A biographical essay by David Willis about memory & insects in contemporary Vietnamese art
Dedicated in the memory of Dinh Q. Le

David Willis

All photos by David Willis

My relationship with Vietnam began in 2008, when I graduated from college in NYC and moved to Ho Chi Minh City (the economic powerhouse of Southern Vietnam, affectionately known to locals by its old name Saigon, despite being officially renamed at the end of the American War). Having studied anthropology, I set about learning Vietnamese, imagining that I might one day become a scholar of Vietnamese culture — starting with an intensive language course at the Ho Chi Minh University of Literature & Social Sciences, followed by independent study with my tutor Thanh Liem, who would come to my house in a dense warren of alleyways in Phu Nhuan district, where we would sit and study on the floor of my covered rooftop balcony.
Saigon sprawls at the doorstep of the Mekong Delta, a vast network of swamps and rice paddies where the Mekong river fractals infinitely and meanders down to the sea — drive your scooter from the buzzing center to the city limits and the delta is there, sleepy and timeless with her ducks and hammocks and flooded fields of lotus flowers. One day in 2009, as I was studying with Liem, a vast swarm of dragonflies engulfed us on the rooftop, buzzing all around for 20 minutes, completely distracting me from my studies. I asked if it was normal, and he laughed, telling me it was a common occurrence, both in Saigon and in the delta where he grew up on a farm.

A year later I returned to New York City, where I enrolled in a masters program in art criticism, and Vietnam became a distant memory — my life of riding around Saigon on my scooter slurping streetside noodles replaced by a life of standing pizza slices and crowded subway stops, criss crossing Manhattan visiting art galleries and museums. Then one day in 2011, I walked into the MoMA and those two worlds collided, when I encountered a video/installation by Dinh Q. Le, titled The Farmers & The Helicopters.[1]

[1] Dinh Q. Le, The Farmers and the Helicopters (2006) three channel video, helicopter, dimensions variable) was commissioned for 'The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art' at the Queensland Art Gallery, Australia. It was made in collaboration with Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Ha Thuc Phu Nam. The video installation includes interviews with Le Van Danh, Tran Quoc Hai, Tran Van Giap, Vuong Van Bang, Pham Thi Hong and Tran Thi Dao and footage from Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), We Were Soldiers (Randall Wallace, 2002), Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989). It can be viewed on the Vietnam Contemporary Art Database website here.

  • Installation view of Projects 93: Dinh Q. Lê, by Dinh Q. Lê in collaboration with Tran Quoc Hai, Le Van Danh, Phu-Nam Thuc Ha, and Tuan Andrew Nguyen. The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of the artist, Fund for the Twenty-First Century, and Committee on Media and Performance Art Funds. © 2010 Dinh Q. Lê. Courtesy the artist; P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York; Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica; and Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Photo: Jason Mandella.

The work consists of a three channel video and an actual helicopter, built from scratch by an amateur Vietnamese engineer named Tran Quoc Hai with the help of a farmer from his hometown in the delta. The video features interview footage from the men who built the helicopter, alongside the testimonies of older Vietnamese people recollecting their horrific experiences of being surveilled and shot at by helicopters during the war. The interview footage is interspersed with clips from Hollywood films depicting helicopters strafing, bombing, and generally terrorizing Vietnamese people during the war — but the video begins on a very different note. It begins with a swarm of dragonflies, and a hauntingly beautiful song in Vietnamese.

   When Dragonflies fly low, rain will fall.
   When they fly high, the sun will shine.
   When they fly in between, it will drizzle.

