2019

Simone,

Going back through my notes, I see that the pho­to of your moth­er is to be read
uni­ver­sal­ly. It must go beyond what is per­son­al’, you said. The work may well be
about my Viet­namese moth­er, yes, it is her por­trait. Or rather, no, it’s the pass­port
pho­to from her ID card, that is important.’

I can bare­ly recall the con­ver­sa­tion from my scrib­bled notes. About how you set to
work with lab­o­ra­to­ry assis­tants to devel­op an acid enabling you to sep­a­rate the
colours of a neg­a­tive. About brushed stain­less steel. Con­fronta­tion mir­rors,
rein­forced glass. It was a nice intense con­ver­sa­tion, full of tech­nol­o­gy and full of
black holes. Black holes con­front us with the great­est chal­lenge in physics: how to
rec­on­cile the largest struc­tures of the uni­verse with the small­est structures.’1 The
uni­ver­sal and the per­son­al. So much sci­en­tif­ic research in order to give the love for
your moth­er a right to exist – flashed through my mind. And at that time I did not
yet realise how spe­cial your love is.

I saw the work Nude in the liv­ing room of its brand new own­er, Joep van Lieshout.
There she was again: your moth­er. Three dif­fer­ent­ly tint­ed prints of the same
pass­port pho­to. A part­ing in her hair. Her gaze, mod­est and shy. Infi­nite­ly gen­tle.
Elu­sive. I look at her, but she is look­ing just past me with her eyes raised slight­ly
upwards.

In the yel­low print, the face has almost dis­ap­peared into the paper. In the red
ver­sion, the hair frames the young face, which lights up like a nar­row heart-
shape. The brown ver­sion is read­able as a black and white pho­to. The blocks of
colour lie under the three upright por­traits, brown, red and yel­low, as a response
to that sweet gen­tle face. As if the colours have leaked down­wards and have
been caught there by three equal­ly sized pieces of paper. They mar­ble the sheet.
Title: Nude
Some­times her name: Hoàng Thi Nhu Hao
Lit­tle by lit­tle, the sto­ry emerges, the sto­ry about you and her. About how your
moth­er came to the Nether­lands as a boat refugee and met your father on that
boat.
The pro­gramme Andere tij­den (Dif­fer­ent times) reports on the res­cue of an over-
crowd­ed boat like that one with Viet­namese refugees.2 The splash­ing water around
the boat turned out to be caused not by peo­ple swim­ming but by the sharks that
were swarm­ing around it. The refugees float­ed around for days with­out food or
drink. Par­ents gave their chil­dren a bur­ial at sea. A Dutch ship took them on board.

I can still remem­ber that moment very clear­ly. There was a strange smell com­ing
from that boat; I’ve nev­er smelt that odour again but I have the feel­ing that I smelt
death then,’ the cap­tain relates.

The smell of per­fume becomes visu­al in your hands. You immerse a roll of black
and white film in boil­ing water and this pro­duces a blue print. Con­verse­ly, it appears
that the most hor­ri­fy­ing moments are often stored as a sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence. All that
a con­duc­tor remem­bers of the car acci­dent in which he lost his wife is their
daughter’s scream. That inten­si­ty became the yard­stick for his music. Per­haps
those images are too heavy for the eyes so they let them go. Falling images.
Smell is a pow­er­ful force, per­fume can intox­i­cate, tempt, repel, obscure. The
streets of Viet­nam smell of jas­mine, of the faint­ly sweet­ish smell of the river3 but
no exot­ic fra­grance can drown out the smell of the war.

The 10-part doc­u­men­tary The Viet­nam War con­tains an unpar­al­leled amount of
found footage. After two episodes of the series I have to take a break. Not only
because of all those muti­lat­ed bod­ies, the atroc­i­ties that must have tak­en place
before­hand, but above all the real­i­sa­tion that there was no escape pos­si­ble, not
from the inces­sant bom­bard­ments, not from the fluc­tu­a­tion of the con­cepts of
good and evil and the dead­ly con­se­quences. 8 more episodes to go. 3,387,148
deaths.4

In April 75 the fall (or the lib­er­a­tion?) of Saigon marked the end of the war.
The con­flict con­tin­ued, about who was right, who was wrong, re-edu­ca­tion camps,
bru­tal­i­ties, a civ­il war full of boo­by-traps. Your moth­er grew up in this torn-apart
coun­try. We can only sur­mise what her eyes saw. Or the smell from which she can
nev­er escape.
And then you are there.
Simone. Your name means lis­ten­ing or hear­ing. What a won­der­ful name for an
artist. You are true to your name because there is a beau­ti­ful sense of com­pas­sion
float­ing among all those chem­i­cals. You grew up with­out many pho­tos being tak­en,
first in your mother’s arms, lat­er in fos­ter fam­i­lies. But with­out pic­tures to look
back into the past.

The writer Dubrav­ka Ugresic divides refugees into two cat­e­gories: those who have
pho­tos and those who do not. The pho­tos are the facts of life of a van­ished exist-
ence. And even though the pho­tos only show the cher­ished moments of life, the
wider uni­verse fil­ters through them. If you read care­ful­ly, an image of a peri­od in time comes to the fore, of peace, of war, pover­ty, a part of the world. Pho­tos tell so
much more than just the life of the main char­ac­ter. Ugresic describes the exis­tence
as a refugee as a dream­like state in which frag­ments of the past come and go.
With­out the pho­tos that bring the mem­o­ries to the sur­face or to which your
mem­o­ries will­ing­ly con­form, the past is a blank sheet of paper. With­out some­thing
to cling onto, the mem­o­ries with­draw into their own uncer­tain­ties. The pho­tos
serve as punc­tu­a­tion for the mem­o­ry; they make it pos­si­ble to read it like a sto­ry
that we weave around it afterwards.

