There is an art exhibition being held at BLANC Art Space in Saigon at the moment which displays a series of photographs taken by artist Phan Quang, and which is called “Re/Cover.”
The curator of the exhibition, Nguyễn Như Huy, kindly sent me a copy of the catalog for the exhibition. In the catalog, Nguyễn Như Huy has an essay entitled “Re/Cover: A Microhistorical Approach by Phan Quang” in which he explains how Phan Quang’s art can be understood as a form of microhistory.
As I noted in the previous post, the point of microhistory is to show the complexity of the past by looking at something small, like an event or a community, and revealing how the history of that event or community does not always match the generalizations that historians have made about that time and place.
This is precisely what Phan Quang does in Re/Cover. In particular, Phan Quang researched about Vietnamese women who had relationships with Japanese soldiers during World War II, and who had children from those relationships. He found some of these women, and/or their children, and took photographs of them.
In all of these photographs, the people are covered in a large piece of white chiffon fabric that was produced in a Japanese village that has a long history of producing such fabric.
As curator Nguyễn Như Huy explains in his essay, the white chiffon fabric “covers” the “many conflicted and harsh realities of a difficult time under its peaceful and silent composition.” At the same time, however, that photographs also give a sense of “recovery” as the viewer can see that these people have in some ways made peace with the past.
One way that Phan Quang does this is to show an elderly woman holding a picture of her Japanese lover when he was young while she sits in front of an altar dedicated to the same man, who is now deceased.
As such, the white chiffon fabric is “covering” a difficult past, but from the larger picture we see that this woman has also “recovered” to some extent from that past and that it is part of her life and her home.
Nguyễn Như Huy wonders in his essay if perhaps this is a good way to think about history in general, as a constant process of covering and recovering.
I think we could take this play on words even further as “recovery” has two main meanings: 1) to “return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength” and 2) to “find or regain possession of (something stolen or lost).”
In his photographs, Phan Quang shows how people have “recovered” by returning to a normal state of health, mind, or strength,” but through his research he has also “recovered,” in the sense of “regaining possession of something lost,” information about the past that many people are not aware of.
It is here that Phan Quang’s photographs become an example of microhistory. As curator Nguyễn Như Huy notes in his essay, these photographs are like a form of “microhistorical data.”
And in keeping with the style of microhistory, this data, to quote Nguyễn Như Huy, “does not try to accuse, to condemn, or to articulate the multiple into any logical narrative.” Instead, by showing the “minor players” in history and the “polyphony” of events in the past, it simply forces us to see the past in more complex ways.
I think it is best here to quote Nguyễn Như Huy at some length as he captures the spirit of microhistory very well:
“At the end of the day, what really happened in Vietnam and the world during this period of the 1940s? Is this the story of the beginning of a legendary resistance of communist Vietnam against colonial France – a resistance that led to the formation of first socialist nation in Southeast Asia? Or is this the story of violent globalization from West to East, which cost the lives of millions of people? Or is this the story of the dramatic end of World War II by the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hirosima and Nagasaki that led to the change of Japan – the change that made the country the giant it is today?
“Under these ‘grand’ and ideological stories were the normal and ordinary lives of people who just tried to survive within the ‘storms’ that suddenly entered into their lives. These are the people of Phan Quang’s work. But even within these people, the stories are read in varying and conflicting ways.
“Were they, the day they encountered the Japanese soldiers, innocent Vietnamese woman who were forced to have sex with the Japanese invaders as in the familiar patterns of the ideological and nationalist historical text books? Or were they part of a very difficult story about human being’s love that overcomes all the borders of nationality and patriotism?
“Is this the story of the ostracization of the woman and her children, who for a long time could not be officially accepted as part of the local community, which made their lives extraordinarily difficult? Or is this the story of faithful longing for a lover, the story of the commitment of love?”
There is of course no single answer to any of these questions, and that is precisely the point of microhistory. It shows that history cannot be reduced to a single narrative or a single point or a single explanation.
The past is complex, and as Phan Quang and Nguyễn Như Huy both demonstrate in their own ways, it can be beautifully complex.