Constructions of Disquiet:  Vietnamese and Vietnamese/American Photography

Brian Doan and Richard Turner, curators

The Book of Disquiet, Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa’s “factless autobiography” is a collection of episodes, observations, descriptions, musings, poems and dreams assembled posthumously from a cache of unfinished and unpublished writings that Pessoa left behind when he died in 1935. The writings are attributed to a large number of alternative selves, each of whom had a distinct (invented) biography, ideology and horoscope. Permeating the 500-page compilation of fragments that vary in length from a single sentence to a full chapter, is a persistent sense of anxiety.  None of the several persona the author has created are comfortable – with their role in society, their personal history, their own bodies.  Much the same might be said of the art, if not the artists themselves, in this exhibition.

The artists in Constructions of Disquiet employ a diverse range of pictorial strategies to express a sense of disquiet about issues surrounding belonging, identity, family, history and oppression.  Their unease is understandable. The trauma of emigration and/or the challenges of being an artist in an intolerant society inform the practice of each artist in a distinct way. Furthermore, the artists in the exhibition, like many of their contemporaries, are on the move.  Born in one country, based in another and exhibiting their work in venues around the globe, they are peripatetic creatures, perhaps at home only within the disquiet of their own creations.  

The malise that permeates the images in the exhibition is, regrettably, all too familiar to us in 2016.  That anxiety is, if anything, more pervasive than it was in 1975 when the first Vietnamese refugees began arriving at Camp Pendleton.  The ongoing saga of Syrian refugees fleeing from the ravages of war in the Middle East, acts of terrorism at home and abroad, the demonizing of immigrants and the unpredictable fluctuations of our globalized economy all make for truly disquieting times.  It is a testament to the resilience of the artists in Constructions of Disquiet: Contemporary Vietnamese and Vietnamese/American Photography that they have been able to make an uneasy peace with the chaos of their lives and, in doing so, have created work that is distressingly relevant for today’s audiences.