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Ly Hoang Ly Is a Vietnamese Artist Reimagining Immigration

From performances to sculptures, all of her pieces are linked together to tell the ebb and flow of immigration.
January 29, 2019, 8:15am
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Mimicking a real rock and wearing her traditional Vietnamese dress, multi-disciplinary artist Ly Hoang Ly bared herself against the ocean on a cold autumn day in 2012. Her performance art “I Make Myself a Rock To Experience Geopolitical Issues” captured the mismanagement of people, be it immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees as one of the most divisive issues of our times.

Ly, who immigrated to the US from Vietnam in 2011 to attend grad school in Chicago, uses her personal experiences to produce thought-provoking pieces that include poetry, painting, video art, performance, and installation. Though the medium varies, and each of her pieces has its standalone significance, they are all linked.

“It's like having four or five trees," Ly says. "The trees have branches and some branches can go over other trees."

From Trump's family separation policy to Australia’s inhumane detention centers, the world's global crisis is only going worse, and Ly’s striking images has only increased in relevance today. I spoke to her about her ongoing multi-media project "0395A.DC," which beautifully captures the ways in which an immigrant perseveres despite their hardships:

VICE: Could you tell us about your own immigration experience?
Ly Hoang Ly: I learned what it meant to go to work and raise children in a strange country. My daughter could not speak English at the time.

We felt out of nowhere because of the language barrier. We could not understand people talking to us. We were not sure what we said to them. That was the first struggle. We misunderstood the body language as well and this created a lot of obstacles. We wanted to converse and transfer our ideas to people, and it was difficult.

The second thing was the culture. There was a different attitude. There was a different way of behaving. To be confident, intellectual and strong was very different.

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'boat home boat,' an artist book.

How has Vietnam’s history of emigration influenced your art, specifically "0395A.DC"?
The name of the project comes from the serial number of a boat I found on the internet. The beginning of the serial number is missing; it’s too blurry for me to see. Any number or letter could be added. They could also be subtracted or replaced either in the beginning or in the end. The integrated and multifaceted nature of identity, one that is crystal clear but is also ambiguously disconnected from its roots, inspired the name of the project.

The project “0395A.DC” started with the story of a Vietnamese man called Mr. Kiet whom I met in Chicago. The project did not have the ambition to talk about only Vietnamese boat people; it just used his story as a touchstone to explore the larger issue of global immigration.

In the artists’ book, I printed the story of Mr. Kiet. In each chapter, you can see how he struggled to adapt his identity to the new environment such as the Rach Gia Province in South Vietnam; the Gulf of Thailand, near Malaysia; Galang Island in Indonesia; Singapore and the United States of America. Each chapter is a journey or a sample.

Then I transformed the book into a stainless steel and iron sculpture.

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'boat home boat' sculpture.

How are the sculpture and the book similar, besides their shared title 'boat home boat'?
'boat home boat,' the artist book, was made in 2012 in Chicago. When you open the book, you find the length of the papers is 3 meters—it’s like an accordion.

The sculpture is the simple shape of a house and boat—it's an easy shape for children to conceive. The body becomes the roof of the house. When it is upside down, the roof of the house becomes the body of the boat. If you look closely, you can see that it is simple. It can convey the simplicity and the “yin yang” of life.

It's the three symbols of water, boat, and a house that form the visual foundation upon which all the works in this project are built.

The sculpture and artist book both bear the same physical form. They begin with the shape of a house at one end; their middle sections open into leaves that resemble ocean waves and close with the shape of a boat at the other. Scattered on the waves are words describing the journey of loss (of home and loved ones), fear and dislocation (of identity) as they traverse across seas.

How have people responded to your public art?
When I did a solo exhibition public art in Vietnam, people played, sat, meditated, danced or sang.

Young people asked me if they could dance hip hop inside. A cellist wanted to play cello in the environment. A violinist played in the opening and it surprised a lot of people. Another group of contemporary dancers asked to choreograph a piece. They practiced every day at night time for one month. After that, they had an opening to present their dance using the sculpture as their stage and material.

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Your performance piece “I Drink My Country” relied heavily on your audience’s response. What was that like?
I just sat down and drank water. The audience experienced the feeling of drinking water in a happy mood. Gradually, even one drop of water can be painful.

The audience interaction changed the ending of the work. Once, a man stepped onto the stage, kneeled in front of me and asked: “Can I drink the water for you?” He shared my suffering and the audience copied him. I really liked it because it was about how people shared suffering.

Another time, the audience became angry. A man came to the stage and took my glass of water. He brought it back to the audience and I followed him to take back the water. Then he handed the glass to other people in the audience and poured out the water to the floor. Then I tried to lie on the floor and lick the water. Another person in the audience picked up his coat and used it to absorb all the water.

What did these responses tell you about people’s attitudes toward the immigration crisis?
We could not talk about it verbally but we could see and feel it.

The artwork was a response. I think it is best if we observe how people play, use or interact with the art piece, then we can learn their response through their own gestures, without using words to describe it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.