Last night my wife and I went to an exhibition called “Godog & the Ascension of Dag Girl” by a friend of ours, Mai Long at the very lovely and new NG Art Gallery. The exhibition consisted of a sculpture installation
and a series of 25 drawings.
Much of Mai’s previous work has dealt with the cultural dissonance that she feels as a consequence of her mixed racial heritage. Mai was born in Tasmania to an Anglo Australian mother and a Vietnamese father. Although Mai was born here in Australia, many people still assume that she was born overseas, and it is still common for her to be asked where she originally comes from. Mai also lived for a time in Vietnam when she received a grant to study there and was also identified as a foreigner in Vietnam. It would seem that no matter where Mai goes, she’s often seen and treated as an outsider.
For about the last 8 years Mai has represented her mixed race as a mongrel dog (her words). In this latest exhibition, Mai’s work of papier-mâché dogs is covered in the writing of many languages to represent how one can look at something that has meaning and not understand what it actually means.
When a dog by Mai that is similar to the large dog that is at the background was first shown in public in Perth Western Australia erlier this year, it caused quite a storm in a teacup within some sections of the Vietnamese community here in Australia. There was a demonstration and the curator of the show, (from the Casula Powerhouse that collects Mai’s work), had the windows of his parent’s house, that he was staying at, smashed and paint thrown around the inside. The curator was also threatened with physical harm and was so distressed about the danger he was putting his parents in that he left to go back to Vietnam and is waiting for Mai’s exhibitions to come to an end before he returns to Australia.
So what is the big deal about a bunch of papier-mâché dogs? One of the issues that Mai addresses with this exhibition “(Mai’s words) is the mismatch of historical memories across cultural and sub-cultural groups; and the seeming impossibility of explaining one to the other. It is this schism of realities and the pain and trauma is causes for all those affected that Dag Girl aspires to ascend”. Another, is how a small vocal minority of the Vietnamese here in Australia are still focused on issues that are over 30 years old. There are old open wounds and grudges that are still being nursed. A small group of refugees from the American backed southern part of Vietnam see the recent immigrants from Vietnam as traitors and for them the war never really ended. It’s a bit of a paradox that although this small group enjoys democracy and freedom here in Australia they don’t feel certain sections of their own community have the right to do so.
One example of how Mai has been addressing this issue is with simple symbols such as the one below (you can see it on the muzzle of the large dog behind Mai).
The red and yellow dots represent the colours of the Vietnamese flag.
“The flag of former South Vietnam was designed by Emperor Bảo Ðại in 1948, and was the flag used by former South Vietnam until it was abolished by Vietnamese government on April 30, 1975, when the South unconditionally surrendered to the North. It is also used by some Vietnamese immigrants now living in other countries.The flag consists of a yellow field and three horizontal red stripes that represent North, Central and Southern Vietnam (Flags Unlimited Inc).”
It could also be said that the red represents the communists and the yellow represents the American backed southerners. The small colours are combined to produce a much larger orange circle. The corollary being that the total is greater than the sum of the parts. The Orange also represents Agent Orange which Mai sees as a symbol of how the Americans took advantage of the internal political struggles in Vietnam. By calling attention to Agent Orange, Mai is trying to say to the Vietnamese community that when they fight amongst themselves they weaken themselves to the extent that outsiders with their own agendas will take advantage of the distracted and fractured Vietnamese people.
Orange is also a colour of Buddhism and the orange balls in the dog’s mouths is a reference to the balls in stone dragon and temple dog’s mouths that can be seen in many parts of Asia and allude to playfulness. If you’d like to read more about Mai’s work click here to read the exhibition catalogue (2.25mb PDF) which also has a very interesting essay by Gina Fairley a freelance art writer and co-director of Slot gallery (which has also exhibited Mai’s work)
Luckily there was no demonstrations, at last night’s exhibition. It would seem that the people who have indulged in the thuggish behaviour in the past aren’t ready to step out of their own community and cause trouble. The fact that there was ex-Minister of Parliament and a few reporters in attendance probably deterred those who would rather operate in the shadows.
All this talk about Agent Orange brings to mind one of my favourite punk bands of the same name and because Mai and her partner Stuart (he has a surf tour company and yacht charter business up in Indonesia) both surf, I thought I put up this little video.