Fragments of Memory
Vong Phaophanit in conversation
The cabbie kept up the worst kind of running commentary on the drive to Vong Phaophanit’s house; the mental defficiencies of Bristol bus drivers and the shortsightedness of government immigration policies, the sexual fecundity of West Indian women and the physical dangers of driving through this part of town at night, when the taxis operate an unofficial and ludicrous curfew. He made Bristol’s oddly named Montpelier district sound about as hospitable as Atlanta, Georgia, during the early 60s, the day after a lynching.
A quiet house on a quiet suburban street. A shady back garden with sweet peas climbing a bamboo trellis. We began elliptically, ‘I always nd it diffcult to talk about the work, because I consider that the work is the work; but we can talk about it if you Iike…’
Vong Phaophanit was born in Laos, and left when he was eleven. He was educated in France and went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Aix-en-Provence where he trained as a painter. While his teachers were working hard to escape from the inuence of Ecole de Paris taste, Phaophanit played with precisely those styles and inuences his teachers rejected - Matisse, Picasso and Braque, Cubism and French art of the 40s and 5Os. ‘They didn’t know what to say to me. There were lots of foreign students, particularly Japanese, who’d come to Aix-en-Provence because they’d been dreaming about “Paysage Provençal”, and as soon as they arrived they’d start painting like Cézanne. My tutors didn’t know where to place me in all this - they thought I was the same as the Japanese, because I have the same skin colour. I came to England in 1985 with these few paintings, still inuenced by what I was doing before; about three years ago I was on the verge of making abstract paintings- at that point I decided it was time to stop.’ Phaophanit talks about returning to painting - another language, amongst many, to be considered.
Questions of language and identity are crucial in Phaophanit’s work, just as the details of the artist’s autobiography are unavoidable. A touchy subject… I’d read that he didn’t wish to be seen as an English artist or as a French artist, and certainly not as an exotic foreigner - that poor Laotian guy who’s forever making work about his sense of exile. How does he see himself? ‘I’m sure if I was a white artist people wouldn’t react in the same way, but it seems that the only way that they can start to speak about the work, to control it, is to label the artist. It is also very dangerous; the words carry so many connotations. If you pronounce the word ‘refugee’ people think about what you see on the TV screen, and it’s a very limited view of the people who are refugees and their situation.’ Being a Laotian artist in England makes it hard to avoid being labelled. ‘The way the art-world deals with the notion of Black artists in this country is very difcult. And when people start to label… I just have to work with it.’ We’re forever dealing with slippery terms of reference. It was the same, he said, with the unwieldy label ‘lnstallation art’, and with the current modishness of ‘young art’, with all its associations - young art is assumed to be riskier, sexier, and it’s certainly cheaper- ‘Its all about trading, and has nothing to do with the work; Its all about how to “decorate the plates”’
For Phaophanit the situation is a complex one. His knowledge of the Laotian language, which reappears time and again in his work, lit up in neon, stamped into lead, written on rubber sheets, is curiously arrested in the mind of an eleven year-old who left Laos and went to France. His vocabulary and ‘discourse’- an unhappy word - of art is formed in French. And now, of course, he works in England, teaches a bit, negotiates with curators and critics in English. Even in his dreams, he said, things get mixed up, so that people he knew in Laos speak to him in the wrong language, in English or in French. ‘In my work I don’t deal with language in the ordinary way. I just use it as an element, a gesture. It is just there, suspended in time and space. I have my own relationship with the words I’m using; what people have when they look is something else.’
So what does the Laotian script mean - how can we read it when we don’t have direct access to the meaning of the words? ‘Let me say that what I’m doing is not primarily to be understood, And I want to create a sense of lack, of need, so that you push yourself to nd a new interpretation.’ Materials are as coded as words. ‘Once you’ve named all the meanings something still remains, something left over. That’s how I work. For instance, I use rice not only as a material, a substance, a smell or a symbol of food in the East. I want to shake things - to see what will fall down.’ What’s left, then, after we’ve stripped things of their names, of all the associations which cling to them, all the haphazard details of our lives? ‘When you clean a fruit, you keep peeling and peeling, you keep nding all the words. But maybe the work is about peeling; the process of peeling, and not nding what you expect. It’s endless, and that’s how it is with meanings. Its only when you name things that meaning gets xed.’ So the bamboo, the rice and the tea bowls, the family snapshots with all their personal, autobiographical associations and signicance are somehow expected to speak for themselves. ‘Every day we invent new meanings.’