What feels like a lifetime later, I ran into Dinh at an opening at the Nguyen Art Foundation in Saigon in March 2024, while doing a critic/curator residency at the A.Farm Residency Program, sponsored by the Aura Art Foundation. I mentioned I was planning to write about insects in Vietnamese art, and told him I wanted to re-watch the video with the helicopters and the dragonflies. He nodded and said “oh yeah, with the lullabye about the dragonflies… because you know, the helicopter is also an insect.” 
Funny how we remember some things and forget others, our recollections editing out details and inventing new ones — I had in fact completely forgotten about the song until Dinh reminded me. A few weeks later I watched the video he sent me, and it moved me far more profoundly than the first time, because my personal connection to Vietnam had grown much stronger over the intervening years. I started to write him a message to thank him, but didn’t send it, thinking: “Dinh is so busy and stressed out, better not put another notification on his phone.” He died of a stroke that same afternoon.
Speaking with the art historian Moira Roth, Dinh said “​​I am interested in the way nature actively erases both physical evidence as well as our memory of the event. We cannot keep all memories because not all memories are meant for us to keep. The question then is what memories to keep and what to let go of as the way nature intended.”[2] When he lived in California, the sight of helicopters extinguishing forest fires triggered memories of seeing helicopters as an infant in Vietnam, before immigrating to the United States as a child refugee — however there were no helicopters flying around Vietnam at that particular time right after the war: his “memories” were fabrications, derived from Hollywood films like Apocalypse Now, which he had seen in America. Hence the “interweaving” of the real memories with the fake in his work, which is more than a metaphor, given that his art practice was principally characterized by literally weaving together real photographs and fictional film stills — and the latter are still “real” photographic images in some sense, creating memories and impacting our psyches in a very real way.

[2] Le, Dinh Q, quoted in Roth, Moira. 'Obdurate history: Dinh Q Le, the Vietnam War, photography, and memory'. Art Journal, vol. 60, no. 2, 2001, p.44.

  • Dinh Q. Le Cambodia: Reamker #11 (2021), Epson inkjet prints on Epson doubleweight matte paper, acid-free double-sided tape, pH-neutral linen book tape, 165 x 220 cm, image courtesy of Nguyen Art Foundation.

When I walked into the MoMA and saw Dinh’s work that day I had no clue what adventures Vietnam still had in store for me, or that I would get to work with him one day. I didn’t meet him until seven years later, when I got hired as the curator of MoTplus contemporary art space in Saigon, thanks to the artist Cam Xanh (real name Tran Thanh Ha). Before her rebirth as an artist, Cam Xanh was one of the leading collectors in Vietnam — she built one of the top collections of contemporary Vietnamese art (The Post Vidai Collection) in collaboration with her former husband Olivier Mourgue d’Algue and their friend Daniel Howald. I met her in 2016 on the occasion of her stunning two woman exhibit with Le Hien Minh at Dia Projects (an art space she co-founded with the artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran, a few doors down from Galerie Quynh back when it was located near the Opera House on Dong Khoi street). Featuring conceptually driven installations, it was the most “contemporary” art exhibit I had seen in Vietnam up till then, inspiring me to chat with Cam Xanh and review the show for Art Asia Pacific magazine.[3]

At that time I was back in Vietnam, independently studying Vietnamese art while working as a professor of Western Art History at The Ho Chi Minh University of Science. After wrapping up that contract I moved to Chiang Mai to familiarize myself with Thai art, and it wasn’t until a visit to Saigon a year later when Cam Xanh invited me over to her home for a meeting. Sitting in her living room, I vividly recall how I couldn’t keep my eyes off the flickering four-channel Dinh Q. Le video installation on the wall (an abstract meditation on the terrorist attacks that rocked NYC on 9/11) while she invited me to be the curator of her new art space MoT+++ (aka MoTplus). I agreed instantly.

[3] This article is no longer live on the AAP website, but you may access my copy of the text here.

  • Le Hien Minh, The Production of Man (Balls Revisited) (2016), Vietnamese handmade Dzó paper, Glass Jar, Table, Dry Powder Pigment, image courtesy of Dia Projects.

