You try and keep on trying to unsay it, for if you don’t, they will not fail to fill in the blanks on your behalf, and you will be said. 1
Trinh T. Minh-ha
Kim Huynh’s work is a project in undoing what has been said – unraveling language, meaning and narratives that have been presented as fixed, immutable. Huynh turns familiar signs on their heads to redefine traditional notions of power and cultural identity. She employs text, symbols, marks, images, texture and space to reveal the mechanisms of power that distort the way we view each other.
At first glance, Huynh’s work appears peculiar, foreign, and even a little frightening. She confronts us with seemingly unrelated objects (top hats and sugar), strange media combinations (cotton, metal and ribbon) and perplexing symbols and text (calligraphy and camouflage). These symbols and objects are made strange not only because of their relationship to other unrelated symbols and objects but also because they are presented not as themselves but rather as fragments or abstractions of themselves. They seem familiar but we do not completely grasp their meanings.
The essays in this book highlight the various strategies in Huynh’s work that reveal identity (and meaning) as a continual process that is relational. Ayesha Hameed explores the work Unless as a “combination of signs and metaphors (that) confronts the viewer with a series of associations,” highlighting competing histories and ideas such as urban vs rural, containment and effacement, power and oppression. According to Corinna Ghaznavi, Huynh’s work Fibrea/Fibreus suggests an ambiguity in meaning and that “the fluid reality of identity is best explored through the temporary-memory of an experience.” In “Deconstructing (Neo) colonialism in Kim Huynh’s Art Installation,” Shaobo Xie argues that “any productive take on its interrogation of colonialism requires attention to the work’s multiplicity and indeterminacy, for it is from here that its rigorous critical force arises.”
Once knowledge can be analysed in terms of region, domain, implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture the process by which knowledge functions as a form of power and disseminates the effects of power.2
Both metaphorically and literally, space is central to Huynh’s work. Xie points out that Huynh uses space to highlight the “contrast between the metropolitan West and the peripheral non-West (which) readily triggers memories of the world’s colonial history,” specifically, that of exploitation and domination. Similarly, Hameed points out that in Unless, the top hat signals an urban setting while the camouflage pattern recalls a peripheral battlefield. Space is also used to give voice to marginalized histories and to bring those narratives from the periphery to the forefront. In Unless, Hameed argues that the empty saddles and headless hats reference an erasure of bodies, specifically, an erasure of the bodies exploited in the production of wealth and power as symbolized by the top hats and sugar. Sugar and top hats, once seemed like dissimilar signs, now reveal a “history of complicity,” a relationship of power and oppression. Unless reminds us of sugar’s history with slavery in early twentieth century. Xie extends this complicity and suggests that Huynh’s work points to a (neo) colonialism that continues to threaten indigenous cultures today. Xie posits, “If colonialism is the overarching theme of Huynh’s installations, viewers need to move from its past to its present phase. First, situating the installations in the present moment of West-centred globalization…”
The essays in this book pay close attention to Huynh’s multifarious use of signification to contest social narratives. They suggest that Huynh’s work renegotiates identity by playing with our perceptions of foreign and familiar, centre and periphery, and local and global.
1 Trinh T. Minh Ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989) 80.
2 Michel Foucault, “Questions on Geography,” ed. Colin Gordon, Power/ Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972 – 1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980) 69.