But isn’t Phaophanit’s work full of private associations, images from a particular life and circumstance, full of absences and dislocations? ‘When I started to work with the snapshots I was directly confronted with questions of identity, displacement and so on. And the way I work is very personal, very intimate, but I never intend the work to be autobiographical. I’m always trying to nd a new platform, where autobiography won’t get in the way.’ There’s an image, from Just a Moment, of a boy. He has someone’s arm around him. The image is projected onto a bed. Is that you, does it matter if it is you? ‘It does and it doesn’t. I wouldn’t like there to be only one answer. That’s not the point.’ The artist is wary of didacticism, suspicious of language; the work is not, he says, an educational programme.
‘My denition of the artist is someone who makes someone else look at something. Look at this pack of cigarettes, you can see it, but the role of the artist is to deal with how you want people to look at it - to create a mis-en-scene. In What falls to the ground but can’t be eaten the physical presence of the work itself is secondary. It does not have a denite form. Its form may change the next time the piece is shown in relation to the space; that’s what interests me. It is the same as the way I work with slide projections; if I have two slides dissolving into one another it is not those two frames which interest me - rather it is the third frame which they create which is interesting. With the bamboo piece, it isn’t the solid presence of the bamboo forest that’s interesting so much as the shadows, the space between, the movement and the lighting.’
Shifts in space and time are as apparent as the shifts in language severed, displaced, reformed. ‘I’m dealing with a different notion of time from the linear conception of it, which is peculiar and specic to Western Art. I’m concerned with the moment, And the lucidity of the moment. Something could be 200 years old yet someone from the present time can still have a fresh experience of that object.’ Is this what he means when he talks of the ‘silence’ of his work, a pre-verbal, pre-conscious moment of pure confrontation? ‘Silence is the only word I have found that describes it. Silence is to do with the visual, silence is to do with the eyes, the look; the look can stop words.’ Because seeing is freer of taboo, because the eyes are unconstrained? ‘Looking is a very old process. Your eyes are very old, older than your age. I try to break down all the walls, so you begin to see for yourself… I’m always interested to know how blind people dream. Because when we dream it is always visual - there are sensations as well, of course - but it begins with the visual.’
Phaophanit encourages the engagement of more than the eyes. The electric fans in Fragments rufe your hair. The rubber wall in a recent untitled piece smells. Children ran through the bamboo at Chisenhale Gallery, turning it into a forest of sound. He talks about making a work which cannot be seen, a work in a completely dark room. People look but don’t always see. ‘It’s funny the way people use the phrases “to see” and “to do”. I “did” France last weekend. It becomes a kind of passe-partout; and of course there’s a distinction between “voir” and “regarder”.’ Phaophanit asks people to break the habit of seeing but not looking, looking but not seeing.
‘Each person has a potential to question and to understand, an ability to push their brain harder than they’re used to. It only needs something small to change the way you react with your environment and with your family, friends, bosses. It needs a very simple thing for somebody to dismantle everything - and then you have Aa totally different world.’
Jonathan Watkins suggested that What falls to the ground but can’t be eaten is a riddle, the answer to which is light. ‘It is a completely metaphoric riddle. It’s for kids. It is always upsetting when you know the answer because the interesting thing about the riddle is that it makes you play rather than think.’ It seems to me that these open-ended riddles are more useful than any amount of theory; they point to what cannot be explained, while most discussion of art tries to be pragmatic but ends up being mystifying. ‘This is very much the Western relationship to art - A mixture of mysticism and pragmatism. I think it is very Western.’
We’ve come full circle. Where does Vong Phaophanit place himself in this nexus? ‘I’m right in the middle of it, that’s why I make the work I make; I’m suspicious of this kind of discourse. Asking an Australian Aborigine to paint on a canvas is a good illustration - it’s not mysticism and you can see the reason on the canvas. You name it, and you can sell it.’ Isn’t this a difcult and dispiriting position to be in? ‘I have no choice. I deal with galleries and curators, I’m part of the system, the art-culture… and at the same time there’s no need to reclaim Laotian culture - instead it’s a question of injecting something in order to shake things up a little.’ A kind of quiet terrorism? ‘A wise terrorism. If you decide to expose yourself to the public through art you have to deal with it.’
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