May 1, 1931—Thousands of people gather in the forest of Vincennes in the eastern outskirts of Paris to stroll around newly built re-creations of pagodas, palaces, and huts while observing the forest’s temporary tenants: whole tribes and families brought in from the French colonies in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile in Paris, the Surrealists are at work staging a counter-exhibition and publishing “The Truth About the Colonies,” which denounces the state’s efforts to validate its crimes, while unsuccessfully urging the public not to attend the colonial exhibition.
Here in the present, a facsimile of “The Truth About the Colonies” sets the tone for Anywhere But Here, a group exhibition at Bétonsalon Center for Art and Research in Paris, in which contemporary artists explore the ongoing effects of colonial rule in Southeast Asia. The exhibition places a strong spotlight on Cambodia, where the French Protectorate was active from 1866 though 1953, and interlaces histories of colonialism with anecdotes and personal experiences using various forms of media. The exhibition reflects upon the high stakes at play for those who are forced to, in the words of Surrealist André Breton, “leave everything.”
Tra Minh Duc’s Private Sorrow (2015), is an installation composed of a worn-out sofa characteristic of the era of Louise XVI, during which Prince Canh, a member of the last dynasty of Vietnam, spent five years in Paris negotiating a treaty that would later mark the start of the colonization of Vietnam. Upon his return to Asia, the prince, whom we see in époque attire in a small portrait within the exhibition, found himself lost, displaced, and unknowingly anticipating the future of generations of his uprooted countrymen. A plastic mirror completes the installation, giving a sense of strangeness to the works, as well as their distorted reflections across the room. Among these distortions and transpositions is Cambodia Crises (2016), a video piece by Duc in which he sits in front of a camera next to a well-intentioned but ineffective translator who futilely reads aloud one of the few historical books written by a Cambodian about the Khmer Rouge regime members. Despite the accuracy of the history being orated by the translator, the text is written and spoken in Khmer, a language unknown to Duc, who remains bewildered onscreen, perhaps as awkward and helpless in his own culture as Prince Cahn.
At the center of the gallery, Thao-Nguyen Phan’s harrowing installation Heads (2014) is inspired by the “Ma Mot” trees used for healing rituals in northern Vietnam. In Phan’s iteration, what hang in lieu of amulets are little brass heads representing peasants’ whole bodies, instead of single bones, and jute of varying widths, as well as sleigh bells and rusty sickles. These objects resonate powerfully with the story of the 1945 famine in north Vietnam in which two million people died after following colonial orders—from both the French and Japanese—to halt production of rice, and to instead produce jute, a crucial material for the production and distribution of gunpowder. An appropriate reaction to this state-sponsored horror is provided by an adjacent sculpture by the exiled king Hàm Nghi (Tu Xuân), in which a naked and ashamed Eve (1925) turns her back on us, covering her eyes in deep desolation.
Lyno Vuth’s and Vady Rattana’s videos round off the exhibition, interrogating history from a contemporary perspective while demanding a paradigm change in the policies of the future. On the ground floor is Vuth’s UNTAC Project (2016), a brief promotional video from the so-called “Transformational Authority” of the United Nations, which is played backward, thus losing the straightforward delivery that is typical of micro-videos that deliver “information” through social media. In a video box on an upper floor, Rattana directs our gaze to the Cambodian countryside, where subtitles succinctly narrate the story of an anonymous victim of an anonymous conflict. This unknown protagonist is imprisoned, tried, and murdered unjustly in the deceptively calm fields of Cambodia, which in present reality is littered with active land mines and undiscovered mass graves. The story is written and not spoken, pointing at the urgent work needed to unearth not only the bodies of countless anonymous victims, but also highlighting the trauma and unspeakable injustice hidden in the silence of a nation.
Next to this video, running along the ceiling, is Felix González-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Robert Vifian) (1993). An appearance of the subject of this portrait, Robert Vifian—a notorious Franco-Vietnamese chef and contemporary art collector, who moved to Paris after the fall of Saigon—is scheduled for an upcoming event at the gallery. Perhaps, then, a more compelling link will be made for a piece that, although in line with the curatorial discourse, feels somewhat out of proportion and not entirely comfortable alongside works by young artists bravely dealing with the hard facts of their nation’s history.
Anywhere But Here is an exhibition of political substance that, from a curatorial perspective, tries to make sense of France’s colonial legacy in Southeast Asia. The exhibition shows that, unlike the Surrealists of the early 20th century, contemporary artists from the region and those who lived through the diaspora are unwilling to leave everything. They are instead eager to take it all. Identity, ritual, history, and anecdote are carried into the work with both sorrow for what has been lost or cannot be repaired, as well as hope for new systems of knowledge and justice that are interlaced in our present.
Anywhere But Here will be on view through November 5, 2016.