‘House in Movement’ of Tuan Mami – The Art of Hybrid Gatherings / Part 2

Yuto Yabumoto

Photo by Shimoda Manabu

3. Nha San’s ‘House as a Hybrid Gatherings’

(1) What is ‘Nha San Studio’?
Before describing Mami’s practice, the author would like to summarize the concept of ‘house’ that gives rise to ‘hybrid gatherings’. The author conducted fieldwork in Hanoi, Vietnam, in September 2023 in order to fully understand the unique ‘house’ concept of ‘Nha San’ as described in the introduction. However, in this paper, the term ‘Nha San’ is used in the sense of including the genealogy of NSC from ‘Nha San Studio’, the first non-profit and experimental art space in Vietnam, established in Hanoi in 1998 and led by Nguyen Manh Duc, Tran Luong (1960-), and others. Nha San Studio opened its studios to the radical artists who emerged in the 1990s and used them as spaces for free discussion and expression of Vietnam’s political and social issues. However, in 2010, a performance by a female artist who removed all her clothes became a social issue, and this led to an investigation by the Cultural Police in 2011 and the indefinite closure of the studio. After that, NSC was established in 2013 by Manh Duc’s daughter Nguyen Phuong Linh (1985-), Mami, and other young artists where it developed as an independent art collective in Hanoi. The ‘house’ called ‘Nha San’ has continued its activities whilst moving from one place to another. In 2020, the original site of Nha San Studio was sold, but Mr and Mrs Manh Duc and Mr and Mrs Linh renovated their ‘house’ and revived a new ‘Nha San’, a location along the Red River. The author recently visited this new Nha San Studio and interviewed Manh Duc.

(2) ‘House’ in Anthropology
As a premise, there are two aspects to the anthropological concept of ‘house’.[1] One is the ‘house as a juridical person’ as described by Lévi-Strauss. This is a ‘community’ such as a village community or ethnic community, meaning a model of vertical integration/horizontal relations that forms part of human society and is based on blood relationships.

A house is something different from a ‘family’ in that it does not correspond to a male lineage. Sometimes it does not even have a biological basis. Rather, it resides in material and spiritual heritage. Such inherited goods include prestige, origin, kinship, names and symbols, position, authority, and wealth.[2]

As in the words of Lévi-Strauss, the essence of ‘house’ is not so much ‘identity’ in terms of gender, and blood, etc., but rather the constant goods and place that make the essence of community possible, and the flexibility of the line that connects generations, such as the incorporation of sons-in-law and non-relative members of the family, is essential. On the other hand, the other ‘house’ is defined as the ‘house as place’. For example, art collectives such as NSC can be understood as a model of discrete collective/collaborative relationships based on temporary relationships that are rarely based on kinship. It was the British anthropologist Janet Carsten (1941-1995) who developed the ‘house as place’. Carsten proposed the concept of ‘relatedness’ based on the point that the contents of the body become similar through the sharing of ‘materials’ such as ‘milk’ and ‘fish’ in a ‘house’ in a Malaysian fishing village. This is exactly what Mami is doing in his ‘House in Movement’- practicing ‘communal eating’. In this way, ‘house’ is created, not only through reproductive kinship, but also through the accumulation of acts of living together, eating together, nourishing each other, and exchanging things.[3] This means that beyond ethnicity and kinship, a ‘house’ is manifested by living in a shared space and accumulating actions. Based on this context, as an alternative concept of ‘house’, Ishikura proposes a model of ‘house as hybrid gatherings’ as a super-complex relational model that is a ‘multi-species’, ‘multi-dimensional’, and ‘multi-location’ gatherings of humans and non-humans that does not seek to resolve heterogeneity.[4] In this respect, ‘Nha San Studio’ in Hanoi is indeed a ‘house as a hybrid gatherings’, as explained in the next section.