A month later, Cam Xanh took me to meet lots of artists, including Dinh Q. Le — but first, I went to visit MoTplus, where she had a very curious installation on display in a back room off the main exhibition space. The work was titled The Changing Room[4] and it was unlike any artwork I had seen before — or any I have seen since for that matter, as it involved getting completely naked, and entering solo into a chamber of silk littered with the cocoons and corpses of countless dead silkworm flies.
It is unlikely that one could execute such an artwork in a “first world” country such as The USA, Germany, or Japan, where strict sanitary regulations would probably forbid the viewer from stepping into an enclosed space full of decaying insect carcasses — such is the irony of art in Vietnam actually being in some ways more free than in the west. Despite the official system of regulation and censorship, the fact is that the plodding authorities are largely oblivious to much of the art activity going on, and you can actually get away with things that would never fly elsewhere.[5]
Cam Xanh herself never set foot in The Changing Room (in part, as she explained to me years later, because she has a phobia of worms, stemming from her childhood growing up in Hanoi during the lean years after the war, with rats and bugs infesting her home). She left the MoT staff to execute the work according to her instructions, and experienced the work solely through exit interviews conducted with the visitors who went inside. No photography was allowed. Visitors were asked to privately disrobe behind a curtain, and enter the installation with no shoes, no clothes, no phone, no nothing. Time moves differently in the languid setting of Southern Vietnam — there was never any rush, you could spend as long as you wanted inside. It was a far more profound and humbling experience than for instance entering solo into a Yayoi Kusama “Infinity Room” for a timed one minute selfie-shoot. 

[4] Cam Xanh, The Changing Room (2017) fake white silk, silkworms, wood, acrylic paint, dimensions variable, no visual documentation permitted; you can watch exit interviews with viewers of the work here.
[5] For instance, I fondly recall how the opening exhibit of The Factory Contemporary Art Center featured an installation by UuDam Tran Nguyen with a powerful laser beam burning holes through paper targets. Other examples of art actions which might not be possible everywhere include the sea of purple and gold glitter covering the floor at Truc Anh’s solo at Galerie Quynh; Tuan Mami leaving out bottles of wild-pineapple liquor for visitors to sample without ID regulation during his solo at The Factory; the Mongolian artist Enkhbold Togmidshiirev lighting a pile of dried horse dung on fire during an indoor performance at MoTplus; Lap Xuan attempting to drink a life-threatening quantity of water as a performance at the opening of All Animals Are Equal; Ran Cap Duoi performing a non-stop noise jam for 48 hours straight at A. Farm; the list could go on and on.

  • Cam Xanh, a recent work featuring marked silkworm cocoons in a plexiglass box, with a dead moth placed beside it (not part of the work), MoT+++ La Astoria, photo by author, March 2024.

Of course I have no photos and must rely on my own memories (or the archive of exit interviews with visitors, which can be viewed here), but what I remember most distinctly was the experience of parting the lips of (synthetic) white “silk” to step into the installation like crawling back into the womb, and also the powerful musty scent of the dead bugs inside — a scent which evolved over the course of the “changing” room’s life. Intriguingly, when I spoke to Cam Xanh about the piece in preparation for writing this text (sitting once more on her couch five years later, this time with the Dinh Q. Le TVs turned off, as if in premonition) she reminded me about something that had escaped my recollection, specifically: the presence of three black wooden boxes of different sizes sitting on the floor of the installation. 
In my memory, it was just a room of white fabric, perhaps with a “pillar” of fabric in the center — but no, it's true, there were three black boxes, which were empty save for a few silkworm flies that had fallen inside and died where they fell. Discussing it with Cam Xanh, I asked if she thought of the boxes as coffins, and she said no, they were more like fake windows, evoking the elusive promise of the night sky, the limitless beyond which remains always out of reach, except perhaps in death… and she pointed out that they were boxes within a box (the back room), which itself was within a box (the greater gallery space), within a box (the hotel building that housed the gallery) — a seemingly infinite recursion of boxes, evoking the mirrored relationship between microcosm and macrocosm, and the cycle of death and rebirth. 
We reminisced about some memorable occurrences related to the work (such as the art dealer who disrobed then went through the wrong door, walking out naked through the hotel kitchen — or the museum director who callously went inside fully clothed, violating the sanctity of the work by taking photos) and she told me the story of her teenage daughter, who upon entering felt inspired to step inside the largest of the three black boxes, and sit down snuggly inside it for a while. Such was the unscripted, perpetually evolving nature of the work, which could only be temporarily completed by its solitary viewers, and which was always changing across the lifecycle of the bugs and beyond. 
It began with unhatched silkworms being placed inside; the worms emerged, and then proceeded to metamorph into flies; for a while the flies fluttered against the fake silk, and then died; then they decayed, the smell quite intense at first due to the feeding activity of microorganisms, and finally becoming less so as the bacteria also died, leaving nothing but desiccated carapaces in their wake. 

