Phuong Ngo’s 10-day durational performance, Article 14.1, referring to the Universal Human Right to seek asylum, invites viewers to engage with the stories of Vietnamese refugees. Taking residence in the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of Sydney Festival, this tactile experience is not one to miss.
A grid of red mats with short square tables on them, accompanied with two plastic footstools and a tablet. At the end of the room are baskets. In a corner, a man, folding paper diligently. You could be forgiven for walking past this installation, most likely thinking it a reading nook or a classroom awaiting students.
The museum staff invite you in – ‘Please remove your shoes at the door’ – and lead you to a table. They give you two hell banknotes, a form of joss currency that’s burned as an offering to the dead. Calmly, methodically, a pair of hands begin folding the banknote. There are headphones on the table.As you put them on, and you hear two voices talking about their family’s experiences on board a refugee boat.
Let’s say you were more prepared than I was – or that you read the sign on the wall that named this installation and gave its description. Article 14.1: wherein Australian artist Phuong Ngo spends ten days living in the Museum of Contemporary Art, sleeping on the concrete floor and eating the same provisions that his parents had on their boat from Vietnam in 1981. Oh, and also folds thousands of boats from paper banknotes.
Even prepared, you’d be struck by just how still it is in there.
If you’re like me, you might be a little unnerved by this stillness. Like most, my experience of art is as a consumer. I watch things. In this installation, I felt like I was the one being watched. If you’re like me, you’ll keep the headphones on – to tangibly consume art. If you’re like me and you get nervous about being seen, you’ll tell yourself: “make one origami boat and then you can leave.”
I wait for the video to loop back to the beginning, and then I make the first fold…
The voices compare experiences and bond over their family stories. They’re talking about finding their achievements unworthy in the face of their family’s escape from newly communist Vietnam.
Hold on! I’ve missed a step. How have I already made a mistake? I’m supposed to bend the paper into a trapezium shape, but I now have two superfluous flaps of paper. What did I miss in the video?
She talks about her father’s experience in a communist re-education camp. How he left bitter, but not brainwashed. How after a few years, he decided to organise a boat to take himself, his friends, and his family out of Vietnam.
I bend the flaps. Out of sight, out of mind. I try to catch up to the hands, which have made the paper into a narrow strip.
They talk about why some people didn’t want to leave Vietnam – even if it meant living under the regime. One mentions an Aunt who thought his father was crazy, to leave with the possibility of never coming back. Of leaving the place you were connected to, forever.
“You might not come back” they would say, because the regime would see you as a criminal…or you didn’t survive the boat journey.
My boat refuses to make the final unfurling that should create a miniature hull. I become frustrated. I could simply leave the bank notes on the table, and walk away.
The discussion pulls me back in, turning to the perils the refugees faced:those that meant many boats were never seen again. Unfit vessels that sank. Pirates from the Philippines and from Thailand. Some were nice: stole valuables and left provisions to the refugees. Many were not.
The paper – having been folded, unfolded, and then folded again – isn’t keeping these new folds. It’s too damaged to maintain the stability of the boat. Nevertheless, I keep following the video’s example. Fold the paper in half. Make a trapezium.
They recount how their family’s boat was picked up by a Dutch oil rig. At first, told to go away, and when it wasn’t certain that they would find asylum, when they might have been sent back – her father considered setting the rig on fire. To get media attention. She laughs about her father’s stubbornness. And admires his tenacity.
I’ve made a mistake again, but I don’t really mind. Almost without realising it, I’ve calmed down. Maybe working with my hands has soothed me.
I keep at it, and end up with a ruined boat. The front’s fine but the back is completely unfurled
At the end of the room, Phuong was expertly folding another one for his baskets.
Article 14.1 is a transcendental space, because of its stillness. From an objective standpoint, there are three elements: the paper folding, the audio conversations, and Phuong at the end of the room. On their own, each would be weak and forgettable. But together, the pieces create a context within which you create meaning.
Through the constant trying and failing to fold this boat, I felt a reflection of the frustration of the parents in these stories trying to organise their own boats. It was only a fraction of the experience, but I still felt it. And therein lies the power of Article 14.1 The experience exists as a marriage between your internal life and the physical objects the artist places before you. Such a transaction creates a personal experience. It creates as many meanings as there are people who see it. It.didn’t end up being about Phuong living in the museum for ten days, he barely figured into my experience of his installation. He was just a shadow at the end of the room. My experience was one of introspection, and a gathering wisdom to persevere.
Article 14.1 refers to the right to seek asylum. The protest against policies that infringe on this right usually call on our empathy. To identify with the people who seek asylum, listen to their stories, and imagine ourselves in their place. That is what this installation meant for me: a space for identifying, listening, and empathising.
NOTE: I stayed until I made an acceptable boat. A staff member helped me with the final steps. I then refolded the original boat again, until, battered as it was, it retained the shape. I asked for another note and folded it too. By that point, I simply wanted to sit in the space, and the feelings it evoked.