NGO DINH TRUC / Photography

The worlds of possibility in the photography of Ngo Dinh Truc
Barbara Herman

At first glance, photographer Ngo Dinh Truc’s The Same Gender Series and Idle Talks might seem to have nothing to do with one another.

 

In The Same Gender Series, nine of Truc’s commercial photos of beautiful homes (he is a professional interior design photographer by trade) have been plucked out of context and accompanied by text that invites the viewer to reexamine the photos for their “queer” possibilities.

 

Idle Talks, comprising ten found photographs of Saigon, also accompanied by text, becomes a meditation on the contradictory powers of photography: its ability to speak official truths while inviting their subversion; its impersonality which invites the viewer to project onto it her most personal meanings; and finally, its ability to keep the past from disappearing by becoming a monument to all that has been lost.

 

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Ngo Dinh Truc, #2, from Idle Talk Series, Saigon, 2005.
 
In both of these works, Truc demonstrates photography’s ability to capture not only what is but also what could be. He is interested in what happens after the photograph is taken, in the life of the viewer’s imagination. Coming from a political climate in which the image is used by those in power only to tell official stories, and where photographs are exhibited only if they tell the “right” stories about Vietnam, Truc demonstrates that a photograph can have as many meanings as viewers. His text doesn’t seek to provide the meaning of the photographs, but his meaning.

 

Through the act of reading each photograph he presents, wrenching meaning away from the merely formal or aesthetic (in The Same Gender Series) or from the merely historical (in Idle Talks), Truc takes the viewer through a personal tour of photography’s metaphorical possibilities.

 

THE SAME GENDER SERIES: GETTING OUT OF THE CLOSET BY FIRST GOING INSIDE

 

Same-sex love in Vietnam is socially and culturally invisible. One line in The Rough Guide says it all: “The gay scene in Vietnam is extremely low-key, and non-existent for lesbians.”

 

In a series of photographs called The Same Gender, Truc re-used his commercial photographs of domestic space and its “inhabitants” (furniture, tableware, pillows on a bed) to suggest “the love that dare not speak its name.” In a neutral context, the photographs wouldn’t elicit a second glance. They’re conventionally pretty images of fantasy bourgeois spaces filled with tasteful designs, in elegant colors, arranged harmoniously. The accompanying text, however, asks you to look a little closer.

 

In “StEve’s forbidden apple is saved for Adam”, an apple wrapped in cloth sits on a crème-colored couch. The background becomes much more evocative. Where are Steve and Adam? In “The same ones hang out together”, a predominately red interior contains three chairs. One sits alone and two seem to be aligned, facing the same direction, in the same posture. In “The same ones are close”, a pair of wine glasses sit on a table in front of three chairs. The phrase “the same ones” in Vietnamese can also mean “the same gender.” This “sameness” which so offends those who find homosexuality wrong is recuperated by Truc through the aesthetic. Sameness --and the difference and a-symmetry within sameness--become beautiful rather than repugnant in his speaking photographs.

 

But this aestheticization doesn’t come without a cost. One feels trapped in this domestic space, uncomfortably identifying with furniture, with mute and immobile objects. And with the exception of the office space image that lets the viewer out of the house (we’re shown identical Mac computers in front of identical red chairs), there’s something a little too polite about the images, as if they promised to stay at home, to remain domestic issues and not political ones.

 

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Ngo Dinh Truc, Untitled #6 (the same [gender] ones have coupled up), from The Same [Gender] Series, Saigon, 2007.
 
Even the optimism of titles, repeating a liberating theme of “outness” (“The same ones are in harmony with each other.” “The same ones tuck one another in.”) are belied by the absence of the human subjects. What can it mean that two wine glasses or champagne glasses are in plain view if the people they are meant to represent are nowhere to be found?

 

To this American viewer from San Francisco, raised on a steady diet of Mapplethorpe bullwhips and Goldin transsexuals, no matter how daringly this space is queered by the text, the internal contradiction of outness in interior space and of sleek formalism in the place of messy sexuality seems suffocating. But perhaps this suffocation is one of the feelings The Same Gender Series is meant to evoke: the cost of repression. The images whisper queer desire hysterically (that is, indirectly) because they are not allowed to do otherwise.

 

DESTROYING DESTRUCTION: SPEAKING PHOTOGRAPHY’S POWERS IN IDLE TALKS

 

Idle Talks comprises 10 ready-made photographs that, in the words of their interlocutor Ngo Dinh Truc, “may or may not be related to Saigon but all of them are used to talk about Saigon.”

 

Starting with an Edenic image of a serene Saigon port in 1882 and ending with the iconic picture of a bearded, white-suited, waving Ho Chi Minh, Idle Talks is an idiosyncratic history of Saigon through carefully selected images as well as an homage to the preservative powers of photography. Whether photography shows us what is no more, or shows us that some things never change, it remains, Truc says poetically “like an eccentric who keeps saving everything perfectly, irrespective of the passage of time…” (Idle Talks #1).

 

“Saving everything” means, essentially, remaining neutral. As a result, Truc adopts a neutral tone to match the documentary photographs. The “talk” tries to pass itself off as “idle,” inconsequential, as comments in passing that should not be taken seriously. But like a hostage whispering code to potential rescuers, outside of the earshot of his captors, Truc creates a text permeated with multiplicity, ambiguity and tension. This doublespeak demands that the viewer (and reader) must dig deeper to save the images and text from their fates as merely indexical or literal. Idle talk is deadly serious.

 

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Ngo Dinh Truc, #10, from Idle Talk Series, Saigon, 2005.
 
In photograph #2, we see an image of Norodom Palace from 1952 by a French photographer named Raymond Cauchetier. We learn that years later, this structure before our eyes was destroyed and rebuilt into Reunification Palace. Although Truc comments that we are lucky the picture remains to show us what was there before, he also adds a twist.  Commenting on the two pilots who destroyed the palace, he says: “Their view must have been the same as Raymond’s.” An implicit comparison is being made between the apparatus that bombed the palace and the instrument that “saves” it from total eradication.  Photography inoculates against loss, destroys the possibility of absolute destruction.

 

Sometimes, however, photography is an unwitting ally in romanticizing social conditions that could be improved. In Idle Talks #7, we see a familiar scene to Saigonese: flooded streets after rain. People in buses, on motorbikes, and on foot must wade through polluted waters and look on impassively. A Vietnamese pop singer once turned this predicament into a beautiful song, likening the recurrent nuisance to “rivers running around.” Truc, again, like a commentator prompting critical reflection, says ironically, “Maybe now, people hold onto this as a romantic image of Saigon.”

 

In the one personal photo in this collection, #9, we see an image of his mother as a student in front of the oft-photographed Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon. “There must be so many private albums that hold images like this of Saigon,” he writes. “Because of these personal collections, images of Saigon will be saved and contemplated forever.”

 

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes argued that the involved viewer of photography recognizes the difference between a photograph’s studium—the conventional, public meaning or information the photograph displays, with its punctum--the way the photograph “pierces” the viewer personally and jogs psychic and emotional associations particular to that viewer. Photograph #9 becomes, in a way, a model for viewing all the “impersonal” photographs that precede it and follow it. Through its influence, Truc demonstrates the importance of making the most of photography’s eccentric hoarding by rescuing the personal from the conventional and turning the image’s idle talk into passionate dialogue.

 

San Francisco

March 2006.