Friday, November 9, 2007

Le Thanh Tru and Quach Phong

It's our last day in Vietnam. Tomorrow morning we fly off like so many migrant birds. Free and easy till 2pm; skyped with my sister, shopped for an ersatz Prada bag, ate flattened pork chops with rice and creme caramel with green guava juice.

Now we're having a talk in San-Art by Le Thanh Tru, a soldier-painter of the Vietnam War (strange, how I've read that it's called the American War here, but Arlette always translates it as the Vietnam-American War or the American War with Vietnam). He looks into the slideshow on our laptop and explains the history of each image: lacquer paintings of soldiers bearing armaments crossing a bridge; a journey of 10 days in a train from Hanoi to Leipzig in his capacity as a writer/filmmaker, and all the Germans could read the war in the warp of his shoulders. The cranes of his hometown which he left in 1954 for 20 years. "He heard the accent of the South and he woke up again. No-one imagined that the whole country would be reunited again. He saw the night sky and everything was different."

Quach Phong, who did watercolours and sketches, women soldiers stitching uniforms in 1964, also speaks. The soldiers never asked him, he says, why he was painting in the jungle rather than fighting. They feared for the life of a painter on the battlefield. They enjoyed his presence. A reminder of civilisation: recognised as sacred, for his freakish ability to recognise the jungle as beautiful. Today, he says, most of the men he painted are dead: the paintings have become a document of war.

Keng Sen tells of how every artist he meets can remember how they were doing this in Stockholm or Chicago during the Vietnam War: taking part in marches, protesting. I missed the first 40 min of the talk because I was helping Meg with dictation on her Euro-keyboard Mac; some interview for an A-star dance magazine in New York, asking her about her practice before she left Manhattan for the uberalfabetstadt of Berlin. She remembers the trauma of the AIDS crisis, artists of the 80s and 90s pulling together as their queer brothers dropped like mosquitoes in winter, and how that informed her work as a choreographer of bodily trauma.

Violence and liberation. Everywhere but and now.

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