  • Cam Xanh, work from the F Is For Fake series, embellished fake designer handbag, Post-Vidai Collection, photo by author, March 2024.

I asked her if the use of synthetic “fake silk” was significant and she shrugged — Cam Xanh has never feared kitsch, in fact she revels in it, deriving a devilish amusement from the human hypocrisy that designates one tangible object as real, and another as fake, despite their symbolic equivalence… or the hypocrisy that says the death of animals is acceptable for food or commercial exploits, but not in the name of art. She pointed out that these days, colored silk is often produced by treating the worms themselves with dyes, causing them to spin “naturally” colored silk, and that in the silk production process, silkworms do not get to live out their full lifecycle; they are killed when the silk cocoons are harvested. 
The silkworm is a recurring motif in her art practice. For one thing, she has made numerous artworks principally comprised of silk cocoons, but for another, the name of her artspace/collective MoT+++ (arguably her greatest work to date, a living social sculpture a la Joseph Beuys) is a nod to the silkworm. You see, Vietnamese being a tonal language, the word “mot” when intoned a certain way could mean the number 1 — but when intoned differently, it means silkworm. And like the silkworms in The Changing Room, MoTplus is always evolving (plus one project, plus one member, plus one art space, ad infinitum).

Fast forward about 10 months from my visit to “The Changing Room,” and I find myself standing on top of a chair in a highschool, dumping silkworm cocoons into a plexiglass box mounted on the wall, marveling at the unlikely course my life had taken. In addition to curating the program at MoTplus (we only did performance art at MoT that year, strictly no exhibitions; just imagine, an entire year of experimental art performances) Cam Xanh also got me a job as art advisor to the collector Quynh Nguyen, making me the first employee of The Nguyen Art Foundation, which has since grown into one of the leading non-profit art organizations in Vietnam. 

  • Dinh Q. Le, Adrift in Darkness (2017), Digital print on Awagami bamboo paper, laser cut and woven onto cane structure, installation dimensions variable, image courtesy of Nguyen Art Foundation.

I was advising Quynh on acquisitions (collecting works such as silk paintings by Le Hoang Bich Phuong, war sketches by Pham Thanh Tam, and the epic woven photo installation Adrift In Darkness by Dinh Q. Le, which was jointly purchased by The NAF and Post-Vidai Collection), and also overseeing the installation of works from her collection in Renaissance International School — the first of multiple international schools she and her husband Tuyen have founded in Saigon over the years. Nowadays The NAF has two beautiful art galleries, located in their two EMASI school campuses on either side of Saigon.
So there I was, standing on a chair, pondering the vicissitudes of fate while inserting silkworm cocoons into a plexiglass box, performing upkeep on the Cam Xanh installation Socrates Apology (2017).[6] The work was conceived as a site-specific piece for the school: a hollow desk was filled with cocoons, and students of the school were invited to inscribe passages from Socrates Apology word by word onto the cocoons (which periodically were transferred into the plexiglass box on the wall). The text is a polemic in which Socrates addresses his young disciples, urging them to think for themselves, before willingly committing suicide by drinking hemlock: his assigned punishment for refusing to repent for “corrupting the youth”. 

