An Other Way of Telling: Deconstructing (Neo)colonialism with Kim Huynh
Written by Shaobo Xie
Kim Huynh’s installations Fibre/Fibreur, Labour of Love, and English Love irresistibly assert themselves to viewers as an Other way of telling in a double sense of the phrase. First they embody an innovative artistic way of representing and interrogating history. Second, they are created by an ethnic and racial Other, someone who has come from a subaltern outside and whose recalcitrant Otherness and in-betweenness generate a truly differential, alternative way of telling, a way of seeing that both disturbs and enriches her viewers. But what do they tell? What are the new meanings of these works? What is being differentially revealed here?
To answer these questions, one needs to begin by speaking about the ubiquitous top hat that is encountered in all the three installations. In Fibre/Fibreur, a series of disintegrated, disfigured white top hats hangs down at the middle of the gallery, set over against 9 photo prints running across the wall, a mural of broken Chinese calligraphy, and a collage of defamiliarized punctuation marks and topographical signs on the other wall. What Labour of Love presents are two large mural works and a mount of fibre at the center: on the right side is an enormous iron hat with photo etching and crisscross typewriter ribbon intended to create the map of the human brain. The images from English Love present a garish white hat half wrapped with roses knit together as a pearl string falling down to the floor, standing in contrast with three photo prints. Anyone contemplating these images is, as Huynh herself intimates, convinced of the meaning of her work, but no one can go away without “an awkward feeling of not quite getting it.” To borrow a metaphor from Edward Said discussing Jean Mohr’s photographs collected in John Berger’s book Another Way of Telling, the meaning of Huynh’s installations, “like a stone in water, breaks the one-directional flow” of interpretations, and challenges the viewers to extend and join the perceived event to other events (“Bursts of Meaning” 151). The top hat either in isolation or in connection with other objects seems to be restlessly indeterminate in signification, ceaselessly provoking various interpretations. We know that the top hat invented in mid-nineteenth-century Britain was used to replace wigs and was therefore a symbol for the upper and the middle class as well as the power and status they upheld. But why is it presented in this context with such an uncanny, unseemly, undesirable excessiveness? How to account for its garish whiteness? Why an iron hat with photo etching and the impression of a brain map? What are the implications of broken Chinese calligraphy in the shape of a hat overshadowed or dominated by the iron hat? Is the string of knit roses being wrapped onto the top hat or being stripped off?
Indeed, there is so much uncertainty or ambiguity concerning Huynh’s installations as with any other art work, be it visual or verbal, and any attempt to close off their signification with a certain privileged interpretation is to miss out on their insurrectionary and counterhegemonic agency that comes from their perspectival Otherness. However, it is precisely such insurrectionary indeterminacy that paradoxically grants them an unmistakable and unequivocal deconstructive or contestatory mood and point of view, and what is being contested and deconstructed is colonialism past and present as adumbrated by the spatial configurations of top hats, photos of women of color labouring in cotton fields, amounts of fibre, and unlikely punctuation marks. To say this is not to conveniently dismiss the multiple meaning of Huynh’s work; rather, 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. To signify or resignify outside the colonizer’s syntax is the subaltern Other’s discursive power, and indeterminacy, as critics like Derrida and Bhabha have taught us, can always be turned into a locus of resistance, a fountainhead of counterhegemonic agency, but that in no way presupposes that celebrating indeterminacy is incompatible with reading an art work from a chosen perspective. That said, one could take up Huynh’s work at three levels to trace a triple critique of colonialism.
