrid Gatherings, Tuan Mami, Nha San Collective.

1. Introduction

What is the relationship between ‘community’ and ‘art’? Koko Suga (1977-), author of The Art of Community: On the Image and the Existence of People, states that there is an inseparable and deeply intertwined relationship between the development of contemporary community theory and the development of contemporary art theory.[1] Suga also continues as follows:

The author agrees with Suga that ‘art’ and ‘community’ are inseparable. However, the scope of ‘art’ as Suga intends it to be, in the context of the book, may be limited to visual expressions such as paintings and installations in museums and exhibition halls. The author believes that ‘hearing/being heard’ and ‘tasting/being tasted’ are absolutely passive, in the same way as ‘seeing’, in experiences such as ‘eating together’ using the senses of taste, touch, and hearing. Therefore, the author would like to renew the relationship between ‘community’ and ‘art’ by including such non-visual passivity in the scope of ‘art should be’ as well.

In addition, the term ‘community’ is generally recognized as ‘an aggregation of entities that have identity’. Namely, the concept of ‘community’ tends to exclude ‘non-identical things’, and thus faces a barrier over ‘identity’. Therefore, the author, referring to The Art of Community, as described by Suga, would like to propose ‘the art of hybrid gatherings’ that goes beyond the limitations of the visuocentric art situation and ‘community’ based on the theory of ‘hybrid gatherings’ which will be discussed later.

Figure 1: Tuan Mami growing plants and ‘the Vietnamese Immigrating Garden at WH22. Photo: taken by the author in Kassel.

As an object of analysis regarding ‘the art of the hybrid gatherings’, the author will focus on Vietnamese artist Tuan Mami (1982-), a core member of the Nha San Collective (‘NSC’), an art collective active in Hanoi, Vietnam. Mami has been exhibiting his cross-disciplinary and experimental works, while moving around the globe, from his base in Hanoi. Mami is a co-founder of the NSC and runs ‘A Space’, a renovation of his birthplace. Through his site-specific installations, videos, and performances, he poses introspective questions to the viewer. Mami is interested in questions about life and living, the social interactions between animals and plants, and humans and the environment. Consequently, he is concerned with movements in which people and objects collaborate to engage in social transformation from a particular reality. In this paper, the author will examine Mami’s Immigrating Garden art project, his collaboration in his residency at the 2023 Osaka Kansai International Art Festival, and his fieldwork in Hanoi.

Figure 2: Nguyen Quoc Thanh's Queer House and group photo of NSC members. Photo: courtesy of NSC

The ‘Nha San’ in NSC means ‘house’ on stilts of the Muong, a mountainous minority tribe, and the artistic practice of ‘Nha San’ takes the open ‘house’ and ‘garden’ as its starting point. For example, Mami created the Vietnamese Immigrating Garden2022 for Vietnamese refugees and immigrants at the WH22 exhibition space in Kassel, Germany, and Nguyen Quoc Thanh constructed Queer House, 2022 during Documenta 15 in 2022. The members of NSC presented the dinners, screenings, and weddings held in the ‘houses’ and ‘gardens’ as ‘art objects’ themselves. Through the exhibition, their art-practice exposed to society the existence of Vietnamese immigrants hidden behind the scenes of contemporary society. Their practice is not to create visually-centered paintings, but rather an art practice that continues to create a dynamic ‘house’. What kind of philosophy is behind this? The author refers to this practice as the ‘House in Movement’, based on the genealogy of ‘Nha San’, which will be discussed later.

In Chapter 2, previous studies on ‘community’ and the theories of Suga’s The Art of Community are organized. Based on these studies, the relationship between the ‘hybrid gatherings’ and ‘art’ will be examined on the basis of the ‘hybrid gatherings’ proposed by Korean cultural scholar Kizo Ogura (1959-) and the words of anthropologist Toshiaki Ishikura (1974-), who has extended Ogura’s concept. Chapter 3 examines the concept of ‘house’, which is important in the practice of ‘Nha San’. Taking Claude Levi-Strauss’ (1908-2009) ‘House as a juridical person’ as a starting point, Ishikura’s theory of ‘House as a hybrid gatherings’ will be organized. In addition, based on field interviews in September 2023 with Nguyen Manh Duc (1953-), founder of Nha San Studio (NSC’s founding parent organization), the author will examine Nha San’s idea of ‘house’ that continues to produce ‘hybrid gatherings’. Chapter 4 focuses on Mami’s artistic practice, which was inspired by Manh Duc’s ideas. Production Zomia, a network of Asian researchers, artists, and curators including the author, invited Mami as a curator to the Osaka Kansai International Art Festival held in January 2023, and collaborated with him during his residency. Based on Mami’s words and actions during the production process, the author would like to present the possibility of an ‘art of hybrid gatherings’ created from the genealogy of ‘Nha San’.

