On 22 September 1940, the French signed an accord, which granted the Japanese troops the right to occupy Indochina. The occupation of Northern Indochina allowed the Japanese to block China from importing arms and fuel from French Indochina. The Japanese presence in Indochina lasted until the end of World War II. During the occupation, jute supplies from India were interrupted. Jute was used to make sacks as well as gunpowder, a crucial material for the war industry. Looking for new jute supplies, the Japanese authorities forced Vietnamese farmers to uproot rice and grow jute. This was one of the main reason for the horrific famine in North Vietnam 1945, resulting in the deaths of 2 millions people.
The installationUntitled (Heads)is made from locally grown jute plant. The jute plant, a body that is both the cause and witness of a tragic event, is now reincarnated with poetic meaning inside the artwork. I dried the jute stalks, cut them into smaller modules and then manually combined them into a structure. The structure is similar to the shape of a chandelier but is actually inspired by the Ma Mot tree, a ritualistic tree constructed by Thai minorities in Northern Vietnam for religious purposes. On the Ma Mot tree, object such as animal bones and amulets are hung on the tree, each object representing a dead or evil spirit. The purpose of this action is to cure illness.
In a previous installment at San Art,Untitled (Heads)was placed at the entrance of the gallery space. The audience was welcome to touch, play and rotate the piece. At the end of each branch was attached a small bronze head, which was a representational portrait of a farmer that I got to know during my research. The ideal place to install this piece is outdoors or on balconies, where nature can age the piece gradually.
Mute Grain is a personal interpretation of the little-discussed 1945 famine in Vietnam, which took place during the Japanese occupation of French Indochina (1940–45). This famine is believed to have caused the death of more than two million people in the Red River Delta of North Vietnam.
Years ago, I read a short prose piece titled Starved by To Hoai. I was an adolescent, and the agony of this famine, compressed in a few printed pages, left a lasting impression on me. My curiosity about how historical events are treated – how one event can be glorified when another is forgotten – has since developed into a constant question for me.
Mute Grain weaves oral histories (research undertaken by historian Van Tao, who donated his oral recordings to the Vietnam National Museum of History in Hanoi) with magical elements borrowed from Vietnamese folk tales and chronicles. Told from the perspective of two adolescents, the work is expressed in a lyrical language inspired by Japanese post-war writer Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.
The narrative of Mute Grain relays the story of the unjustified death of a young woman named August, who is unable to move on to the next life, and thus becomes a hungry ghost. She keeps her human form, appearing between layers of time and space, across silk screens and cinematic frames, together with her brother, March, who floats anxiously, searching for her. This story of March and August reflects the poorest months of the lunar calendar, a fragile time when farmers once had to borrow money and find side jobs to sustain themselves.
In studying this Japanese-occupied era, it became clear to me that food security is (and always has been), a never-ending episodic tragicomedy, the final act that robs humanity and corrodes both culture and nature. In today’s global political situation, with famine still raging in different parts of the world, the story of Mute Grain remains of great exigency.