One preeminent feature of Huynh’s work is her masterful use of space and spatial configuration to allude to a history of power relations between metropolis and periphery. What one sees is first of all a relationship of dominance, inequality, and exploitation. The hanging series of white top hats made of white fibre in connection with photos of women of color labouring in cotton fields geographically identified speaks volumes about the colonial contact between the West and the Rest of the world. If the English top hat historically constitutes a long-standing symbol of the European upper class and its power and social privileges, then the juxtaposition of the hats and the photos persuades viewers to make the inference that such power and privileges have much to do with the exploitation and domination of populations in the outlying regions of the empire. This significant spatial contrast between the metropolitan West and the peripheral non-West readily triggers memories of the world’s colonial history. What Huynh’s work performs here is to foreground the history of the colonized populations which has been deliberately left out in Eurocentric discourse, to provide what Said called a counterpoint, a counter-narrative to West-authored or West-authorized histories in which the colonized appear “silent or marginally present or ideologically represented” (Said, Culture and Imperialism 66). The dismaying picture of the women of color sweating in cotton plantations to produce fibre needed for making top hats recalls what has been encountered in literary narratives such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, in which, as suggested in Huynh’s installations, the privileged life of upper classes in the metropolis depends upon the profits made from the exploitation of the colonized.1
No informed viewers of Huynh’s Labour of Love would miss its sarcasm. Does “labour of love” refer to women of color toiling in cotton plantations and by implication the overseas colonized working hard out of love for the metropolitan center or to the metropolitan center dominating and exploiting its overseas empire out of love for those peripheral populations? It is certainly untrue in either case. The gigantic hideous metal hat looming over a mass of white fibre and a mural of broken Chinese calligraphy can only suggest a relationship of domination and inequality. The metal hat with photo etchings of various geographical spaces and the design of a map of the human brain hand-stitched with typewriter ribbon can be taken as another powerful way of unmasking the British or European colonizer as calculating, aggressive, profit driven, and ambitious, motivated by economic and territorial ambitions, and empowered by modern technology. Actually it is arguable that what one perceives here is both a map and a human brain, and perhaps in this case the distinction between the two no longer matters, for a map of imperial geography and a map of imperial epistemology/ideology may be read as two flip sides of the same coin in that both serve the colonizer’s project of economic and territorial expansion and both are an essential part of school education in the metropolitan center. Those well versed in English literature will probably make a ready connection between the implications of the map on Huynh’s metal hat and the implications of young Marlow’s passion for reading maps in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Fanny’s embarrassment and sense of shame when ridiculed by her cousins for not being able to read a map in Austen’s Mansfield Park.
In all the three imaginative works maps acquire the status of a symbol of power and extraordinary significance. Geography and cartography are certainly part of modern science, and their absence in non-Western countries in the nineteen-century was certainly nothing to feel proud of, but it is undeniable that geography and cartography from their very beginning in Europe have served the interests of systematic territorial expansion and political domination overseas. As for the shadowy presence of broken Chinese calligraphy formed in the shape of a top hat, it not only suggests the insignificance and inferiority of the peripheral cultures and peoples as perceived from the metropolitan center’s point of view, but brings back to mind their violation and colonization by the imperial West. Also, the shaded Chinese calligraphy can be taken as a shadow of the metal hat and, as such, it implies not only that the former is overwhelmed and dominated by the latter, but that the former, as constructed, by the West amounts to little more than a projection of the latter’s will to domination and expansion. It is in this sense that the relationship of love between colonizer and colonized is a total lie. The mythology of love and care for the colonized may have been deployed to endow imperialism with a rosy outter layer as implied by Huynh’s English Love, but underneath the fabricated stories of altruistic love and concern for the “uncivilized” colonized is the gaping reality of white power control exercised over colored people.
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-centered globalization, one readily sees the continuity between past and present, for the sight of women of color toiling in cotton fields recalls women of color today working overtime and underpaid in previous third-world countries for international garment and footwear companies, including Nike, Rebok, Adidas, Disney, JanSport and Wal-Mart. Second, the multi-paneled metal, top with a likeness of a globally interconnected world effected by crisscross ribbon, displaces viewers’ attention from the nineteenth century to the days of postmodern globalization. The implied images are those of postmodern technology and standardization. At this second level of reading, one can reinterpret the configuration of the metal hat, the broken Chinese calligraphy, and the fibre in the context of ongoing globalization or neocolonialism. While displaced from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century when power and domination are exercised in different forms, the relationship between the West and the non-West remains the same, a relationship of colonizer and colonized, or of center and periphery. As Huynh put in a note concerning Labour of Love, “In the name of free trade and globalization, many first-world nations consider lending a hand to third-world nations in developing their economy . . . the [ironic] situation of history, culture and economy calls for another investigation of the issue of [globalization].” What the reinvestigation of globalization reveals is the disconcerting fact that, as James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer note,
. . . the expansion of capital flows and commodity trade via unequal relations in the contemporary period is a continuation of the imperialist relations of the past. The subjects of globalization — the principal traders, investors and renters of services–have interests antagonistic to those of the objects of their policies — the workers, peasants, and national producers in the targeted countries. . . . Hence the concept of imperialism fits the realities much better than globalization. (29–30)
Since the inauguration of postmodern globalization in the late 1980s, East and Southeast Asia have been recolonized as manufacturing bases for all kinds of transnational corporations. In the numerous factories set up by TNC (transnational capital) to manufacture garment and footwear to be shipped to the West, underpaid young women aged between 16 and 25 are forced to work twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week (Kwan 3). After 11 September 2001, there was a huge demand for American flags and Chinese women in China were recruited to labour day and night for lousy wages to meet this demand.2 Situated in this new global geopolitical context, Huynh’s colored women working in cotton fields are seen metamorphosing into wretched men and women toiling in TNC-run factories, the presence of the mount of fibre emphasizing the unchanged status of the previous third world as a supplier of labor and raw material.
