FSP/ Jerome fellowship Artist Hong-An is based in Brooklyn, NY and completed her second large-scale sculpture “All that is Solid Melts Into Air (or, Making Ourselves at Home in this Modern World)” this summer at Franconia Sculpture Park. Truong received her BA from the University of Arizona and her MFA from the University of California Irvine, where she trained in photography and video.
Hong-An’s work often questions the presentation of historical narratives. Through the juxtaposition of different appropriated texts, sounds, images, objects, and archival materials, she reveals the often subjective nature of these narratives, widening and problematizing the frame through which we see and understand history.
This approach is exemplified in her sculptural and sonic installation “To Speak a Language” shown at Agape Enterprise in Brooklyn, NY, in 2012 and at Socrates Sculpture Park this summer. In this piece, Hong-An points to the ways in which language and ideology leave their indelible mark on the lives of the colonized. “To Speak…” takes its title from Franz Fanon’s writings on decolonialization, specifically from this excerpt, which Truong includes in writings about her installation:
“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture… To speak is to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of civilization.”
The installation consists of two loudspeakers attached to electrical poles, tangled in wires, lying one on top of the other. From the loudspeakers many different voices are heard; a song sung by French Legion soldiers occupying Vietnam during the 1950s, Vietnamese Catholic chanting, and an American pop song popular in Vietnam during the Vietnam war. In their lifetime, these loudspeakers espoused the ideologies and languages of the French Colonial Empire, the American Military, and the Vietnamese communist government. The installation also includes a neon sign that reads “trở nên,” a Vietnamese word that can be translated to mean “becoming” or “to become”.
“To Speak a Language” is a good entry point for thinking about “All that is Solid Melts Into Air (or, Making Ourselves at Home in this Modern World)”. Again, the focal point of the piece is an object with a history, one in which several different languages, cultures, and power structures collide. Encountering “All that is Solid…” in the Franconia Sculpture Park is an uncanny experience, for the star of the show, the xích lô, a Vietnamese passenger vehicle, seems out of place. It stands on a stage-like structure, flanked by pieces of the shipping container that brought it to the Park. It’s as if the shipping container fell open upon arrival to reveal its cargo. The viewer is at once implicated in a kind of performance, the discoverer of a strange object detached from its context.
With help from an audio recording installed in the sculpture, the viewer is introduced to the complex existence of the xích lô. Hong-An tells a story that intertwines drivers and riders of the xích lô, and reflects on the charged colonial history in which the vehicle is enmeshed. She traces the origin of the word itself and describes the journey she made to find and purchase the vehicle.
This week, I was lucky enough to talk with Hong-An about about her artistic practice and process, her experience at Franconia Sculpture park this summer, and the evolution of her piece “All that is Solid…”
When you’re making sculpture, what is your creative process like? What path does your work take between the inkling of an idea and finished project?
I am not a trained sculptor and so I have a huge learning curve in terms of actually building and making the things I want to make. My formal training is in photography and video, and my process is research-based. So when I start thinking through a project, I read a lot and take notes and I start to sketch and formulate what I think I want it to look like. This process is actually when the project can change quite a bit. But because of the nature of my work, once I make certain decisions about the concept and framework and content, then it doesn’t change much from that point. So after I figure out that part, then I have to research and learn how to make it! So this project at Franconia is only the second time I’ve done a project in this manner, where I have created an object or fabricated something. Typically I work in multi-channel video installation and so the most I do is build a wall or a screen. So in these two cases where I’ve made sculptural installations – both of which now have been sound installations – I have had to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to fabricate or build. The other part of my process is creating the sound, which is based on the research I conducted. Writing the script for this piece at Franconia went fairly quickly once I figured out the tone I wanted to hit, and then it was a matter or recording and editing, which can be a rather long process but I also love this part too, and there’s a lot that can change with the sound once I start editing.
What inspired your project at Franconia this summer?
A Vietnamese restaurant in Long Island City in New York, about a 15-minute bike ride from where I live, opened up a little over a year ago. The name of the restaurant is Cyclo, and on the sign for the restaurant is a little cartoonish drawing of a cyclo. When I saw this restaurant I was just thinking about the word cyclo and the way in which the word is delinked from the actual object of the cyclo in the context of American culture, which then kind of effaces the real economic, labor, and historical context of the cyclo and their drivers. The word cyclo is the English language word for the word in Vietnamese, which is xích lô. So even though they sound the same, it is a different word. When I did some research, I found that there are quite a few Asian or Vietnamese restaurants with the name Cyclo. So I was inspired to imagine what it would be like to bring a xich lo to the U.S. – what it would actually do to have the object here, and to put that in play in relationship to what we don’t know and what we think about when we think about the word cyclo.
Why did you propose your project to Franconia and what did the experience of working here offer you?
I had a couple of friends who had done a residency before at Franconia, so I came to learn about it through them. When I saw photos of the park and its landscape, I thought it would be the perfect anachronistic backdrop to my installation. That it would feel out of place was exactly the tone I was going for; I wanted to create a strange encounter with this kind of historical, kind of quasi anthropological / tourist narrative with this foreign object in the middle of the flat Midwestern landscape.
What other residencies have you done, and how do those experiences compare to your time at Franconia?
This past summer I also did a fellowship residency –at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, New York. We didn’t live there though so it was really different. And a long time ago I did a couple of photography specific residencies, one at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in upstate New York, and at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York. They were both so different because it really was more like a retreat, where you had your own room and just worked on your own. There was some scheduled activities with other residents at CPW but other than that it was very solitary. The same with the Visual Studies Workshop. Franconia was really unique to me because of the communal living situation, and because it really felt like this community. It felt really immersive, really intense.
Where did you study and who did you study with? How have those experiences influenced your own work?
Before I went to graduate school I had an amazing mentor when I worked at this place called the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, which was the job I had after my undergrad studies. There I met and studied with Deborah Willis, who is an amazing photographer, scholar, and photo historian – she’s been at NYU Tisch School of the Arts for some time now – and she’s continued to be an amazing influence and inspiration to me. I did my MFA at the University of California at Irvine and I studied with amazing artists and scholars, including Simon Leung, Juli Carson, Bruce Yonemoto, Yvonne Rainer, and Yong Soon Min. I am drawn to the social and political aspects of art. And studying at UCI really gave me a strong theoretical and political foundation for my work.
Who (or what) are your greatest inspirations as an artist?
That’s a hard question. But I think I would have to say my parents. I’m inspired by history, by political and social events through which we come to understand the world and our place in it, and all of that is shaped by my own experiences and subject position. So that is really what drives me as an artist. Of course I am inspired by lots of amazing art and artists, but what sparks me is continually questioning the world and how we come to know it through our experiences.
Check back soon for more interviews with our 2013 Fellowship Artists!