Trinh T. Minh-ha’s films, draw together elements of writing, sound composition, visual landscapes, theatricality, and often non-linear narrative arcs. Her eye, her voice, and her modes of looking, listening, and questioning are all offered to viewers as filmic evidence of her genuine interest in “speaking nearby” her subjects rather than speaking for or about them.
Trinh T. Minh-ha. Films., curated by NTU CCA Singapore’s Founding Director Ute Meta Bauer, offers a special chance to experience her work in a space that allows six of her films to speak nearby to each other, connected by viewers’ individualized paths from one small theatre to another. Temporality and spatiality in the exhibition space become additional compositional elements in the experience of film, both engaging and destabilizing one’s senses, cognition, and metacognition. In Trinh’s words, “…the dance of hear and see, silence and sound, stillness and movement, the hearing eye and the speaking ear are constantly at play.”
Presently a Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and of Rhetoric at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, Trinh has over four decades developed an incisive practice as an artist and writer. As exhibition curator Ute Meta Bauer notes, Trinh “has developed a multi-layered theoretical, visual, and poetic language as a way to engage the complexity of the politics that regulate images of cultural difference and the production of discourse.”
Trinh’s films Shoot for the Contents (1991), A Tale of Love (1995), The Fourth Dimension (2001), Night Passage (2004), Forgetting Vietnam (2015), and What about China? (Part I of II, 2020-2021), though quite distinct from one another, look at culture and place by inviting viewers to tune into their own ‘hearing eyes’ and ‘speaking ears.’ The films approach their subject matter from various entry-points. Shoot for the Contents for example, opens with two women playing a Chinese guessing game, to which the title refers, followed by a dialogue between them that incorporates sayings of Mao, Confucius, and other classical Chinese philosophies.
A Tale of Love, on the other hand, is an allegorical retelling of the 19th-century Vietnamese national poem Tale of Kieu (1820). The female protagonist, Kiều, is seen as a personification of Vietnam, who has suffered from continued invasion and foreign domination. She speaks of the condition of many immigrant women and more, particularly to those of the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States
Upon first entering NTU CCA Singapore’s exhibition hall, visitors are immersed in a cavernous, dark, theatrical passageway. This main area, populated by a few low platforms that display and create reading space for Trinh’s books, is connected to five individual theatres, each curtained off from the central space.
The visual elements of each work are not immediately evident but the soundscapes are present. These overlapping sonic elements help to reorient one’s senses to a space that is far from ordinary. It takes a few minutes for the eyes to adjust to the darkened space, and during that time one hears and feels the voices, music, and environmental sounds that Trinh, a trained composer, has orchestrated as a central component of her film work.
Unlike the commonplace experiences of consuming movies on demand, in one’s own home, on small devices, and on the go, this is a kind of immersion that true cinephiles crave.
The installation of each film, however, is not “cinematic.”
They each play on a continuous loop in an intimate space, creating an unpredictable start and endpoint for each visitor that allows the frames, scenes, and moments in each work to take on an interesting significance that might have gone unnoticed in a more traditional film screening.
It is this aspect of the exhibition – the series of multiple close “readings” of sections of Trinh’s films that form a unique experience on any given visit – that has impacted me the most as a viewer.
By spending time in each film’s viewing space, visitors interweave different moods, techniques, technologies, and filmic strategies across and between each work. It simultaneously feels like a luxury and a responsibility to be actively engaged, to make connections, and to ask questions rather than to passively observe or receive the films. In her artist statement in the exhibition guide, Trinh writes :
“… in conceiving an image, a shot, or a sequence, one is above all working with rhythm. Rhythm is what determines nonverbally the quality of a relationship. It should convey a multiplicity of experiences between what is seen, heard, and felt… Rhythm is the base from which a work is created and undone.”
The exhibition and the films and writings that comprise it require viewers to find their own rhythm with the complex material.
As someone who has had a front-row seat to the development and design of this exhibition, and the equally rigorous programming, presentations, and collaborations that have unfolded publicly since the show opened in mid-October 2020, I know that these projects are the result of many years of planning and deep conversations – not just with the artist, but with scholars, institutions, and practitioners of many backgrounds.
The format takes its cue from a 2001 exhibition of Trinh’s films presented at the Secession in Vienna, and the current project could be seen as a retrospective presentation of this significant artist’s work from the past thirty years. Despite this long development and historical quality, this investigation of Trinh’s work is very much about the present and future, both in terms of actively engaging viewers, institutional partners, and programme participants and in supporting the artist in the creation of a new work. Her most recent film project What about China? (Part I of II, 2020-2021), on view as part of the exhibition in the Single Screen, was co-commissioned by NTU CCA Singapore and the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, one facet of an international Trans-Institutional Partnership.
This collaboration includes the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, whose year-long research season on Trinh T. Minh-ha’s work was featured in a presentation in NTU CCA Singapore’s Lab space from October 2020 – January 2021 and the Würtembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, where an exhibition of Trinh’s work is currently being planned. In conversation with the exhibition presentation in Singapore, an online film programme entitled Speaking/Thinking Nearby, curated by Dr. Marc Gloede and Dr. Ella Raidel of NTU’s School of Art, Design, and Media (ADM), has provided a series of cinematic counterpoints by Trinh and other filmmakers to the works on view in the exhibition. To mark the closing weekend, an online conference convening filmmakers, curators, and scholars organized by Bauer, Gloede, Raidel, and Dr. Erika Balsom of King’s College London, is provoked by Trinh’s statement that “there is no such thing as documentary,” a pronouncement that investigates the perceived objectivity of the documentary as a filmic genre.
These many and varied discursive engagements and collaborations are not programming in the traditional sense, but aspects of a true multivocality cultivated through the exhibition project around Trinh’s work. Not just a gallery space, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore is an educational venue and research centre whose purview has always been to contribute to knowledge production through art, examining interconnections of the global and local.
The care and attention with which the exhibition space was envisioned by Bauer, realized in partnership with exhibition designer Laura Miotto, also on the faculty of NTU ADM, speaks to the fact that Trinh T. Minh-ha. Films., like many projects at NTU CCA Singapore, evolved from a long-standing interest in the ongoing practice of a multidisciplinary artist. Trinh’s 1989 work Surname Viet Given Name Nam had been shown as part of the Centre’s inaugural exhibition Paradise Lost in 2014 along with Yellow Patch (2011) by Zarina Bhimji and Disorient (2009) by Fiona Tan. These three works centered on narratives of place and displacement, and Asia as a location for the personal, the historical, and the imaginary.
Now, to present the rest of Trinh’s suite of cinematic works connected to Asia in such a fully realized manner as the final presentation at NTU CCA Singapore’s exhibition hall is an unintentional coincidence but a fitting way to close this chapter of the institution’s story.
In these final days of the exhibition, come experience the sonic and visual textures, and the rhythms of Trinh’s films that can only play out in a space that allows for the dance of hear and see.
Trinh T. Minh-ha. Films. is the last show at NTU CCA’s exhibition hall at Gillman Barracks, before the space closes permanently in March. The exhibition runs till 28 Feb 2021 with extended hours till 9pm on Friday 26 Feb and Saturday 27 Feb. Details on the upcoming online conference can be found here.