It would be too reductive an interpretation should one stop short of taking up the cultural aspect of globalization as implicitly urged by Huynh’s installations. The unequal relationship between the overwhelming metal hat and the overshadowed broken Chinese calligraphy seen in this view seem to provoke reflections on cultural imperialism, under whose impact indigenous cultures are being violated, destroyed, and threatened by Western commodities and consumerist culture-ideology. What are the implications of Chinese characters broken and contained within the contour lines of the metal hat? What is the connection between their violated appearance and the domineering metal hat? Chinese calligraphy as a unique art of writing here can be taken as standing in for traditional Chinese culture, and its broken, ravished, fragmented, disrupted look suggests a threatened, precarious condition of existence for indigenous culture. The calligraphy’s spatial contiguity with an aggressive, towering steely top hat calls attention to the latter as the cause of the former’s violation. Here Huynh’s work prompts viewers to take the multi-paneled metal hat as a symbol for power and hegemony wielded by the West over the non-West in the age of capitalist globalization.
What is evoked at this moment are well-known stories of West-centered global flows of commodities, technology, finance, images, values, and ideas. As pointed out by Fredric Jameson, globalization is synonymous with Americanization and “the standardization of world culture, with local popular or traditional forms driven out or dumped down to make way for American television, American music, food, clothes and films” is “the very heart of globalization” (“Globalization” 51). American cultural commodities are invading every corner of the world. In some parts of Africa, 90 percent of films shown are Hollywood-made. In South America, cultural imperialism is colonizing the unconscious of the indigenous populations, manipulating their psyche to secure markets for Western commodities. In China, the invasion of Hollywood and Blockbusters has caused a general crisis for home-grown films. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Rock-n-roll, American Cowboys, Hum-Phry, eminu, Polo, Adidas, Fendi, Jones New York and Ralph Lauren are emerging in increasing numbers in China. All over the world, native cultures, customs, and traditional value systems are being endangered, violated, and mutilated, undergoing a profound crisis under the impact of globalization/Americanization. So far over 6,000 native languages have become extinct and there is a general sense of things falling part in many previously colonized countries. These are part of the suggested meanings to be gleaned from Huynh’s work and her way of telling as a marginalized ethnic Other.
If what the centers of power see as natural, permanent, and appropriate is always unmasked and ridiculed by the marginalized Other as arbitrary, contingent, and absurd, this is especially true of Huynh’s work with its rigorous deconstructive energy. There is no doubt that the grotesque extravagance of the deformed hats (Fibre/Fibreur) has an effect of unsettling and undoing, but what is being unsettled and undone? What is the suggested meaning of the white fake hat being stripped of or covered with a rose-knit out layer (English Love)? Why the artist presents a mural of unlikely punctuation marks and non-alphabetical typographies (Fibre/Fibreur)? Is the horizontal bar a Chinese numerical sign “一” (one) or a dash in English or a minus sign in mathematics? The huge dot framed in the square is an enlarged English period or an allusion to the Japanese flag? How can one decide that what looks like a cross is not an addition sign? What does the equation sign appended with two unlikely dots designate? It recalls a number of signs at once and yet identifies with none. How to take what looks like the percentage sign with two unidentical dots? What can be taken as a grotesque division sign also resembles a human bust. Does the repeated “forget me not” phrase (also the name of a flower designating a symbolic act of asking to be remembered) warn viewers not to forget what they are seeing, those disturbing and confusing signs? Or not to forget the traumatic experience of the ethnic Other exiled from one symbolic order to another? Does the menacing dog as a gatekeeper warn people of the consequence of transgression or forgetting? Again there is so much uncertainty going on here. None of the encountered punctuation marks or images are self-identical or self-present and what determines their identity is context and differential relations. The sign is arbitrary or culturally determined and the relationship of signifier and signified is a mere matter of convention or context. There is no preexisting system of concepts or ideas prior to language and different cultures cut up the phenomenal world in different ways.