[1] Koko Suga, The Art of Community: On the Images and the Existence of People, Kodansha, 2017, p. 208
[2] Ibid, p. 206

2. Relationship Between ‘Community’ and ‘Art’

(1) Limits of ‘community’
First, the word ‘community’ can be defined as “a group of people who are given some kind of identity” by a certain mode of ‘being together’ (e.g., a material basis such as land or rivers, or spiritual basis such as blood, ethnicity, or religion). ‘Art’ is deeply related to the question of this ‘community’. As mentioned above, works of art have traditionally been created as ‘something to be seen’ and shared by many people through ‘seeing’ (to see). That is to say, as long as it presupposes someone other than the creator, a work of art can only be established on the basis of communality with people.[3] In this sense, ‘art’ is like a language that transcends language, and these images have the function of governing the communality that connects various beings. Therefore, since humans are social animals, ‘community’ is essential for our survival.

However, ‘community’ has created ‘inclusion’ based on ‘identity’, and ‘exclusion’, based on ‘non-identity’ through ethnic and religious communities in the modern era and beyond. In particular, in the course of modernization, human beings have been established as ‘individuals’, separated from the community and have been regarded as ‘subjects’ with rights and obligations. As a result, under this ‘subject centered’ and ‘community centered’ ideology, the separated individuals/subjects have been reorganized in their identification with the ‘community’ designed and managed by the ‘power subjects’.[4] With those ‘communities’ at the center, along with various movements such as capitalism, communism, fascism, and nationalism, etc., we end up creating the 20th century, the ‘century of war and revolution’. We who live in the 21st century, continue to suffer from the after-effects of the wars of the 20th century, such as the creation of global refugees, and ongoing civil wars.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1942-), who proposed the concept of ‘bare life’, was one of the first to identify this problem of the ‘subject’. Agamben developed his theory based on  ‘biopolitics’, proposed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984). ‘Bare life’refers to ‘life as a creature on a mere biological level’, rather than the lifeof an individual who bears a unique life and history. With the development of industrialization since the 18th century, when it became necessary for the state to maintain its national power through itsinvolvement in industry, state power emerged as a power which managed the ‘lives’ of its citizens. In other words, there is a government that manages the births of people and health, and ultimately has power over the population. This means the power to both give and take life, as well as the power to dispose of some into death whilst keeping them alive.[5] [Foucault 1986: 35]. Michel Foucault called these politics that treat human biological life as the object of governance ‘biopolitics’. The best example of this is the Nazi extermination concentration camps. Some people are now not even ‘political subjects’, but have been reduced to ‘resources’ to be fed into the global market economy as another form of concentration camp. Agamben saw this political and ontological situation of human beings in globalization as the refugee situation of people.[6] In addition, German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) said that ‘all those who have been thrown out by various events from the old trinity of nation-territory-state, which formed the basis of the nation, are left as stateless people without a country of origin and defined those who lost their rights as ‘subjects’ as ‘refugees’.[7] While the emergence of ‘refugees’ signifies the downfall of the nation-state, on the other hand, global industrial society complicates the issue by producing refugees and stateless people abandoned from state protection, an economic ‘resource’ and putting them into the market economy. In light of the above, ‘refugees’ can only have a transparent or semi-transparent phantom-like ‘subjectivity’.

(2) Vietnamese refugees, immigrants, and contemporary art
The Vietnamese refugees who were created by the civil war in Indochina, the Vietnam war, and other wars, and the Vietnamese migrant workers who are scattered all over the world in today’s global industrial society, have faced problems in  ‘life’ as ‘refugees’ and ‘market resources’ through this issue of ‘subject’ in reality. They are forced to live as transparent or semi-transparent ‘subjects’ in their new lands and environments, and with few exceptions, they face numerous difficulties, including social oppression and violence, in appearing on the surface of society and engaging in any kind of independent expression or activity.

