Artist Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai spent all of 2014 conducting research trips to Vietnamese fishing villages in Siem Reap and Pursat provinces in Cambodia, and the southern Vietnamese province of Long An.
During her time on assignment, she met and spoke with people about their lives. The result of her journey is the exhibition Day by Day, curated by Roger Nelson.
Mai's work is on display at Sao La Art Space in HCM City until May 9. It will also be held in Ha Noi next year as part of a project called Skylines with Flying People 3.
Day by Day was honoured by the Danish Cultural Development and Exchange Fund in 2014. She was a finalist for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize in 2015.
Mai spoke to Culture Vulture about her project.
Could you introduce about your project Day by Day?
Day by Day is an art project that focused on researching the Vietnamese community living in Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap Province in Cambodia, and those who returned to Viet Nam and now live in the southern province of Long An.
Most of them are not given identity cards. The project raises questions about identification and loss caused by emigration.
The project includes a 60 minute-documentary, one installation and two photos.
How was the project implemented?
I had a two-month residency programme at Sa Sa Art Projects, an experimental artist-run space in Phnom Penh, in January 2014. At that time, I visited a Vietnamese fishing village near Tonle Sap Lake.
The trip and stories I was told by the fishermen inspired me to seek more financial resources. I return to the fishing village in Siem Reap and other areas to continue the project.
I met and talked with local residents. Their beliefs and what they shared are essential to the project.
You lived with residents in Siem Reap, Pursat and Long An. What did you see there?
I saw the current problems people have to face. Illiteracy, poverty, corruption and bribery. In the 400-household village, some families only came there a few years ago; some had been living there for the last two or three generations.
These people are not provided with identity cards like official Cambodian citizens. The only official document that they are given is the membership card provided by the Vietnamese-Cambodian organisation.
There have been arguments about this from political, economic and social perspectives. During the time I spent there, I saw children trying to live without any idea about the future, seemingly with no future.
I only heard stories about the power of the rich. "Day by day…" was a phrase that I heard every day, and it drew a picture of their future. These people, they don't belong to any nation. They're trapped by their own decisions or the decisions of the people before them.
The biggest impression I got is that the residents placed a lot of trust in me. They hoped I would do something to help them change their situation. It is a lot of pressure.
What do you think about this pressure?
During my research, I investigated and contemplated deeply the necessity and importance of an ID card, its impact on people's knowledge and on their lives.
Civilisation created many things, including ID cards. However, for some people, ID cards have become a problem. An ID is like the key to change in some people's lives: It could be identity, it could be power, it might be a matter of classification, it could be their dream.
The project raises the idea that this community's experiences are both unique and emblematic of larger issues.
You are residential artist in Berlin until 2016. Could you tell us about your work there?
I will have one-year residency programme in Kunslerhaus Bethanien. I don't have a detailed, sure plan yet. However, I hope have a chance to meet Vietnamese people who are living there. I want to learn more about that community. — VNS