Issue 8: Moi Tran - Experiences and Encounters within the Margin

Moi Tran: ‘I Love a Broad Margin to My Life’ (15 May - 3 July 2021) is Yeo Workshop's first solo exhibition of the works by Vietnamese diaspora artist Moi Tran. The theatrical exhibition draws on Tran’s lived experience as a Vietnamese refugee, alongside her continued engagement with diaspora visibility and nurturing critical knowledge sharing. Here are some exhibition highlights and reflections by gallery associate Cassie Sim.

An ensemble of intriguing images and objects staged mise en scene, Moi Tran’s solo exhibition I Love A Broad Margin to my Life is a show that thrives on interactivity and plurality. Beckoned by lush red theatre curtains gently billowing from the gallery entranceway, visitors are invited to immerse themselves in this inclusive setup. Through engagement with the works - seen as communicative tools, props or even characters – they become part of a greater narrative, one that goes beyond the person’s participation and even the exhibition’s viewing period.

The show’s lifeblood is the ongoing exchange of vital information. The artist imparts her ideas and discoveries through the transformation of the gallery into a site of critical knowledge; in turn, audiences from all walks of life provide a gamut of responses the works have evoked. Carrying their own stories, concepts, and histories, each person’s specifications translate into a diversity of actions, reactions and relationships with the artworks. As they animate the surroundings through individualized actions and gestures, the audience bring about a fresh and valued perspective that evolves the space in a continual dialogue and thus further informs Moi Tran’s practice.

The work draws from a collection of stories and histories, including her own, and are inextricably linked to ideas of permanence and impermanence, qualities that reflect on the concepts of life, death, journey, movement and migration, and show in the transience, pliancy or liveness of her pieces. Moi Tran was uprooted from her home in Vietnam and migrated to the bitterly cold and unfamiliar United Kingdom, after which she struggled with a sense of displacement, alienation, unbelonging and shame. In the 70s or early 80s, the ‘boat people’ arrived at a hostile land rife with harsh conditions like dreadful winters and a paucity of resources for immigrants, facing the inevitable hardships of stigmatization and exploitation. Yet the following years growing up in this place were also the most formative ones. Over time, Moi Tran became aware that a lot of knowledge, in fact, lay within the margins of mainstream, white-dominated spaces and insititutions: knowledge about her people, her history, her country, her family, herself; knowledge that can only come from accepting and embracing her own emotions or reclaiming one’s identity and narrative; knowledge that, through thoughtful dissemination, can eventually touch other people across different communities.

The recorded performance

Owing to her professional background in Theatre, her interest in theatricality is most apparent in, of course, the open-ended configuration of her objects in the gallery and the use of the red curtains to frame it, but her intentions go beyond aesthetic greeting. Projected against one curtain-covered wall is the recording of her live performance The Other Day You Sat Too Far Away From Me / A Memory in Five Parts, which originally took place in the Henry Moore Courtyard in London, featuring a monumental cube that she also had covered in theatre curtains. Draped in these skins, the staging of I Love a Broad Margin ties into the staging of the sculptural element in The Other Day.

The performance is a staged encounter reconfiguring the value of Sadness as a powerful site of knowledge through text, music, song, poetry and movement, instead of a feeling to be ashamed of and to keep to oneself. In it, the actors and participating audience members explore the site and interact with each other however they wish, engaging in an open yet intimate process that transforms the internalized, private experience of mourning into an externalized cognitive bonding that highlights the intrinsic social ties of human beings.

The Other Day literally speaks to other diaspora communities, not just her own; poetic text in Vietnamese and Mandarin is heard in the video as well as English (the language of the colonizers), and one of the performers is a young Polish woman who also immigrated to the UK and who felt Moi Tran’s concept resonate with her when they first discussed it. At one point in the performance, three of the performers were looking out of the building around the courtyard and reading the poetry out loud to each other and the audience. ‘There was something about the framing of those moments in those windows that was very contemplative, reflective and suggestive of moments of solitude,’ Moi Tran shares about the experience. Though staged, it also left plenty of room for spontaneity, especially in interactions with the audience – who, just by participating, are fellow performers and therefore integral to the performance, adding to the collective consciousness she desires to facilitate. ‘Sadness can only be shared though interpretation of experience. Messages might appear and resonate to each member of the audience differently. This cannot be controlled, and I have no interest in controlling this, as it can only be drawn from individual history.’*