Based on the process of the dismantling of the ‘subject’, Suga explains the relationship between ‘communality’ and ‘art’ by those humans, whose ‘subjectivity’ is no longer possible or transparent, are no longer capable of making representations, and that active ‘representation’ itself has become impossible. Suga argues that the images of these people are no longer represented, but are transformed into passive ‘expositions’ that are simply presented and exposed.[8] ‘Exposition’ means “to put outside”, “to expose”, or “to disclose”, but ‘art' in the present age is ‘inoperative’ (no contrivance or to be on natural state), which consists of the dismantling of the ‘subject’, and it is something that both gives rise to communality and  exposes it. Suga positively perceives this ‘exposiveness/passivity’ as a new ‘form of art’ in our time. In this sense, Mami’s practice is not something that can be questioned as ‘art should be’, but has the important condition of a new form of ‘art’ that ‘exposes’ the existence of Vietnamese immigrants who have been stripped of their ‘subjectivity’. Furthermore, Mami goes one step further and not only visually ‘sees’ or ‘makes viewers see’ the artworks, but also naturally engages the viewers and Vietnamese immigrants to interact and enjoy each other’s company through communal eating, etc., generating a new sense of community through the combined physical experience of hearing, taste, and touch, in addition to the visual experience of both parties. It is an ‘art form’ that exposes itself to contemporary society in the form of performances and video works.

(3) ‘Community’ over ‘identity/non-identity’
As typified by the aforementioned term ‘inoperative’, numerous speculations and proposals have been made in ideological terms to cope with the aforementioned after-effects. For example, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (1940-2021), in The Inoperative Community, states that ‘community’ has been launched with the formation of the concept of ‘subject’ rather than prior to the formation of ‘subject’.[9] Nancy also found human community in the shared ‘finitude’ that people are equally mortal.

We are now doomed, or rather driven, to seek the meaning of death not in the community, but elsewhere. But this attempt is absurd. (omission) For it is only through death that the community is disclosed, and vice versa.[10]

‘Death’ is not a personal event, but one that occurs only when there is another to attend the death. ‘Death’ is an event that is not completed by one’s self alone, but is shared and accomplished jointly.[11] The ‘sharing’ here does not mean sharing as in ‘identity’, but rather ‘sharing’ the very fact of being torn apart by ‘non-identity’. In this sense, Nancy called the space generated by the mutual exposure of the ‘different and other’ that is torn apart by ‘non-identity’ and opened up by being torn apart an ‘Inoperative Community’.[12] Based on Nancy’s argument, anthropologist Takashi Osugi (1964-), in his Cleoleness of Inoperativeness-Creoleness and Alterity, considering his fieldwork in Trinidad and Tobago, presented the co-existence of ‘identity’ and ‘non-identity’, that is, ‘a community that shares non-identity’.[13] This ‘community that share ‘non-identity’ may be another way of saying ‘hybrid gatherings’, which will be discussed in the next section.

(4) Possibility of ‘hybrid gatherings’
From a political science perspective, the aforementioned Kizo Ogura proposes the concept of ‘hybrid gatherings’, which is not a ‘community’ but a ‘hybrid gatherings’ that recognizes different values, for the deep-seated conflicts and problems regarding historical perceptions in Japan, Korea, and East Asia.[14] As mentioned above, if all the members of the community make it their supreme value to be ‘identical’, they will inevitably view those who are not ‘identical’ as hostile and exclude others. In this regard, the Italian philosopher Robert Esposito (1950-), who influenced Ogura, analyzes the etymology of the Latin words ‘community’ (communitas) and its synonym ‘immunity’ (immunitas). He focuses on the core of those words, ‘munus’, meaning “burden, service, gift”, and retroactively interprets one of their meanings, the concept of “gift”. Based on the etymology of the word, Esposito says that ‘birth’ itself is a “gift” to existence, and that the obligations that arise from receiving ‘life’ are inescapable.[15] As summed up by Esposito’s words, it is this unfinished state that can never be filled, namely, the existence of a ‘lack’, that characterizes the community.

Community is both necessary and impossible. Community does not only always arise with a lack. It is not only that it is never completed. In the particular sense that what sustains us together and forms us as joint -being, as being with, is also a lack, a non-fulfillment, and a liability, community is a lack itself.[16]

 Namely, ‘a lack is what brings people together’. This leads Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003) to state that ‘a community that cannot be revealed will never reveal its reality’.[17] Blanchot even stated that only communication that lacks mutual understanding of ideas and attunement of sentiments through words will survive into the future. Communality will be found in the ‘something’ expressed in the ‘mere act of singing’ or the ‘act of throwing oneself out’, which is ‘inoperativeness’ in the sense that it has “no meaning and does not work”, and in the contact with that ‘something’. Blanchot called it ‘a community of people without a community= a community that cannot be revealed’. Certainly, NSC, the Sa Sa Art Project in Cambodia, and other Asian art collectives with which the author is familiar, lack objectives and manifestos, and rarely proclaim them. Perhaps, they do not aim to create productive value as a ‘community’.

