KVT – Performance Art by Lai Dieu Ha at Nha San

KVT – Performance Art by Lai Dieu Ha at Nha San

Somewhere in my reading about the development of performance art I came across a critic (the name disappeared into the greyer regions of my memory) who proposed that the type of performance art that expresses itself through pain, grueling endurance tests and even bloodletting was born in Vietnam on June 11, 1963.

If you see a film of the self immolation of Hoa Thuong Thich Quang Duc you realize the intense drama that began when the revered Buddhist monk seated himself at a busy intersection in Saigon inside a circle of colleagues and onlookers, while a fellow monk slowly, almost ritually, poured gasoline over him. After several minutes Quang Duc set himself alight and the rest is a history that motivated myriad impressionable youngsters, like me, into becoming anti Vietnam War protestors and supporters of Ho Chi Minh and his army of liberation.
In discussion, friends have suggested other geneses such as witnessing the crucfiction of volunteers during Easter at Cebu in the Phillipines or even watching the theatre provided by the land divers of Pentecost Island. Whatever, the trend pioneered over 40 years ago by artists such as Marina Abramovic, has become a integral genre in the catechism of Performance Art. This visceral, unsettling form of the art used to generate outrage and disgust and police visits but nowadays it is just about considered run of the mill type stuff.

When viewing this strain of Performance Art (and here I admit that I have little interest in watching people inflict pain on themselves but I am intrigued by their reasons for doing so) you realize that

the audience is as much part of the performance as is the artist.

Some appear engrossed in the infliction; others flinch and are uneasy; a few seem to want to cry out to put a stop to the preposterousness; others smile at friends, perhaps suggesting the absurdity of it all; most have serious demeanors, perhaps not wanting to appear non avant garde; a minority leave the arena.

When, in a past and distant phase of life, I used to deal with problem adolescents, their self-inflicted minor wounding and disfiguration with razor blades and other sharp or pointed objects sometimes became a sort of theater in the round when small groups would sit and cut themselves oblivious to the circle of curious, but passive, adolescent onlookers, until one viewer would freak out and seek some way to stop the hurt….that of the performers and also their own.

Abromovic once did a performance where she allowed audience members to inflict pain on her and recounts that at times she felt she was at serious risk and once was terrified.

All of these ramblings come from post-viewing reflections on Lai Dieu Ha’s hour-long performance at Nha San on Tuesday night in front of a large audience. As I’ve quoted before when writing about performance art, one criterion is that it may be entertaining, amusing, shocking or horrifying but no matter which adjective applies, it is meant to be memorable. And Ha’s performance was certainly memorable. It was in the Abramovic mode, and I daresay, if social mores allowed, may have been more audacious.

I’m still teasing out the meanings and translations I’ve ascribed to the piece and the artist did not suggest a title upon which we could drape our preconceptions. As with a lot of the good feminist artists in Vietnam she appears to be protesting the societal pressures, prejudices and conformities that females have to deal with here and, as far as I’m concerned, her confronting performance succinctly and powerfully addressed some of these.

The Anglo-American poet, W H Auden once stated that poetry makes nothing happen. And, I guess, he would also add that outside the conceit of the individual artist, neither does art. But it always makes me feel impressed and enthused when artists make changing-the-world type statements.

We were requested not to take photographs so I’ll adhere to that request and not supply word images of the performance. Suffice to say that when she performs again I’ll try to get along to see her. Mind you, if you hear a yell then it will probably be me protesting that she desist….not that she’d listen.

Parents take note, though, that Ha’s performances are M rated (mature audiences only).

Not a reviewer, not a critic, “Kiếm Văn Tìm” is an interested, impartial and informed observer and connoisseur of the Hanoi art scene who offers highly opinionated remarks and is part of the long and venerable tradition of anonymous correspondents. Please add your thoughts in the comment field below.

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  1. @ noname

    the same point as going to a theater performance, leaving the camera home and just enjoying the actual experience. The fetish that some people have with cameras is quite unhealthy, my dear. Unless some darlings have a record of their attendance it seems that they can’t recall if they’ve been or not. Some perfectly funny sweeties spend a whole performance madly clicking and then checking the results. They probably get free tickets. Some pussies even think that moving all over the place and spoiling other peoples’ sight lines is quite endearing. What a to do my candypie!

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