If concepts and habits of thinking are culture-specific and if there is no universal meaning or value, then it goes without saying that whatever is asserted or imposed as universal is in fact a masquerading particularity and that Western historicism is nothing but a white mythology. Western colonialism past and present is predicated on the imagined universal validity of the Western systems of knowledge, thought, and socio-cultural practice. Its economic and territorial invasions, backed up by its technological and military hegemony, have always been interpreted as motivated by philanthropic desires to civilize the primitive, to introduce them to “the benefits of Western cultures” (JanMohamed 62).
The dismantling of colonialism as ridiculous, absurd, savage, and hypocritical, one can argue, finds best figuration in Huynh’s installations, particularly those deformed, fragmented, grotesque, garish white top hats. They give viewers a disturbing sense of unreality, a sense of something made of lies turned inside out. It is significant that the disintegrated, defamiliarized, desacralized top hats hanging down from the ceiling are confronted with a print of a real, dignified, usable hat. This juxtaposition seems to tell people that the hats in two different conditions are actually the same thing viewed from different angles and from different moments of history. If the top hat symbolic of upper class status and Western imperial power represents European colonialism and its white mythology, it is now totally divested of its dignity, power, propriety, arrogance, and white-supremacist aura, and what remains of colonialism is, as can be derived from Huynh’s work, a drab ugly, excessive, meaningless unappealing form of whiteness. In much the same way, the top hat in English Love, whether it is shedding off or putting on a string of roses, is held up for ridicule, distrust, and deconstruction as well. There are also two perspectives, and modes of existence involved here: in one of the exhibited prints a pile of hats dominantly hover over women of color working in cotton fields, which recalls the power relations between the imperial metropolis and the colonized periphery, and the days of such relations enacted by force, tolerated, and unquestioned. In sharp contradistinction, the half-unmasked, disfigured hat casting off its rosy out layer and dangling midair summons up an allegory of colonialism questioned, abhorred, divested of its beautiful rhetoric and reduced to its repellent stark reality.
Theodor Adorno teaches us in Aesthetic Theory that “in order for a work of art to be a purely and fully a work of art, it must be more than a work of art” (6). Huynh’s installations burst with artistic innovativeness and with formalized meaning. They represent objects, relations, and events from the perspective of Othered social marginalities, a perspective of those who live in between two worlds, moving from day to day with haunting memories of lived experience of colonialism and colonization in various overt and covert forms. They are purely and fully artworks because they are more than artworks. For they always challenge viewers to unlearn their received views and modes of seeing, and challenge them to bridge the world of real life with the world of art. They vibrate with an unforgettable forget-me-not call from history. They are imbued with a yearning for justice and a sense of responsibility to all those who are “victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism” (Derrida xix).
Department of English
University of Calgary
1 This information is gathered from Rita Wong’s paper, “Resounding Dissent in a Time and Space of Imperial Delirium,” presented at the Fred Wah Conference, May 2003.
2 For more discussion on this point see Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 80-97.
Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. R. Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis:
U of Minnesota P, 1998.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York:
Jameson, Fredric. “Globalization and Political Strategy,” New Left Review 4
July-August (2000): 49–68.
JanMohamed, Abdul. “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of
Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 59-87.
Kwan, Alice. “An Interview with Alice Kwan.” 26 June 2003
Petras, James and Henry Veltmeyer. Globalization Unmasked. Halifax:
Fernword Books, 2001.
Said, Edward. “Bursts of Meaning.” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.
—. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Wong, Rita. “Resounding Dissent in a Time and Space of Imperial Delirium.”
Presented at the Fred Wah Conference May 2003.