BOMB Blog: Waterland Diaries by Joe Fyfe
Our tragedy on earth is that life is subject
to influences from above, and we can no more revisit the mistakes of
yesterday than the sand can avoid being wiped clean as the tide pours
upon it. Francois Bizot, The GateDecember 31, 2006. By bus from Saigon
to Phnom Penh, first through the Mekong Delta and then the western provinces
of Cambodia, another area that was heavily bombed by the U.S. I left
behind smooth pavements at the Vietnamese border and entered a bumpy
roadway lined with casinos under construction followed by two hours of
rice paddies and vast flat fields.
Pol Pot, who was first known as Sar, taught
French literature and was drawn to the poets, especially Rimbaud, Verlaine,
and de Vigny. He did not rely on notes, but spoke French with his eyes
half closed, concentrating on the words. He was gentle and considerate,
everyone said, a man of quiet charm and sophistication.
My first responses were qualified by how much this site of such authoritarian savagery looked like a lot of art I had seen. The beds looked like Doris Salcedo, the blackboards like Beuys, and the inventoried photographs of the victims like Richters’ Atlas. The rooms of photographs—taken of young, very attractive, mostly urban people who would be soon be subjected to unimaginable cruelty by, mostly, rural young people—was compelling, but I did not know how they were compelling. Can one respond to documentary photography after becoming aware of its fundamentally fictive properties?
I came away thinking of Pol Pot and the
possibility that he once recited Rimbaud’s “Time of the Assassins” to
one of his classes.
And at S-21, the rule was: “When
getting lashes or electrification you must not cry out at all.”December
22, 2006. Visit to the studio of Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba. He works in a
well-restored 19th century French cottage. Well-lit domestic interiors
are unusual in Vietnam. His place seemed both antique and spotlessly,
cinematically, 21st century. I had not met him before, but I had seen
some of his films at Lehmann-Maupin in New York and looked at them again
in the SOC offices. In his Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Toward
the Complex-For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards (2001),
Nguyen-Hatsushiba filmed cyclos, the traditional Southeast Asian rickshaw/bicycle
taxis, being raced by young men across the ocean floor. I took this and
his other underwater films as extended metaphor for restrictive life
We looked at a lot of images of his work, including a piece done in Laos, where a number of students from a local arts and crafts school stood up in boats heading downstream on the Mekong with easels and canvases. It was about how fast things are changing in relation to traditions. Another work in progress depicts a field of water bottles, all Coke or Pepsi products, through which figures move as if working in a rice field, replacing the water with urine. A star formation eventually forms. All of the work, the underwater films and the installations and events, he said, he saw as monuments.
Vendler once wrote that the poets A. R. Ammons, John Ashbery and James Merrill embraced "the thankless cultural task of defining how an adult American mind not committed to any single ideological agenda might exist in a self-respecting and veracious way in the later 20th century."
December 12. I had asked Tran Luong to arrange for me to visit Huy Toan, who was included in the Saigon Open City Exhibition. He had been in both wars, the French and the American (and even the Chinese invasion in '79). We went to his house and it was dark in the afternoon, the entire sector had a power outage, so we looked at his work by the open balcony. He had several dozen notebooks filled with sketches from the years of the wars. There was a dummy of a monograph that was being published, pasted with drawings from photocopies of the originals as well as many originals; one was of the mountain road that led to Dien Bien Phu where all the military equipment had to pass.