We think we know what we see in Hong-An Truong’s video work, Explosions in the Sky (Điện Biên Phủ 1954), which is part of the exhibition Area 919: Artists in the Triangle. But the Durham-based artist asks us to … look again. And listen again.
“So you are looking at footage from 1954, archival footage, shot by the French of the battle at Dien Bien Phou in Vietnam,” Hong-An told us. “It was the decisive battle that ended the French presence, French colonialism, in Vietnam, and it marked the beginning of American involvement. Since the French were no longer there, Americans already had invested interest in what was going on in terms of the beginning of Cold War fear. So that battle, to me and that footage of the bombs going off in the air, kind of signals this really important juncture, both historically, politically and in time.”
“We’re listening to a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, which is covered by a Vietnamese band. You’re listening to what sounds really familiar. You start listening and you’re like, oh yeah, I know this song. And everybody loves that song. And then suddenly you don’t understand what’s going on and you’re like, wait a second, I thought I was listening to this and suddenly it’s in Vietnamese. So, it’s a bilingual version of The Sound of Silence that was covered in the ’80s by a Vietnamese band that was sort of going back and forth between California and Vietnam at that time. So, you’re listening to that song as you’re watching these sort of bombs go off. And you know, I’m really interested in these unlikely juxtapositions in order to bring about these connections both temporally and politically and ideologically through the image and through sound. So, to me, the sound really serves as this counterpoint to recognize both the kind of sublime beauty in that image of the bombs going off and recognizing these connections through time. Again, it was that moment that sort of marked American involvement in the U.S. and kind of signals a future for Vietnam and signals the trajectory of American imperialism. American economic and cultural imperialism that was to come.”
We asked Hong-An to talk a little more about unexpected juxtapositions in her work.
“I like those juxtapositions because they allow us to understand something differently,” she said. “For me, that’s the power of making visual art. It allows us to recognize something that we wouldn’t normally recognize and to make connections between the present and the past.”
Does understanding help us to feel better about the world?
“I don’t necessarily want my work to be like, oh I get it now,” Hong-An said. “I don’t want the audience to say oh, I get it. I totally understand this now. It’s more like I want them to be disturbed, so I think the juxtapositions cause a kind of jarring effect where like, wait a second, I actually don’t get it. So they’re forced to understand that connection but actually kind of makes that rift really palpable and visible and tangible. So I’m not saying that there’s this smooth connection between the past and the present and let’s just understand it and we’ll all feel better about ourselves and understand it. But actually I really try to in my work to cause a kind of tension for the viewer where actually they’re not getting it. I like to create a position for the viewer where they’re actually feeling really uncomfortable, where they’re like, oh I thought I understood this, but actually I don’t really understand it. I understand the song, but wait it’s in Vietnamese. Is it the same song? Are they saying the same words? So all these questions have to arise. Why is it being connected to these abstract bombs. Are the bombs beautiful? Are they destructive? So I think for me, the connection is really about calling attention to those rifts in time where, normally, historical narratives try to smooth over those rifts. My work really tries to look at those rifts and kind of reveal the seams and how they kind of fray apart and what’s really problematic about what’s perceived in historical narratives as seamless.”
We asked Hong-An to talk about how Americans might be desensitized to images of mushroom clouds.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” she said. “I mean I think that’s also one of my interests in how I approach my work, taking what … people already have a way of approaching or understanding or feel comfortable with, especially archival images or certain popular media images, and sound. A lot of my work appropriates moving images and sound and still images too. I’m interested in trying to destabilize the historical image and destabilize our relationship to what we thought we once knew because I think there’s power in them. I think the archive is a really powerful place because the archival document signals truth, but it also signals fiction in terms of the way in which that archival image is put into the service of certain narratives. We already have a certain way of looking at that image and thinking about that song. Or just it becomes normalized to listen to it and not understand its political implications or think about its time, think about silence. And so, I want to be able to have the viewer have a new relationship to images and sound that they thought they already understood.”