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Through their new work for BLEED 2020, artists James Nguyen and Victoria Pham reanimate the Đông Sơn drum, an ancient instrument with great cultural significance for their Vietnamese heritage. “We wanted to build a body of knowledge around this instrument in a way that just isn’t possible in academia or museums.” By Andy Butler.

James Nguyen and Victoria Pham

James Nguyen (top right), Victoria Pham and the Đông Sơn drum they acquired for RE:SOUNDING.
Credit: Clockwise from top right: Abigail Moncrieff; courtesy the artists; supplied; James Nguyen

James Nguyen and Victoria Pham’s new artistic collaboration seems emblematic of art-making in the time of Covid-19. A digital collaboration across vastly differing time zones and historical epochs, RE:SOUNDING is an online suite of works that explores an ancient Vietnamese and more broadly South-East Asian instrument, the Đông Sơn drum.

The Đông Sơn is held in many ethnographic museums and private collections in the West. RE:SOUNDING is Nguyen and Pham’s attempt to metaphorically raid colonial collections of museum artefacts, and to breathe a multidimensional and complex life back into objects that are stuck in clinical, Eurocentric collection rooms.

As we begin our Zoom call, Pham is awake at an unsociable hour on a Sunday morning while Nguyen is finishing his dinner. Both artists are originally from Sydney, but Nguyen is now based in Melbourne and Pham in London. Nguyen and I both live in the same suburb, and we’re trying to make sense of a curfew that has been announced just hours before. Pham tells us that London is still in lockdown because too many people went to the beach on a recent sunny day. All three of us are heads on a screen, our domestic spaces behind us. We’re trying to discuss art, but we’re mostly talking about seismic upheaval and catastrophe.

In an alternate universe, RE:SOUNDING would be having a staged outcome about now as part of BLEED 2020, a festival co-produced by Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney and Arts House in Melbourne. Envisioned as an exploration of the connections between digital and corporeal life, with both live and digital expressions, the festival shifted entirely online after live performance shut down in March this year. Pham, who is also a composer and archaeologist, has spent only two weeks in Australia this year, returning for the premiere of a piece she’d composed for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. “I went back in a weird window of time in January,” she says. “I remember seeing a smoky haze from the fires as my plane was landing. A week after I left, they started shutting everything down because of Covid.” She’s staying put in Britain for now to continue her PhD in biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

RE:SOUNDINGincludes filmed performances with collaborators in Australia and overseas, an open-access library of some 51 recorded sounds from a Đông Sơn drum, and video works inspired by the decorative motifs found on the drums. The instruments are usually decorated with geometric patterns, scenes of daily life and war, animals and birds.

There’s a shaky video on the BLEED website of Nguyen visiting a collection room in the Art Gallery of New South Wales with researcher Sheila Ngoc Pham (no relation to Victoria), to see two Đông Sơn drums. “We sometimes categorise them as Chinese and other times as Vietnamese,” says Matt Cox, AGNSW curator of Asian art, explaining that the drums originated in northern Vietnam near the current border with China, during a Bronze Age 2000 to 3000 years ago. One drum looks damaged around the bottom, while the other has been obviously repaired.

“So you’re hoping to ultimately get some sound out of this drum, right?” asks Cox. But RE:SOUNDING is about more than that. As much as the project is about reanimating an ancient instrument, it’s equally concerned with navigating the structures and modes of knowledge creation that we inherit in Western institutional spaces.

Pham tells me there’s a reductive tendency in museum collections and academia. “For an object, we get a year, material, roughly where it comes from, and then one sentence about the function of what it is,” she says. “At the same time, in anthropology you’re taught that a single ancient object will have a single function – usually either as a fertility or ritual object.” Cultural objects are stripped of their capacity to be bearers of manifold meaning, diminished to inert artefacts that can be slotted into the structure and world view of a Western museum collection.

Curators were, for the most part, excited about what Nguyen and Pham were attempting to do. “I think they recognised the limits of how collecting practices in the West work,” says Nguyen. “They wanted to see artists come in and attempt to bring an object out from behind museum glass and let other people use it in different ways. To allow it to exist in another narrative than just being an artefact of an exotic culture.”

However, the administrative processes of writing protocol documents to allow outsiders to use objects from their collection have proved time consuming. After two years of discussions with museums, Nguyen and Pham have only managed to work with a drum they acquired privately.

“There’s these institutional structures around care for a collection in museums,” says Nguyen. “But these structures of care don’t necessarily prioritise letting objects have a spiritual existence within the cultural communities they belong to, of having a resonance and connection to contemporary life.”

Pham composed pieces to be played on the Đông Sơn drum that Nguyen bought at auction, and also recorded an open-access library of the drum’s sounds. These recorded sounds were then given to musicians in Vietnam and Indonesia to create their own pieces in response. On the BLEED website are videos of percussionists playing Pham’s score. Indonesian composer and musician Bagus Mazasupa and Vietnamese experimental rock band Rắn Cạp Đuôi incorporate the instrument into wildly different compositions using the library of recorded drum sounds.

