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In the final week of the year we have asked seven authors to reflect on which work made 2022 a special year to them. Laetitia Lai writes about what she calls ‘the epitome of diasporic memory’, a AI processed photograph by Nhu Xuan Hua from her exhibition at Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography in Amsterdam.

From September to December 2022, works by French-Vietnamese photographer and artist Nhu Xuan Hua (1989, Paris) were exhibited in a museum for the first time. The exhibition Hug of a swan at Huis Marseille Amsterdam featured a fusion of commissioned and autonomous works displayed in combination with installations designed by Hua herself. Throughout the exhibition, trinkets, flower vases and jade figurines contextualized the photographs, giving the viewer the impression of stepping into a family home. The work Archive from year ’85 – Family portrait at the wedding (2016-2021), left a lasting impression on me when I first visited Hug of a swan. It is part of a series titled Tropism, consequences of a displaced memory, which consists of photographs from Hua’s family archive that she distorted with the use of a computer algorithm. As a whole, the series forms a cohesive narrative, but each individual work also tells a story of its own.

Archive from year ‘85 – Family portrait at the wedding (2016-2021) shows a bride and groom and several other people dressed in formal attire posing for a photograph. The individual’s faces and extremities are blurred, and it remains unclear how many people are present. I was not drawn to this work, however, because of the ghostly shapes that were left by the people who used to be there. It was the familiarity that struck me: the clothes they wear, the poses they are in, the wooden lacquer chairs. My mind filled in the empty shapes until I saw my own family, the faces of my grandparents and my aunts and uncles. Although Hua worked with images from her own family archive, Tropism also refers to broader, complex mechanics of memory that are expressed through the entanglements of recognition and distortion. The algorithm hides the unique features of her own kin and reveals opportunities for your mind to see what is only there for yourself.

To me, Archive from year ‘85 – Family portrait at the wedding is the epitome of a diasporic memory. As a result of the blurring algorithm, certain details are emphasized, such as the patterned curtains and the glossy wood of the chairs. Their materiality connects to feelings, sensations and impressions that linger where memories of the actual happenings of the event or the people who were present may have faded. Initially, the photograph gives the impression of a typical posed wedding picture, but the two Asian lacquer chairs in particular draw a connection to Hua’s overarching message of displacement. The chairs, which are usually reserved for the family elders as a form of respect, here symbolize multiple worlds coming together. They may have been saved from an older home or newly purchased as a reminder of what used to be.

My first response to this photograph was to relate the chairs to my own memories of growing up as a child of multiple worlds, but as a whole the photograph also gives insight into the artist’s search for identity, looking through family archives and possibly not recognizing the people who she was told were relatives, maybe even her parents, siblings, or grandparents. The blurred shapes indicate the internal struggle of remembering the unique features of the people who should give her a sense of belonging, but instead, the smooth surface of the lacquered chairs is all that remains.

At Huis Marseille, Archive from year ‘85 – Family portrait at the wedding was enlarged and presented on an installation made of brown, varnished wood, created in collaboration with designer and scenographer Quentin Vuong. The wooden installation emphasizes the importance of the lacquer chairs as a symbol of the ambiguity of a diasporic memory – simultaneously separating and binding Hua’s French and Vietnamese heritage. In my eyes, their presence communicates the artist’s uncanny feeling of viewing old family photographs, sensing a strong pull toward the home she remembers but cannot grasp. Faces made unrecognizable highlight the impermanence of beings and the permanence of objects. The chairs anchor moments of the past and remain untouched by the algorithm and by time.

Hua offers insights into her own experience of attempting to reconnect with her personal story of displacement by anonymizing her relatives, yet also offers moments of relatability by centering elements that respond to a broader audience whose sense of identity may also be affected by fading memories of a home that was left a long time ago. The algorithm removes the facial features that Hua  potentially recognized in herself, but it also dissipates markers of difference. The shapes and unidentifiable spaces offer a valuable reflection on the inner workings of a mind attempting to connect places, people and objects to stories and emotions of the past, which seem to slip through one’s fingers ever so often.

In a time where the notion of identity is continuously questioned and redefined, Archive from year ‘85 – Family portrait at the wedding (2016-2021), represents the urge to uncover the many paths that led to where one is now and the struggle to find an answer. The wooden chairs symbolize the attachment of a community in diaspora, holding on to objects that serve as a multidirectional reminder, passed on as family heirlooms from generation to generation.

Laetitia Lai

is cultural historian

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