Figure 3: Photo (left) the ground floor of the new ‘Nha San Studio’. Photo (right) the traditional altar in the Manh Duc room on the third floor. Photo: taken by the author

(3) Manh Duc’s idea of ‘Nha San’
When the author visited the new Nha San Studio, the first floor of the building, with its wooden frame, along with the garden leading to the Red River, were opened as a place for animals such as dogs and cats to be kept, and also used as a space for cultivating a variety of plants. The second floor was furnished with a modern interior for Mr and Mrs Lin and their son, whilst the living space for Mr and Mrs Manh Duc on the third floor remained a traditional wooden house with an altar for ancestral spirits. In this sense, this is a vertical living space for relatives, with the ancestral spirits of the Manh Duc family at the top, but at every level there are visitors, including humans, animals, and plants, and yet they stand as if it were their ‘house’. The rooftop is a place for gardening, where a variety of plants are grown, and every floor has a large number of chairs and desks for visitors. In this way, each floor has a completely different style of interior and architecture, and is ready to receive both human and non-human visitors. It was a truly chaotic ‘house’ that was ‘multifarious’, ‘multidimensional’, and ‘multi-located’. A spiral staircase was installed on the second and third floors of the building. I felt that the image of the ‘spiral’, which combines verticality and horizontality, symbolically indicated that Nha San Studio is a ‘house of hybrid gatherings’.

Figure 4: Interview with Manh Duc. Photo by the author

As the author wandered around the chaotic ‘house’, Manh Duc, who had been sleeping next to the altar, as if he were an animal, wandered up. Through Mami’s interpreter, he said, “How about the three-family illegal wooden structure we all built together? Wooden structures are variable and movable, so you don’t have to get a permit”, he said jokingly. Then, Manh Duc said, “Well, have a seat”, offering me a cup of tea. The author asked Manh Duc, “What is a house in Nha San?” to which Manh Duc replied “house is difficult to define because it changes in many senses depending on the context of place and culture, but I think it is the place of origin where all things, whether animal or plant, can gather”. He went on to say “A Nha San house has always been, and will always be, a place open to all beings, day and night, ghosts and gods alike”. Furthermore, when the author asked Manh Duc why he chose ‘art’ in Hanoi, where restrictions on expression are so strict, he replied, ‘Art’ has multiple meanings and is easy to balance because it does not fix meanings or interpretations, and it does not force anything”. ‘Art’ was a good match to make this ‘house’ of Nha SanStudio a reality. It is likely that Manh Duc’s ideas about this ‘house’ had a profound influence on Mami’s practice, as will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4.

[1] Makoto Koike and Toshihiro Nobuta, ‘Sei wo Tsunagu Ie - From the Past to the Future’, in The House that Links LifeNew Horizons in the Study of Relatives, Fukyosha, 2013, p. 3-6.
[2] Claude Levi Strauss, ‘Historiography and Anthropology’ 
Thought No. 727, Iwanami Shoten, 1985, p. 44
[3] Keiichiro Matsumura, 
Hamidashi no Anthropology Tomo ni Ikiru Wohodo (The Anthropology of the Outsiders: How to Live Together), NHK Publishing, 2020, p. 70.
[4] Toshiaki Ishikura, ‘Recreating Memories and Stories that Transcend Time: 
Mayoiga of the Cape as a Co-animate Animation (Japan Society for Animation Studies Online Symposium ‘Animation and Memories of the Disaster Area: Animation on the Film Mayoiga of the Cape, The Possibility of Tourism and Folklore’, February 20, 2022)

Figure 5: Manh Duc and Mami chatting in the Nha San Studio (third floor). The lineage of ‘Nha San’ passed down from generation to generation.

4. Mami’s Hybrid Gatherings’ Art Practice

I am not an artist; I am a gardener”.

These were Mami’s words during his residency in Kamagasaki, Osaka in January 2023. Unlike in Japan, there is no support for contemporary art from the Vietnamese government. In fact, in Hanoi, expression is strictly regulated by the government and public security officials. Thus, artists are not permitted to freely hold exhibitions or performances without express permission from the authorities. However, Mami said, “If you are a gardener, and not an artist, you can escape this oppression”. The title of the presentation material that Mami prepared for the exhibition was ‘DON'T CALL IT ART’, and this title clearly indicates the situation and his stance.

Mami seems to think that even with such oppression, he should just keep moving to new places, such as within Asia or even the West. Whilst using his own body as a medium, Mami continues to reinvent himself in new environments- just like a plant. As can be seen in Mami’s expression described below, Plants such as coriander, which are at the center of Vietnamese ‘food’ and ‘life’, continue to move to new lands and environments and re-establish themselves even after their roots are cut off. French curator Nicolas Bourriaud (1965-) has proposed the concept of Radicant art. The term ‘radicant’ refers to an organic and slime mold-like movement that does not merely emphasize the extension of the tips of the main and lateral roots, etc., but extends the lateral and whisker roots in a network-like manner as it moves forward. Namely, to be radicant is to re-stretch one’s own roots in a heterogeneous context and format.[1] Instead of sticking to their main roots, like Vietnamese plants, they extend their roots in all directions from the surface they touch, and even if sometimes the roots are severed, these plants re-establish themselves as new ones. Bourriaud sees in this, the possibility of transcending modern ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’.

