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The Collector

Artists and Their Voices

The Tree that Brings Love Through War and Peace

Uprooted

Bui Cong Khanh: Dislocate. Installation view. 2016. Ho Chi Minh City/ Photo by author

The golden-yellow jackfruit salad with tiny pink shrimps was delicious. It paired well with the golden-brown jackwood bowl. Being a guest at the artist Bui Cong Khanh’s table was a big honor. Jackfruit was Bui’s life — IS Bui’s life. The shrimps were reminiscent of those that swam through the padi fields in war time, Vietnam, 1950s-70s. Bui was born in 1972.

Food was scarce after the long war. But Bui hardly knew the scraping since his mom always made food “glamorous”. Firm young jackfruit for soups, ripe ones for desserts. Yummm. She always prepared them with love and a story for the kids.

His carpenter dad made beautiful furniture from jack timber.

“Vroozzzzzz…vroozzzzzz….” Goes the chainsaw.

Kids’ laughter rang with jackwood toys. Jackwood is termite-proof, better than some pretentious, expensive wood. Young jackwood is malleable. It yields to human tools, always giving.

Jackfruit, the largest tree fruit in the world, needs only minimal maintenance for its trees. The emperor Minh Mang had ordered every town and household in 1831 to plant jackfruit trees every 5 meters, for benefits in years to come.

Sharp, spiky barbed wire fences were everywhere. The Americans made them strong. During the war they used these for hamlets to separate local South Vietnamese families from Viet Congs. It was easier to manage — for the Americans. But the hamlets were far away from the farm lands and ancestral lands. Locals didn't like that.

After the war, the government repurposed the wire fences for re-education camps and schools.

Schools.

Bui took a picture of one recently. Grey wire fencing stands out from the bright yellow, plastered walls like an awkward punctuation mark.

Oh, they’re still here. Everywhere. They last.

As always for me when entering a culture newly lived, the year in Ho Chi Minh City as a foreigner was captivating.

Bui Cong Khanh: Dislocate. Detail. 2016. Singapore Art Museum/ Photo by author

Fences

These jack wood screens are part of Bui’s epic, life-size installation Dislocate, his most significant to-date.

“Vroozzzzzz…vroozzzzzz….” Goes the chainsaw.

As a military officer of the then Republic of South Vietnam, his dad fought alongside the US army against the North (then backed by China and previously Russia). He had an M16 and US uniform. And a helmet that didn’t fit.

One day, his mom re-sewed a badge on dad’s uniform. Dad protected his country and the family. Mom protected dad.

Bui Cong Khanh: Dislocate. Detail. 2016. Ho Chi Minh City/ Photo by author
Bui Cong Khanh: Dislocate. Detail. 2016. Ho Chi Minh City/ Photo by author

Carved jackwood panels talk.

Grenade, M16, and his dad’s US-issued military jacket on one side: Burdens generations inherit.

An axe for wood-chopping, helmet, and his mom’s jacket on the other side: The giver who provides roots and nourishes.

The panels cast shadows within.

Bui Cong Khanh: Dislocate. Detail. 2016. Ho Chi Minh City/ Photo by author

“Are we Chinese?” Bui demanded of his dad.

When Bui was 20, a tall ladder he climbed led to the secret: Behind a small pair of curtains on top of the family shrine stood Kuan Ti (the Chinese general, “god of war”, the symbol of justice). His dad told him they must worship their ancestors in private. The world must not know their ethnic identity.

“WHY!!!?” So the young Bui bottled up his anger for 20 years.

“Vroozzzzzz…vroozzzzzz….” Goes the chainsaw.

His ancestors escaped to Vietnam from the Fukien Province when Manchurians invaded China proper in the 1600s. Bui’s Chinese ancestors were not invaders. They were refugees.

His mom was Vietnamese. She loved her family. But animosity towards locals of Chinese ethnicity abound. Distrust in every corner. She had to extend her wings.

Bui Cong Khanh: Dislocate. Detail. 2016. Ho Chi Minh City/ Photo by author
Bui Cong Khanh: Dislocate. Detail. 2016. Ho Chi Minh City/ Photo by author

Bunker doors

See those bunker doors? They were made in 1972, the year he was born. Full of bullet scars. Bui repurposed the doors for his artwork. Let’s call it the Northern Exit — the only exit in the installation. See the two door-eyes with red cloth? Yin-Yang eyes. They could see through night and day.

Bunkers were aplenty in Hoi An where Bui grew up, and his birth place Danang in the war years. Who built them? Chinese ethnics of Hoi An and Danang built and paid for them — to protect all Southern Vietnamese locals, including those who distrusted the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam — against the Chinese of China who sided with the North back then.

Messy.

All things with Chinese roots were suppressed, including historic architecture. I attended a private tour of the first university in Vietnam (Hanoi), built in the 1800s. The guide was oblivious of what the various carvings and writings meant. It was a Chinese university of Confucious teachings.

A glorious statue of Lenin shone, somewhere in Hanoi.

Civil wars on top of historic interventions by the Chinese, French, Americans, Russians, Japanese… Wars went almost non-stop for milleniums in Vietnam.

“Vroozzzzzz…vroozzzzzz….” Goes the chainsaw.

Pen-jing

Meanwhile, four pagodas with pen-jings (miniature topiary) surround the house. The four seasons are watching. Are those miniature cannons or gun barrels jutting out from the pagodas?

A manipulation of nature. An act to stunt the plant’s natural growth.

Stunted.

Just like the bullets and wire fences stunted the jackfruit trees.

A section of jack wood wounded by remains of old wire fence. Artist’s research for Dislocate. 2014-2016/ Photo by author

The scarred jackfruit tree does not recover. Even after external healing, the part surrounding the wound stays wounded — the cells cannot grow. Forever.

“Vroozzzzzz…vroozzzzzz….” Goes the chainsaw.

Bui Cong Khanh: Dislocate. Detail. 2016. Ho Chi Minh City/ Photo by author

The Dong Beam

All the while, jackwood beams uphold the roof — the cycles of life — starting from the Dong beam, the main beam that upholds birth, aging, sickness, and death.

The beam that upholds life.

The wars were messy. Very messy. As wars usually are. The only thing not messy was — IS — the food Bui’s mom made, clear as day in his memory.

Amicable conversations flowed around the large square table. There was a genuine feeling of community — an international community from 5 continents — as we shared the food and essence of Bui’s childhood memories.

Jackfruit. Food that his mom made “glamorous”, because its glamor transcended all bitterness.

Food, the love that brings people together, not war.

Jackwood. His dad. The tree that protects and nourishes.

(Dislocate was jointly exhibited by San Art and FCAC, Ho Chi Minh City, 2016, and Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2017. Currently in the collection of M+Museum, Hong Kong.)

Seu
© PseuPending 2022

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References

  • Conversations with Bui Cong Khanh, 2016
  • Dislocate Exhibition, by San Art and The Factory Contemporary Arts Center, Ho Chi Minh City, 2016. Curated by Zoe Butt
  • Research material from the Study Room, Dislocate Exhibition, Ho Chi Minh City, 2016

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PseuPending (Seu)

PseuPending (Seu)

Leisure is a path to the thinking process. Museum Educator/ Contemporary Art Researcher/ Modern Nomad/ Lover of Good Eats. Top writer