Lodging with Vietnamese fishing villages on the Tonle Sap lake in Siem Reap for weeks at a time, artist Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai discovered communities living in limbo: migrants who struggled with poverty, illiteracy and poor sanitation. Most of all, their lives were marked by uncertainty. The legal status of many Vietnamese living in Cambodia is ambiguous, and the villagers she met had to deal with a backdoor bureaucracy of bribery in place of the correct papers.
For her exhibition, opening today, at Sa Sa Bassac Gallery and transferring to the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum later in the year, Nguyen brings the lives of these villagers ashore through four works: an installation, a video and two photos series.
The project required more skills of diplomacy than most artists are required to possess. Nguyen recalls that before she could begin her research, she had to befriend a girl willing to ferry her between the settlements by boat. “The leaders of the community said that that is a dangerous kind of issue and that I should stop making those activities,” Nguyen says.
For her installation ID Card, Nguyen had to photograph and collect personal data from more than 300 villagers to make mock-ups of official documents, and asked that each sitter bring scraps of fabric to use as backing. Despite the early reservations, the residents proved willing – many brought in their best clothes to donate to the tapestry.
Curator Roger Nelson explained that the long-term nature of the project was typical of Nguyen’s practice: the artist has been known to spend weeks coating gynecological equipment with tiny crystals, and once collected 500 kilograms worth of abandoned shoes. But he added that the social focus of the work was new.
“Something about the issues of these communities and the experience of being on a residency at Sa Sa Art Projects – where a lot of their focus is about engaging with the community – changed what she’s doing,” he said.
Having secured the trust of the community, the artist embarked on the ‘Day By Day’ video, which features interviews with villagers on the Tonle Sap and in Long An in Vietnam. The film is elevated from documentary to art by its lingering, offbeat focus on vignettes of village life: as an old lady recounts the hardship of life under the Viet Cong, we watch a serious child gingerly picking up dog excrement with squares of paper and throwing them into the lake.
This playfulness permeates Nguyen’s work. Inside a leaf hut constructed in the interior of the gallery, she has hung a series of portraits commissioned from a travelling photographer. The images are digital collages: villagers’ heads transplanted onto the bodies of strangers, who are in turn photoshopped onto tropical scenes.
The mocked-up holiday snaps are a common form of decoration in the floating villages Nguyen visited. She asked sitters to choose the place they most wanted to travel to as their backdrop, transforming the garish prints into something more poignant: a depiction of the dreams of an immobilised community.
The artist says she is not an activist, describing herself simply as someone whose work seeks to explore the experience of marginalised communities. But she had to abandon a similar project working with Vietnamese migrant communities in South Korea when the government-sponspored organisation coordinating her visit got cold feet.
“My first sentence to present myself is always that I am an artist,” she says, although she admits that residents on the Tonle Sap initially remained unsure of the distinction. “People worked with me, and then afterwards they always asked ‘Are you an activist from the Vietnamese side, or are you from the Cambodian government?’” she says. Nguyen says that even once she had clarified her status with the villagers, her interviewees were impressed.
“They said: ‘You must be a very powerful artist to get involved in this issue,’” she says with a smile.
Day By Day is at Sa Sa Bassac Gallery, #18 Sothearos Blvd until March 8.