Mami’s artistic practice has always been ‘hybrid gatherings’-like what can be seen in nature. For example, in the performance Let it grows up-on (2010) at Tokyo Wonder Site in 2010, Mami planted three rice seeds on his left arm. Mami asked, “Do you think plants can grow on humans? Hopefully, we can become a hybrid plant-man”, he jokingly says. This, as Ishikura says, is Mami’s invocation of a hybrid gatherings-like technology that constitutes a ‘symbiosphere’ in which multiple species exist in the space of a ‘body’ (3) whilst having a hybrid ‘body’ in which humans and plants coexist (1).

Figure 6: Performance of ‘Let it grows up-on (2010)’. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Since 2020, Mami has been developing a research-based art project called Immigrating Garden around the world. In Taiwan, Germany, Belgium, and other countries, Mami has been researching Vietnamese refugees and immigrants who are migrating around the world. Mami discovers Vietnamese plants that are always grown in their ‘house’, detaches their roots, and gathers them in many/other places to create a ‘garden’ that is an extension of their ‘house’. Mami dynamically shakes the boundaries of ‘house’ by going back-and-forth between multiple ‘houses’ and ‘gardens’ of Vietnamese immigrants via the plants. During his research in Hanoi, Mami stated that he wanted to create a ‘social platform’. Mami also stated that he wants to continue to create a ‘house’ where people can talk and exchange, and cross-examine the interconnectedness of different identities with Vietnamese immigrants, plants, and other lives and values that have become disconnected from their land and culture, as well as with the people and lives living in these places.

Mami often talks about ‘food’, which is an important part of his artistic practice. Even when the author was eating Vietnamese food with Mami in Hanoi, he asked the author, “How did our ancestors prepare food? Why are the flavors and aromas of Vietnamese herbs so important to the Vietnamese? What would you do if you could no longer eat miso soup?” 

Starvation is a natural part of life, and it is hard for anyone to have trouble with ‘food’. Vietnamese herbs are used as both culinary ingredients and in medicine. Cut off from their land, both Vietnamese immigrants and plants are forced to rethink the mutual benefit and reciprocal relationship between them in order to survive in their new environment. In this way, at Mami’s ‘House in Movement’, while focusing the eyes and tongues on the plants, the artist interacts with diverse viewers of different ethnicities, religions, etc., through communal meals, etc., to build the heterogeneous ‘social gathering’ of people and plants that Ishikura describes (2), and to create opportunities to discuss different values and historical views from diverse perspectives (4). Thus, these generate the creation of ‘house as a hybrid gatherings’. Mami goes beyond the visually dominant ‘art of community’ of ‘seeing/being seen’, as Suga calls it, to generate ‘communality’, and at the same time, shift us to ‘exposition’ through a complex intertwining of physical experiences that transcend the boundaries of taste, hearing, and other senses. The fact that Mami’s ‘art’ is made up of interrelated heterogeneous people and plants shows that his emphasis is on exposing the ‘art (form) of hybrid gatherings’ in contemporary society beyond the representational acts centering on the so-called ‘subject’.

Figure 7: ‘Communal-eating’ with plants from the Vietnamese Immigrating Garden in Belgium in September 2023. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