[6] Cam Xanh, Socrates Apology (2017) silkworm cocoons, plexiglass, wood, felt tip marker, A4 print-out of ‘Socrates Apology’ by Plato, vintage highschool desk, installation dimensions variable. 

  • Cam Xanh, Socrates’ Apology (2018-ongoing), Marker on silk cocoon, wood and plexiglass box, vintage school desk, copy of ‘Socrates’s Apology’, notebook, pen, installation dimensions variable, courtesy of The Nguyen Art Foundation.

Not many high schools have such thought provoking interactive art installations on their premises, whether in Vietnam or anywhere else — but I had little time to muse about the work, as I had to hop on my motorbike and drive far to the other side of town, where we were setting up a brand new artist residency space named A. Farm. A joint project of MoT, San Art, and the Nguyen Art Foundation, we were renovating a warehouse on the outskirts of town into a complex of artist studios, which would house both Vietnamese and foreign resident artists side by side. It was in some sense the spiritual successor to the San Art Residency program (a project directed for years by Zoe Butt, having a tremendous impact on the emerging artists of Vietnam at the time), and Dinh (as the founder and director of San Art) had a brilliant idea for how we would inaugurate the new space.
The name A. Farm was a nod to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and so Dinh proposed we launch with a colossal salon hang titled All Animals Are Equal, in which every artist in Saigon was invited to participate, regardless of age, career stature, or nationality. The works were to be installed all throughout the studio spaces, the kitchen, the event space, and even the bedrooms for the resident artists. We ended up filling it all — and I found myself coordinating the creative chaos that ensued. 
We had around 300 hundred participating artists in the end — some of them famous, some of them exhibiting for the first time ever — and I felt an intense sense of deja vu, as it took me back to my very first curating experience, working as a curatorial assistant to Phong Bui on the exhibition Come Together: Surviving Sandy in 2013. That exhibition also featured over 300 artists young and old, famous and unknown; it was a memorial exhibition for the artist victims of Hurricane Sandy, a catastrophic storm which had rocked NYC the year before, flooding countless artists' studios (Phong’s studio included). 

  • The Beauty of Friends Coming Together II, part of the exhibition Come Together: Surviving Sandy curated by Phong Bui, installation view, courtesy of The Brooklyn Rail & The Dedalus Foundation, photo by Brian Buckley.

Phong is a New Yorker through and through, his magazine The Brooklyn Rail a venerable NYC art institution, but he was born in Hue in Central Vietnam, and came to America as a child refugee like so many at the end of the war. During the madcap process of throwing together a museum scale exhibition in a warehouse in Brooklyn, Phong used to wax lyrical over lunch, regaling the curatorial team with stories from his life, reminiscing about encounters with famous New York artists as well as childhood memories from Vietnam, such as the flooding in Hue, when the water came all the way up to the second floor, enabling him to jump from his balcony and swim in the middle of the street. One day, just a month or two before opening, Phong announced his plan to do a salon hang filling two large rooms with emerging New York artists affected by the floods, adding 200 or so additional names to our already long list of 100+ renowned participants — and he turned to me and said: “Dave, you handle that.”
So at the launch of A. Farm, I once again found myself the de facto curator of a giant salon hang featuring artists of all stripes, selecting, receiving, and hanging artworks day in and day out as we rushed to throw together an insanely ambitious exhibition uniting the art community of an entire metropolis. Somehow we pulled it off in both cases, with too many brilliant artists to mention, but I wish to touch on just one artwork from All Animals: a video installation by the artist Truong Cong Tung, consisting of a single channel video, and a mat on the floor.[7]
The video was quite short and simple; it showed an old television screen in the countryside, with talking heads (perhaps politicians or journalists speaking on the evening news) but the surface of the screen was covered in fluttering termite flies — a subtle but poignant commentary on the uneven distribution of modernity in Vietnam. The mat on the floor in front of the video was a chiếu, one of those simple rattan mats which are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia. It is not uncommon to see people unfurl them and set up impromptu barbecues on the side of the road, and we used them frequently as seating at MoT during the year of performance. There were plenty of impressive works in that show, but when I look back, it's always this Truong Cong Tung piece that stands out in my memory, as it really speaks to what makes Vietnam so unique: a paradoxical mixture of skepticism and optimism, traditionalism and adaptability.

