Ken Matsumoto’s compound, the ArtObjectGallery, sits on a legendary Japantown parcel, near a Zen meditation studio and an artist’s supply shop. Including an exhibit space along with an outdoor sculpture garden where one finds Matsumoto’s own work, the complex usually exudes serenity, but last Saturday, the entire property came alive thanks to Salt Stained, a new exhibit of mostly Vietnamese visual artists that runs through Oct. 26.
Chopsticks Alley, a local organization that promotes Southeast Asian cultural heritage through food, art and shared expression, organized the exhibit in cooperation with the San Jose Museum of Art’s Vietnamese Community Outreach Initiative, New Terrains: Mobility and Migration. The work in Salt Stained deals with intergenerational trauma, recycled identities, the refugee experience and resiliency in the face of global displacement.
“Salt is about preserving, but it’s also about new beginnings,” says Carolyn Le, one of the organizers, adding that the Vietnamese word, nuoc, which translates to both country and water, is very much part of the Southeast Asian body. When nuoc is removed, salt-stained skin remains. Once oceans are crossed, what’s left is the nuoc that nourished us and the nuoc we now call our homeland. “So you’ll see themes of preserving, starting anew, and bridging an intergenerational gap so that you can heal,” she said.
In the show, we discover pieces by SJSU art professor Binh Danh, whose work in recording images onto plant leaves has achieved national recognition for many years. Another artist, Tuan Tran, is inspired by the ancient technique of fishnet weaving in Vietnam. He hand-weaves sculptures made from telephone wire that hang from the ceiling in DNA-style coils, bringing new life into recycled materials that were once fated for the landfills. Trinh Mai, on the other hand, records the voyages of her predecessors and pays tribute to their despair via mixed media works combining acrylics, textiles, embroidery, tree bark, joss paper and remnants of rice bags inherited from her grandmother’s fabric collection. Many of the works transform matter into other forms of matter or deal directly with the transmigration of materialsall as a metaphor for the displaced person’s identity when having to start over again.
The show also includes a video as a humorous antidote to the sadder aspects of the other works. In the video, older generation Vietnamese are asked about their very first food memory after arriving the US.
“Any event like this, or having Chopsticks Alley here, is to bridge the intergenerational gap, because the 1.5 and second generations, it’s very hard for us to connect with them,” says Le. “So for something like food memories, asking, ‘Hey, what’s your first food memory when you came to America?,’ that’s much more palatable than asking, ‘What was it like when you were a refugee? How did you get here?,’ which can be very traumatic. To ask them about a food memory, it opens this up for a space of healing, building community together.”
The gala hoedown kickoff on Saturday was not a normal art opening. It was an epic transnational Viet-Japanese global landmark summit. San Jose Taiko opened up the event with a performance outside in the street. Inside, Chef Tu David Phu provided hors d’oeuvres. The folks from Academic Coffee poured caffeine into cups. The famous Lao Papaya sausages even made an appearance. Renowned musician and composer Vanessa Vo went full-on Hendrix with traditional Vietnamese instruments, putting a spell on the entire audience.
During the thank-you session, one of the all-time legends of Japantown, Dr. Jerry Hiura of Contemporary Asian Theater Scene, took over the microphone and praised the “high energy urban millennial frenzy angst” driving the whole event, noting that after all these decades the Japanese and Vietnamese communities in San Jose have never before collaborated. Until now.
“This is a dialogue that’s been silent for so long,” Hiura said. “We’re all products of war. We use the same words, like diaspora and trauma, so it’s about time.”
Susan Sayre Batton, executive director of the San Jose Museum of Art, also grabbed the mike and said the project was part of that institution’s mission to “open our doors and become a borderless museum.”
And a borderless night it was. When borders collapse, separated people come together, plain and simple.