Based on this theory of community that takes a ‘lack’ as its starting point, Ishikura attempts to extend the concept of ‘hybrid gatherings’ from its original meaning as described by Ogura. As Ishikura states, the world surrounding humans always coexists with numerous other species/multi-species, and it is ‘more than human’. A community is always ‘more than community’ because it is assumed to coexist with various other communities.[18] Ishikura’s criteria for a ‘hybrid gatherings’ which can be formed, a community of ‘more than community’ are: 1) hybrid gatherings as a ‘body’ that coexists with science and technology, and its companion species; 2) a ‘social grouping’ of collaborative individuals with heterogeneity; 3) a ‘symbiosphere’ of multiple species and inanimate objects within a certain space; 4) a ‘higher dimension aggregate’ of aggregates that have coexisted with different history and myths.[19] He stated that ‘hybrid gatherings’ is a unified dimension of above these. The author believes that the composite/spiral intertwining of these four criteria of ‘hybrid gatherings’ is the only possibility for various lives and communities to ‘be together’ with each other. This methodology is not the way to operate the political power of the existing society. As for example, in the nationalistic representation of Abraham Bosse’s Leviathan frontispiece, subjective politics and powerful authorities can easily lead to ‘representational’ acts that always operate the principles of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’. In this sense, ‘art’ through ‘complex bodily experience’ and its ‘exposition’ with entities whose subjectivity has been dismantled is the only way to make the ‘hybrid gatherings’ possible in a slow and penetrating way.

In this regard, Ishikura describes the relationship between ‘hybrid gatherings’ and ‘art’ as a heterotopian (otherworldly) reality that presupposes the coexistence of different values and time frames, and that ‘art’ opened from this dimension is produced from the uncertainty of modern human life lying between science and mythology.[20] As Mami’s practice demonstrates, this ‘art of hybrid gatherings’ may well be found in the Vietnamese plants that emerge between the folklore/folktales about the local plants and scientific modern agriculture, and in the meals in which these plants and people intermingle. In addition, according to Ishikura, ‘co-differential creation (hybrid gatherings art)’ includes a formative idea that renews the relationship between life and the world, mediated by the complexity of life phenomena in which organic and inorganic matter intertwine, transcending different values and time, and in which multiple species of life are activated.[21] We believe that Mami’s artistic practice is precisely the plastic act of renewing the ‘art of hybrid gatherings’ that emerges from the deep entanglement between plants and humans, who have different values and different senses of time. This point will be elaborated on in the fourth chapter.

[3] Koko Suga, The Art of Community: On the Images and the  Existence of People, Kodansha, 2017, p. 11
[4] Osugi, Takashi, ‘Non-identity to/in Community’, in Sugishima, Keishi (ed.), Reconstructing Anthropological Practice: After the Postcolonial Turn, Sekaishisosha, 2001, p. 288.
[5] Michel Foucault, Moriaki Watanabe (trans), The Will to Knowledge, Shinchosha, 1986, p. 35
[6] Koko Suga, The Art of Community: On the Images and the Existence of People, Kodansha, 2017, p. 156
[7] Hannah Arendt, Michiyoshi Oshima, Kaori Oshima (trans.), The Origins of Totalitarianism 2, Misuzu Shobo, 2017, p. 236
[8] Koko Suga, The Art of Community: On Images and the Existence of People Kodansha, 2017, p. 210

[9] Jean-Luc Nancy, Osamu Nishitani, Shinichiro Yasuhara (translators), The Inoperative Community: A Philosophy of Partition, Ibunsha, 2001, p. 36
[10] Ibid, p. 26.
[11] Koko Suga, The Art of Community: On the Images and the Existence of People, Kodansha, 2017, p. 146
[12] Takashi Osugi, Creoleness and Alterity, Iwanami Shoten, 1999, p. 218
[13] Ibid, p. 222
[14] Kizo Ogura, Japan, China, and Korea Cannot Become One, Kadokawa Shoten, 2008, p. 169-171
[15] Roberto Esposito, Atushi Okada (trans.), Deconstruction community immunology and raw politics of modern Politics Kodansha, 2009, pp. 152, 153

[16] Ibid, p. 42.
[17] Maurice Blanchot, Osamu Nishitani (trans.), La Communaute Inavaouble, Chikuma Shobo, 1997, p. 116
[18]Toshiaki Ishikura and Taisuke Karasawa, ‘Anthropology of Sotogura and Community’, More Than Human: Multispecies Anthropology and Environmental Humanities, ibunsha, 2021, pp. 225, 226
[19] Toshiaki Ishikura, ‘Cosmo-Eggs and the Generation of Hybrid gatherig’, in Tagui Vol.2 Special Issue 1: Horizon of Hybrid Gathering, Aki Shobo, 2020, p. 51.
[20] Ibid p. 51
[21] Ibid, p. 51