Mai Nguyễn-Long

What would you say if you could not say? Issues of displacement, voicelessness, silencing, untranslatability, and resistance are prominent in the 2022 new works Vomit Girl (Berlin Cluster) and Specimen (Permeate) by Mai Nguyễn-Long, to be premiered at the 12th Berlin Biennale amongst global political turmoil and the shadow of a post-pandemic world.

Born in Tasmania to a Vietnamese father and an Australian mother, Mai Nguyen-Long grew up in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines; as an adult, she has lived in Australia, China, and Vietnam, through critical historical periods such as wartime, the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Communism and the growing economy of Asia. This trajectory of migration during times of social and political upheaval has allowed Nguyen-Long to make sense of her identity, history, and cultural heritage while at the same time challenging preconceived notions of the nation-state, borders, and capitalism versus communism. 

Nguyen-Long’s drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures, media, installations and recent works in clay speak to her inner struggle, and expose a complex colonial and imperialist matrix of power that still affects and tears apart many Vietnamese people, even today. This division of ideology between North/South, East/West, and capitalism/communism has created tragic violence, and conflict that continues today. For the world, to speak of Vietnam can only mean speaking of the Vietnam-America war, but for many Vietnamese people, that war was more of a war between the North and South Vietnamese. It echoes the current Russia-Ukraine war, or the Partition of India in 1947. 

In war or conflicts, women are always the ones suffering in a more invisible way, playing the roles of mothers, wives, sisters, and spiritual symbols. Men are traditionally the main combat force during the war, but it’s the women whose pain and trauma linger before, during, and after the war. Countries speak of national heroes and victory, yet rarely discuss sexual harassment, rape, abuse, and mental sickness to women and children. 

While it maybe natural for Nguyen-Long, as a woman artist, to use symbols of femininity in her work to explore her personal trauma, this approach is also deeply rooted in the matriarchal Mother Goddess spiritual practices of Vietnam: Indigenous belief practices dating from the sixteenth century, before the influences of Confucianism and Buddhism from China, and Christianity from the Europe, on Vietnam. With Vomit Girl, Nguyen-Long grapples with the historical trauma of the Vietnam War and the mental division it created between North and South, both of which form part of the artist’s hybrid identity.

To understand the stories of the various childlike Vomit Girl characters, which are constructed in various colours and shapes, made of naked clay, viewers must look closer to see their hidden, nuanced lineage. The first sketch of Vomit Girl was created by Nguyen-Long out of a traumatic experience when her 2006 work Phở Dog, was condemned by the Vietnamese diasporic community in Australia as “communist propaganda.” It was a painful shock, particularly because it triggered memories of assaults and silencing she experienced as a young dislocated adult. These accumulated experiences prevented Nguyen-Long from travelling back to Vietnam for many years, through a self-rejection of her own heritage. This physical restriction of silencing created a strong desire to throw up. It seems that this physical reaction was the only means possible of resisting in a context where there was no space for being listened to. This resonates with the main argument from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s classic essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” of the inability of the colonised to speak up and to be heard. 

Specimen (Permeate), 2022, consists of around 135 upcycled jars used in domestic settings, collected by Nguyen-Long for many years. This diligent act of collecting, washing, and de-banding those jars was described by curator Gina Fairley in 2014 as “the scientific process of classification and compartmentalisation” for Beyogmos, the solo exhibition of Nguyen-Long’s work at Wollongong Art Gallery. The objects in the collected jars in the original version of Specimen, 2014, are deeply personal, such as the artist’s childhood toys or belongings. The new creation of the work in Berlin contains partly personal belongings from the artist, and partly objects collected from the community in Berlin. The objects of our mundane everyday lives such as broken toys, condoms, smashed mirrors, soil, tea leaves, instant coffee, marmalade . . . become a stark but honest portrait of modern human life. Beyond the labelling and branding of consumerist society, the naked glass jars trigger memories and questions of the past and the future. The act of archiving and preserving those objects is perhaps an attempt to remember, to repair, and to create space to take stock and disarm their destructive energies. At the same time, Specimen eerily recalls images of foetuses and organs labeled and stored in glass hospital jars or natural science museums. Both hospitals and museums are products of our modern life carrying their “civilisation” and Enlightenment missions, but are they really so enlightened? Regarding Nguyen-Long’s personal history, one can’t help acknowledging the reference to Agent Orange – a horrific man-made chemical which haunts thousands lives till today. 

For Nguyen-Long, “the recurring vomit motif came from a sense of being erased: having no identity, language, or voice to speak with. There is overwhelming sadness and confusion about how to bridge the dense chasm of exclusionary narratives, misunderstandings, discrimination, rejection, and shame.” Regardless of this violent and traumatic experience, Nguyen-Long has never stopped finding ways to reconnect with Vietnam and (re)study language or “mother tongue,” as well as the histories of arts, to rewrite the isolations and fractures of internalised racism. This is a personal but also a collective process of deconstructing and disarming the colonising power of trauma.  

Inspired by the rustic aesthetics (mộc mạc) and playfulness of traditional wood carvings from Vietnamese đình architecture, and the memorable encounters of bombshells repurposed into đình courtyard bells. Nguyen-Long has experimented with clay to create the various manifestations of Vomit Girl. As described by her own words, “clay is also – literally – a grounding medium, and naked clay (unglazed) is a connector to primordial yearnings and stories beyond constructed borders. The innate fluid and sensual qualities of clay unleashed deeply repressed associations – that which has been lost, broken, or buried – and allowed a form of play and playfulness inexpressible in verbal realms. The clay made it possible for a more cohesive story to emerge from the ‘unspeakable.’” Through manually working with clay, it’s a slow therapeutic process for Nguyen-Long to make sense and develop different forms of Vomit Girl. The Vomit Girl shape, therefore, adapts, transforms and expands connections and associations. The playfulness of clay also brings a subtle humour to the work. 

For Nguyen-Long, the urgency to tell different stories and explore multiple interconnected traumas is her own method of deconstructing, detangling, and decolonising. The work goes beyond the binaries of communist-anticommunist, coloniser-colonised, and oppressor-oppressed, to recover lost connections and buried linkages with “homelands.” Vomit Girl is a powerful symbol of resistance as well as a ritual summoning of spirits from the beyond. Nguyen-Long’s works are a potent reminder of this horrific crime that was nearly forgotten even in Vietnam, where the fast pace of capitalism has eclipsed memory.   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 59, 2022.
Images courtesy the artist, 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Art Atrium, Sydney, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Southwest Sydney, and Wollongong Art Gallery, New South Wales.

Mai Nguyễn-Long and William Yang: Diasporic Dialogues
8–22 October 2022
Art Atrium, Sydney

Mai Nguyễn-Long
October 2023 – January 2024
Wollongong Art Gallery, New South Wales

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