[7] Trương Công Tùng did not respond to my inquiry about this, hence I have only my memories of the work.

  • Florian Nguyen, drawing featured in All Animals Are Equal I, A. Farm 1.0, photo by author, 2018

At the end of the opening night, tired and sweaty but glowing with pride, I gave Dinh a hug, and thanked him for his brilliant idea, and for the opportunity to be involved. A month later I burnt out on juggling responsibilities across three opposite corners of the city, and moved back to Thailand once more — it was the last project I curated for MoT, until I returned for my residency at the recently reborn A. Farm which MoT relaunched at a new location in 2024, where I curated a pop-up salon titled ANIMAL HOUSE in my residency studio. It featured over 30 artists, both emerging & established, foreign & vietnamese. Fortunately I got to tell Dinh about it the last time I saw him, and let him know that it was a mini All Animals Are Equal. A completion of a cycle.

The summer after All Animals I returned to Saigon for an art advisory project, and caught an incredible exhibition by Nguyen Huy An at Galerie Quynh, titled Âm Sáng (a portmanteau invented by the artist, merging the concepts of shadow and light). I had the honor of working with Huy An in the past, as he is a member of Phụ Lục (The Appendix Group), a performance collective from Hanoi who did a six month residency at MoT during the year of performance art. During that time they lived in Cam Xanh’s studio, and at the end of their residency they did a suite of performances/installations there.[8] One day it was just me and Huy An up in that 19th floor apartment as we filmed a performance by one of his colleagues on a small boat in the middle of the Saigon River down below. I foolishly smoked some harsh thuốc lào tobacco from his bamboo bong and almost vomited, my eyes watering as I coughed uncontrollably. He asked me if I would always stay in Vietnam, and I confessed no, probably not. I asked him the same, and he said yes: “For me, there is only Vietnam.”

[8] Phụ Lục, from room B19.05 (2018): “Phụ Lục decided to preserve the living space of the apartment they live in order to address it as an approach to the new environment and space. In and out of the room, the connection and symbiosis of the images or objects themselves, even the taste, the air, the altitude, the wind, the horizon. Water scenes gradually appear with the drift, reminiscent of the urban pace of change. * A brought water hyacinths from around the Saigon riverside. they are now living/contained in every homeware item on 19th floor (tower B, Thu Thiem Sky building) * by the bottom of the Saigon bridge, B shreds every inch of a piece of white fabric on the dead body of a boat * along 2km of Thu Thiem tunnel, C and the water hyacinth walk across the bottom of the river * one after another by the window of room B19.05 * a ferry, a rope, a small boat, an old uniform set folded and D * along the market of old tool shops, E is looking for an old anchor”.

  • Huy An, đông cuông night (2017), single-channel video, sound, decal, termite wings video: 1’ 51” decal and termite wings: dimensions variable, photo courtesy of Galerie Quynh.

