water image, 2015

Used clothes, pond, light box

Size: 4sqm

“Water-image”, a reflection on water, appears in a poem by Minh Mang king. He was the second king of Nguyen Dynasty  (1802 – 1945), the last monarchial dynasty of Vietnam.

In monarchical regimes, kings assumed the position of “Son of Heaven”. During special ceremonies held to send prayers to heaven, they wore a specific type of gown called “Long Cổn”. The work ‘Water-image’ was modeled after one, made from donated clothes by a few descendants of Nguyen Dynasty. This regime of 143 years was shadowed by China’s imperial menace, French’s colonization, and Japan’s fight for territory power. It ended with the enthronement of Vietnam’s Communist Party, turning the royalties into civilians. A number of Nguyen descendants now live with a kind of feudal inferiority, some in poverty, some in wealth. Some scatter in France or other countries that were once French colonies.

By deconstructing and then reconstructing the clothes, not only do I make a new piece of garment, I tap on personal stories and a multidimensional history. On a dress, the contrast between the lavishness of the past and the frugality of the present reflect Vietnam’s history, one that has been altered culturally, politically and socially over time.

“Water-image” hangs in the air with its arms stretched out. This position suggests protection and sharing but also, like that of a scarecrow on a field, implies resignation and helplessness. It reflects upon a small pond in a small, dark, tight room. Just like kings who led their lives in confined physical and mental spaces, having the entire country but powerless against manipulations. ‘Water-image’ questions the consciousness of Nguyen kings on the country’s fate in the past and similarly, the descendants’ stance now.

A popular saying goes: history is like a piece of cloth patched together from a number of single pieces. This gown is like that too. It is woven from many bits of different people, different times, different connections that continue to extend and vary.