The interactive puzzle piece

Spotlit on a table, The Importance of Futile Task is an interactive puzzle that might induce a meditative activity or great frustration. It certainly has incited intrigue, amusement and speculation among our visitors. Composed of 2,000 identical-looking blank, black puzzle pieces with no other discerning features, the puzzle presents a seemingly impossible task, and therefore a futile one. Besides, everyone knows what the resulting image is. At the moment of this writing, people have only been successful in hunting for some of the corner and edge pieces which they lined along the table, and some suspect that it might be a trick, asking if some of the pieces are in fact missing. Some have lasted from a few minutes to half an hour.

Like The Other Day, Futile Tasks is originally part of a collective performance in which the audience people were invited to sit down with the artist to try to solve the puzzle, and in doing so, consider the togetherness of this activity and the capitalist exploitation of migrant labor. Click here for a solo performance of Futile Tasks.

Live sculptures and objects

Consisting of 112 handmade concrete cubes and a burning candle, Untitled Live Sculpture is called such because to Moi Tran, it is not a static piece. The cubes came to the gallery individually packaged in two layers of thick bubble wrap. After extracting them, the gallery team assembled the sculpture following her instructions, forming a little tomb-like structure. They placed a candle inside, lighting it every day for visitors and replacing it when it burns down.

The candle suggests a ritual, an offering, and a liveness, as it constantly transforms in the moment of the experience of the Live Sculpture; it represents that time, journey and the ritual of the piece.’

Each visit is unique. The time each visitor spends in front of the sculpture varies in length, mesmerized by the flickering flame or the miniature architecture housing it, or simply taken aback by seeing fire. Because the candles burn out so fast, there were several visitors who also witnessed the changing of the candle. A 4-year-old girl asked if she could blow it out, and a young man offered to help light a new candle it with his own lighter, which he did. Then there was a time the candles were the red candles purchased from local funerary stores (instead of white), reinforcing people’s perception of the sculpture as a shrine, as we are in Southeast Asia after all.

Not wishing to disrupt viewers’ experience, the gallery team’s encounters mostly occur in the care and maintenance of the sculpture. They scrape off the excessive pool of wax between replacing candles and check the steadiness of the blocks. Sometimes they even switch the position of certain blocks to try to make the most visible surfaces look even and the foundations more stable. You can say the blocks look different with each shift (due to Covid-19 regulations, the associates come into the gallery one at a time.)

Speaking to the transience or impermanence of experiences, Boundaries and Possibilities of Things are objects with a certain liveness to them as well. They are both hand-painted textile belts made of strips of canvas pinned in place to the wall – in their current placements, Boundaries is presented as a grid of ten squares while Possibilities takes on a more uneven form, anchored in different places by wooden blocks. In performances, viewers are supposed to play with the configuration of these flexible belts by changing the position of the pins or the placement of the weights. The reconfiguration is a commentary on the migratory experience of demarcation, or rather, the resistance of it, whereas the transportation of these pieces – they come in sealed envelopes – allude to migratory paths. When Tran and her family moved to the UK, they could only take a few belongings with them, things they could carry easily. With few exceptions, Moi Tran’s works tend to be portable or movable.

The Poetry Tiles

Dying – A Journey is a series of marble tiles that is part of her long-term research into feelings of sadness and grief. It is thematically connected to Untitled Live Sculpture in that it looks into ritualization, which plays a part in helping her cope during the period of mourning over her late father. Etched on the tiles are poetic text inspired by conversations with other women in her community, to memorialize their words, lending significance to what they thought were inconsequential talks. The use of black marble, a reverent and permanent material traditionally associated with monuments, plaques and headstones, was an interesting subversion for Moi Tran.

After creating them, she took them on trips. ‘When I reached the place of destination, I offered an action.’ In one action, she asked permission from a friend if she could bury the tile in her garden. In another, she took them on a 6-hour walk on the famous Seven Sisters cliffs in Seaford, a ritual she does every year to refresh herself. That particular year, she was essentially carrying her words, narrative, history and grief with her, while recognizing that her place in this world was an infinitesimal microexperience in the greater macro-experience of the world, a thought that offered her solace.

Until the end of June, we invite readers to be viewers and fellow participants of this show. Please share with us your own experiences and encounters in this margin and become part of a collective journey.