His fierce yet tender dedication to Vietnamese culture and traditions shined bitterly in Âm Sáng, which featured research and artifacts related to vernacular Northern Vietnamese theater forms and animist spiritual practices that were subject to overt suppression during the most rigorous years of communism, and which are now either largely in decline or completely dying out simply because few people care about them anymore. One work in particular demands mention here: an entire room of the gallery, the floor strewn with thousands of termite wings. In the exhibition catalog, Huy An wrote “On the night of the 19th, and the dawn of the 20th of May 2017, termites flew out from the surrounding mountains into a hầu dồng [spirit possession] ceremony at Đông Cuông Temple, Yên Bái. The next morning, I picked up the fallen termites’ wings on the floor of the temple.”[9] A video of the ceremony with the spirit possession underway and the termite flies buzzing was playing on a TV out in the hall, and a colored decal partially covered the gallery windows, giving a sense of night passing into day — or perhaps traditions fading into oblivion.

[9] Huy An, đông cuông night (2017), single-channel video, sound, decal, termite wings video, dimensions variable; learn more about this incredible body of work via the exhibition catalog, available here.

  • Truong Cong Tung, Unannounced Appearance (Harbinger) (2019), installation view, courtesy of San Art.

That same year I saw another work by Truong Cong Tung involving termites, in his two man exhibition with the French artist Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine at San Art. Titled Unannounced Appearance (Harbinger) (2019), Tung’s installation consisted of termite wings inside a wooden box with mesh screened sides, on a small wooden table with a fan mounted underneath, which caused the termite wings to flutter against the sides of their enclosure.[10] As is so often the case, my memory of the work was incomplete — only after I reviewed the catalog was I reminded that the installation also featured a flickering electric candle, and a small painting mounted on the wall adjacent. What I do remember is that there was a snippet of text printed on the window nearby, which the writer and curator Nguyen Hoang Quyen addressed in her catalog essay as follows:

A gossamer thread that links many disparate works by Trương Công Tùng is his fixation on metamorphosis, material or immaterial. In the work A Portrait of Absence, for instance, he appropriates a Central Highlander’s oral line about their cosmic worldview, recorded by ethnographer Jacques Dournes as follows, “I have heard people say: ‘My eyes are deceiving, forgetting, not knowing the truth.’” Beyond the indigenous belief in the inner spirit always in disguise and shapeshifting, the work is also about the instability or slippage of authorship: a Central Highlander speaks, a missionary-cum-ethnographer records the line filtered through a French translation, an author [Nguyên Ngọc] turns it into Vietnamese, an artist extracts and transforms the anonymous line into an intertextual artwork.[11]

[10] Trương Công Tùng, Unannounced Appearance (Harbinger) (2019), multimedia installation, insect wings, industrial fan, electric candle, painting.
[11] Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên, Wild Legacies, catalog essay for The Sap Still Runs exhibition at San Art (2019), p.12.

  • Truong Cong Tung, Portrait of Absence (2019), Printed text, “I have heard people say: "My eyes are deceiving, forgetting, not knowing the truth".” Jacques Dournes, in “Souls and Dreams” chapter, in the book “Southern Indochina Tribes”, translated by Nguyen Ngoc, installation dimension variable, courtesy of Truong Cong Tung.

Boxes inside boxes inside boxes… and yet, like the silkworm trying to fly out the “window,” the participant observer keeps on striving to discern the truth. Fortunately, I learnt long ago that ethnography was an unreliable “science,” and that the truth cannot be pinned like a butterfly in a display case. On the contrary, it is only through the creative act that we can ever hope to approach the truth — or die trying. 

David Willis
Lisbon, Portugal
May 2024
Author Biography: David Willis is a critic, curator and art advisor from New York, holding a BA in Socio-Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University and an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from The School of Visual Art. He is an expert in Southeast Asian contemporary art, having spent a decade working in Vietnam and Thailand. His writing has been published by The Brooklyn Rail, Art Asia Pacific, and Art & Market Magazine, and he collaborates regularly with Richard Koh Fine Art, curating shows at their Singapore gallery as well as writing books & exhibition catalogs. He is currently writing a book on the renowned Thai painter Natee Utarit, to be published by RKFA Bangkok, Fall 2024.