Both Nguyen and Pham grew up in the Vietnamese migrant community in Western Sydney, members of families who arrived after the Vietnam–American war. Echoing the dispersal of the Đông Sơn drum, diasporic Vietnamese communities formed in the West following waves of foreign intervention, war and imperialism in Vietnam.

Pham and Nguyen found that the drum sparked connections to their families, Vietnamese culture and mythology, and other artists. Both recall hearing stories about the ancient drums from their parents. There are archways in Vietnamese–Australian suburbs, such as Bankstown in Sydney and North Richmond in Melbourne, that feature decorative motifs inspired by the drums.

RE:SOUNDING is also a subversion of what James calls their “white inheritance”. Like many from diasporic communities who have grown up in Australia, the worldview in which they’re embedded, the one they’re taught at school and university, considers non-Western cultures to be flat, one-dimensional and removed from contemporary society. The result is a physical and spiritual disconnection from their own cultural heritage.

Pham has wanted to be a composer and archaeologist since she was a child. “I started playing piano really young, and learnt all about the classical Western canon. When I was about seven, I started writing my own music – I was bored of only playing Mozart. At about the same time I started reading National Geographic.”

She studied at the University of Sydney’s department of archaeology and the Conservatorium of Music simultaneously, and is now a rising composer and a PhD candidate at Cambridge on a significant scholarship. As an archaeologist, she’s researching how people experienced sound in caves in the prehistoric era, and its impact on the development of language and communication systems.

Nguyen jokes that Pham is an expert in the traditions of the coloniser. Classical music and archaeology are two forms of knowledge and historicising that place a European worldview at the centre of the universe. Pham agrees: her training means she can articulate the limitations of how we make sense of the world within our cultural institutions. She says Western classical traditions are ascribed a complex history and the capacity to thrive and develop, while other cultures are deprived of the same sort of resources, attention or care.

Nguyen came to art later than Pham, and is now building an impressive reputation as an artist. He trained as a pharmacist, but after friends saw that he was struggling in that profession they enrolled him in night painting classes. He is now completing a PhD in fine art and is a studio resident at Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary. He’s recently shown critically acclaimed work at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia for The National 2019, and at Next Wave Festival in Melbourne.

He is a serial collaborator, with an infectious energy and sense of humour, and seems most comfortable making artistic projects with family and friends. They are usually performance or video works, but for Nguyen the process of collaboration takes precedence over the product.

The contradictions of being displaced from your own country and culture while also being embedded in Australia’s ongoing legacy of colonialism and dispossession is a generative tension in Nguyen’s work. “We’re all taught to be perfect white subjects here,” he says. “Collaborating with other people of colour can form creative processes to subvert that.”

Nguyen and Pham both recall a spark of excitement when they were introduced to each other. Their areas of interest and expertise are an uncanny match for a project that covers ancient musical instruments and museum collections. They used the project as a vehicle to find collaborators who could approach the object in a way that exploded the reductive meanings ascribed to it by Eurocentric traditions. “We wanted to build a body of knowledge around this instrument in a way that just isn’t possible in academia or museums,” says Pham.

They hope their work will encourage others to make compositions that include the Đông Sơn drum. Releasing an open-access library of sounds was a key part of resisting the ideas of ownership that are pervasive in museums. Eventually, they’d like to add recordings to the library from drums held in museum collections.

Finding and connecting with other people of colour within predominantly white institutions is vital for both artists. “I think we’re lucky to be a part of a generation of artists that have the opportunity to find each other,” Nguyen says. He echoes many conversations I’ve had in the contemporary art community – there’s a groundswell of artists of colour coming up now, but it feels like there’s a vacuum of knowledge because of the lack of non-white people in positions of leadership. It’s easier to find peer support than mentorship.

While discussions of representation and systemic racism are very loud in museums and contemporary art, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter, Pham says that classical music has a long way to go. She has just released a podcast, Declassify, that dives into issues of exclusion in classical music.

“People see classical music as the pinnacle of the Western tradition,” Pham says. “The lack of support and representation of women composers, conductors, musicians or soloists, let alone people of colour, wouldn’t be acceptable in any other art form. A lot of people are being left behind because they don’t fit into the image of classical music in the West.”

She cites statistics released by the “Living Music Report”. In 2018-19, only 3 per cent of works programmed by Australian state orchestras were composed by women, 0.45 per cent by culturally diverse composers and 0.05 per cent by First Nations composers. These orchestras receive large amounts of federal government funding through the Major Performing Arts Framework.

RE:SOUNDING brings together informal networks of peers to circumvent the rigidity of the cornerstones of Western cultural knowledge and tradition. Neither artist believes it would have got off the ground without their working together, and each says that this scheming together is key when navigating spaces that have historically locked out underrepresented voices.

“Our only forms of networks and power [are] each other – the artists, families and friends we have around us,” says Nguyen. “We have to pool what resources and connections we have to push these agendas of transformation and cultural care, because power hasn’t really been in our hands before.” 

RE:SOUNDING is online at bleedonline.net/program/resounding until August 30.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2020 as "Drum majors".

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Andy Butler is an artist and writer. He is the program curator at West Space in Melbourne.