(2) Collaborative practice in Kamagasaki, Osaka
In the context of the ‘Immigrating Garden’ project described above, Mami visited Vietnamese refugee and migrant worker communities in Osaka and the Kansai region during the aforementioned Osaka Kansai International Arts Festival while staying at the Coco Room in Kamagasaki, Nishinari, Osaka. There, he conducted interviews with workers. For example, in a community center located in Takatori Church in Nagata, Hyogo Prefecture, Vietnamese refugees and their descendants who came to Japan as boat people in the 1970s and 1980s make up a Vietnamese immigrant community. Also, in a community of Vietnamese immigrant workers in Kaizuka, Osaka, a group of technical interns engaged in food processing, agriculture, and nursing care lived together in a mutually supportive group environment. Surprisingly, a short distance from their ‘house’ was a communal farmland for growing Vietnamese plants. Mami visited their ‘house’ and interviewed them about their lives and surroundings. We learned that they grow Vietnamese plant stocks acquired from other Vietnamese communities in their home, and that they especially value the seeds in their dead state. Their renewable Vietnamese plants were like objects of their faith. Mami negotiated with them to see if they would share their plants with him, and finally obtained their permission to cut off the roots of these plants and move them to the exhibition site. The plants were then forcibly loaded into the car driven by the author and brought to the exhibition site. Inside the exhibition hall, he created a ‘Garden in Movement’, which is titled Vietnamese Immigrating Garden (No. 4): Will the Plants Invade and Destroy This Land? (2023)’.

In fact, it is currently forbidden by law to bring Vietnamese plants into Japan in order to protect the country’s seed industry and ecosystem. However, looking back on history, it can be said that humans have migrated along with the movement of plants. For instance, sugarcane, was introduced globally during the colonial period, and huge numbers of slaves moved between the regions known as the ‘Global South’, and Western nations built enormous wealth on their toil. According to Mami, in 1944, Japanese colonists cut down rice plants in Vietnam and brought in jute seeds to grow and produced gunpowder and military uniforms for use in the war, which led to food shortages in Vietnam. “Why can’t Vietnamese plants be brought into Japan now?” Mami asks, and therefore it was in Kamagasaki, Osaka, that young Vietnamese, forced to migrate to modern Japan as labor force and unable to endure the poor working conditions, gathered. They fled to Kamagasaki, which became a town of single day laborers seeking work around the 1970 Osaka Expo, and it is here where they created a system of mutual support. Next to the Kamagasaki University of Arts which is working to create an expression of the aging workers’ records/memories, Mami has created a place where Vietnamese immigrants can grow Vietnamese plants and eat hot pot with plenty of Vietnamese herbs with the elderly workers who supported the period of high economic growth in the country.

Figure 8 (top photo) Vietnamese immigrants collecting plants from their farmland, (bottom photo) the ‘Vietnamese Immigrating Garden (No. 4): Will Plants Invade and Destroy This Land? (2023)’.

In addition, Mami created an online karaoke room in the exhibition hall to connect with Vietnamese immigrants from around the world. In that room, a large number of plants were placed, and  singing voices were intended to be delivered not only to the Vietnamese immigrants, but also to the plants. Whilst sharing the space with these plants, Nishinari workers, Vietnamese immigrants, and Polish and Ukrainian artists mixed with them and sang popular worldwide hip-hop songs, Japanese enka, and Vietnamese songs, even though they did not understand the meaning of the lyrics. This situation was communication that lacked the aforementioned mutual understanding through words, and was an experience in which communality was found in the contact between the ‘something’ expressed in the very ‘act of nothing more to do but sing’ of ‘inoperativeness’ and the ‘something’itself. Beyond the relationship between the plant and the viewers around the world, the communal singing may have evoked images of Vietnamese immigrants moving to Japan in search of a new environment, budding and blossoming in order to make a living.

Figure 9: (top photo) a hot pot party with Vietnamese plants,
(bottom photo) Online karaoke at the ‘Global Online Karaoke Room (2023)’. Photo: taken by the author.

As described above, the‘many/other species’,‘many/other dimensions’, and‘many/other places’-like artistic practices that started with Mami’s ‘House in Movement’ clearly indicate that aesthetic experience in the modern age might be manifested as the experience of ‘hybrid gatherings’. Beyond the visual art theory of ‘seeing/being seen’, as Suga calls it, this was an ‘exposition’ of the ‘art of hybrid gatherings’ through complex perceptual experiences, such as communal dining.

Lastly, in addition, the Kinan Art Week, organized by the author, plans to invite Mami to Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture, in October 2023, where he will stay on a regular basis. Through Mami’s ‘House in Movement’, the author would like to continue to see how he transcends the limits of the Japanese ‘community’, which is often thought of as a mono-ethnic nation, and ‘exposes’ the ‘art of hybrid gatherings’.

[5] Nicolas Briault and Takeda Hironari (trans.), The Radicant -Towards an Aesthetic of Globalization, Film Art, 2022, p. 70, 71