Tuesday, August 19, 2008

ARE WE THERE YET? - Hyde Park Art Center

I really like going to art exhibitions that have a question in the title. As a viewer standing before the works in the exhibition, Are We There Yet? at The Hyde Park Art Center, I ask myself how these artists have answered this question. Why was this artist chosen to participate in this show? All of the artists in this exhibition have made journeys either across the world, across the state line or have created a place through the medium of photography. All of them have made mental and emotional journeys that are mirrored by geographical movement of one kind or the other.

image: Howard Henry Chen, Fernando and Sylvie reading The Lonely Planet at The War Remnants Museum (formerly The Museum of American War Crimes, but the People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City changed the name sometime after Hanoi and Washington normalized relations) Ho Chi Minh City, 2005

The artist and Columbia College Chicago alum Howard Henry Chen left Vietnam at the age of three. Armed with only this knowledge and the subject matter of his photographs, the question Are We There Yet? draws us into a uniquely American experience. The journey from the Vietnamese refugee camps to the United States in the mid-seventies might be entirely forgotten by the generation with whom Chen shares. The thirty-somethings. But to the families who made that journey, it has shaped and defined them. As a child, I remember seeing the horrific images of dead Vietnamese children on the news. Or of hearing my parents talk about the war around the dinner table. After the bombing of Cambodia by our own government, my family sponsored a Cambodian family. The Choerks. While not Vietnamese, they travelled here to escape the same ravages of the same war. I remember going with my family to pick them up at O'Hare Airport in the middle of winter. Most of them were not wearing shoes. Two of the girls were pregnant. They had just weeks before witnessed the beating death of their own father. At this time, I'm sure the question, Are we there yet?, was fraught with terror and exhaustion. I remember the mother, Mak Chourk, wearing a white jersey that bore the logo of two tennis rackets crossing. The absurdity of a country club tennis shirt being worn by this bent and near-starving woman was not lost on me or my other family members. The adults went to work at a paper bag factory near our house. When we went to visit them in their tiny apartment they would all be squatting on the floor, but when we arrived they quickly got to their feet and sat around the table as if they had done something wrong. Today, the young children who once begged for food on the streets of Phnom Penh are not unlike Howard Henry Chen. They have college educations, homes in middle-class neighborhoods and children who don't speak the language of their native homeland.

image: Howard Henry Chen, Welcome to Miss Saigon (Cameron Mackintosh has apparently moved to 160 Pasteur Street, Ho Chi Minh City), 2005

I don't know the circumstances of Howard Henry Chen's family as they made that passage from Vietnam to the United States, but his work is steeped in that reckoning between what was and what is now. In the photograph, Fernando and Sylvie (complete title above), we see a beautiful courtyard with a lovely western couple reading together near a battle-scarred American fighter jet. In modern Vietnam, the war and the American's role in it has not disappeared, but rather the marketing has changed. What was once a 'war crime' is now merely a 'remnant'. But which version is true? This is the question being asked in Chen's work. Is the tragedy of the past something to be memorialized or do we just need a better public relations strategy? In the photograph, Welcome to Miss Saigon (Cameron Mackintosh has apparently moved to 160 Pasteur Street, Ho Chi Minh City), 2005, Chen chooses an image that features the famous broadway musical, Miss Saigon, that brought to the world the story of the Vietnamese conflict, but a small note is attached to the door, the forwarding address of one Cameron Mackintosh; an unknown person with a western name. For me, the meaning of this photograph is about displacement. Real experiences and people are displaced and replaced by a controlled version of those experiences and people. Lastly, the photograph, Entrance Gate to the Tropical Fruit Festival most directly summons up the satire in Chen's vision. A huge plaster tree with enormous plastic native fruit forms a gate that is clearly Chen nudging us to enter into the lie... just don't eat the fruit, it could kill you.

image: Howard Henry Chen, Entrance Gate to the Tropical Fruit Festival

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