While I am writ­ing this text, my list of ques­tions grows: when did you vis­it Viet­nam
as a child togeth­er with your moth­er? An artist in res­i­den­cy in Ho Chi Minh City. But
then I read the fol­low­ing sen­tence by Ugresic:
One more thing: the ques­tion as to whether this nov­el is auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal might at
some hypo­thet­i­cal moment be of con­cern to the police but not to the read­er.’ There
is absolute­ly no need to sift through your past; frag­ments are enough and the work
is a touch­stone. Those are the facts.

In our sec­ond con­ver­sa­tion, you tell the sto­ry of you and your moth­er. About how
she was not able to look after you. And how you received four pho­tos after her
death, includ­ing the one from her ID card. There she was, your moth­er. You looked
at the pho­tos again and again. A coun­try and an era hov­er behind her image; she is
your moth­er but at the same time so much more.
You notice that her skin tone takes on strange colours, some­times even a dark spot,
and you set out to inves­ti­gate.
It turns out, a very sober­ing thought, that the first colour films were designed to
por­tray white skin. The coloured dots of the film grav­i­tate towards the colours red,
green and blue, and this means that the colours need­ed to por­tray a dif­fer­ent skin
colour are less like­ly to appear. And of those three thin emul­sion lay­ers that
deter­mine the colour, the red-sen­si­tive lay­er is at the bot­tom. Yel­low, brown and
red. An expla­na­tion that is con­sis­tent with a chem­i­cal for­mu­la. But at the same
time, I think about the French who colonised Viet­nam a cen­tu­ry ago, who regard­ed
the Viet­namese as an infe­ri­or race, and who, with their refusal give up the colony,
form the ori­gin of the Viet­nam War. They were white, just like the Amer­i­cans who
took over the war.

As a hard-core sci­en­tist, you dive into the chem­i­cal for­mu­lae. Unex­posed rolls of
film go into an acid bath so that the colours of the emul­sion lay­er come to the top and are then sep­a­rat­ed again using anoth­er pro­ce­dure. The image of your moth­er
ris­es up out of the colour baths, from the colours yel­low, brown and red. Unmis­tak-
able.
Using these process­es, you make large prints of the dif­fi­cult colours brown, red and
yel­low as an act of repa­ra­tion for every­one whose skin is not white.

Then you send me a num­ber of doc­u­ments. About secur­ing your place with the
fos­ter fam­i­ly, about your name change, and a death cer­tifi­cate for your moth­er. In
the lat­ter doc­u­ment I read the incom­pre­hen­si­ble line: Approved the dele­tion of 21
words and 3 punc­tu­a­tion marks’. I check — it is cor­rect.
The insti­tu­tions that not­ed this so pre­cise­ly could do noth­ing for her, they were
unable to make con­tact with her.
Author­i­ties. Why was there no one who sim­ply rang her door­bell?’ you won­der.
When you were 18, you already very much want­ed to have your own name again,
but it was not that sim­ple. It was not until you were 31, and after a court
case, that you were called Hoàng again. Yes, I under­stand that, why you can’t
belong, with all your indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. Why that adjust­ment. Being Viet­namese and
hav­ing a name like Klomp (wood­en shoe) is an uneasy com­bi­na­tion.
There is a cer­tain expec­ta­tion, an assump­tion, that anger dom­i­nates my life, that I
am angry with my moth­er. But I am my mother’s daugh­ter.’
Yes, for­tu­nate­ly you are her daugh­ter, stand­ing up for her. Immense sad­ness lies
behind her choice. That she must have been so lone­ly, despite my being there. I
was actu­al­ly nev­er with her, even though I was there. Because it takes a lot of
courage, know­ing that your daugh­ter is going on with her life with­out you. I felt that
there was love, a form of devo­tion, she gave love. I felt it.’
I find it intense­ly mov­ing. In the Nether­lands, ther­a­pists teach chil­dren to dis­tance
them­selves, to be angry, to stand up for them­selves, but do we teach love? Or does
love lie in those big abstract sheets of paper, and can we absorb some of it by
look­ing?

Night sen­si­tiv­i­ty’ is your lat­est project. Some­where beyond the Atlas Moun­tains,
towards the Alger­ian bor­der, is the place where the world is dark­est; the dark­ness
is at its most intense just before the sun ris­es.
The night, the neg­a­tive of see­ing, that shrouds who we are; you make images
emerge from that dark night. Just as our mem­o­ry can creep out from the dark­ness
of what has been for­got­ten, like a soft­ly whim­per­ing lit­tle ani­mal. By devel­op­ing the
neg­a­tives lov­ing­ly and with mirac­u­lous chem­i­cals, an image is cre­at­ed, not a real­is­tic image but a beau­ti­ful­ly scent­ed image of a flower. That is love. Those are
the arms that embrace your moth­er.

I still remem­ber that, when we first met, you asked me whether this work is an ode
to my moth­er. We are now some­what fur­ther in the process and I think more and
more that it is an ode to the moth­er, not per se my moth­er. An ode to the ori­gin, the
begin­ning, the source.’
The more we talk, the bet­ter I under­stand that it is with­out doubt also an ode to
this moth­er.
Wher­ev­er she is, your love will reach her. And we can feel it – with you.

Hanne Hage­naars

1 Rob­bert Dijk­graaf, 11 April 2019, The black hole is the atom of the 21st cen­tu­ry
2 VPRO, Andere tij­den (Dif­fer­ent times), 25 May 2004 (1979)
3 Car­li­jn Viss­er, Hoge bomen in Hanoi (Tall trees in Hanoi), 2017
4 Nrc, 4 April 1995, Death toll in Viet­nam War high­er than expected