When Hoang came over to see the room, he spoke about a Footscray art project he’d organised the year before. The project didn’t take place in a gallery or have a title, and now that he thought of it, didn’t really have an artist. He said it involved lots of people, almost 2000. It was a ‘community event’, he said, although the community didn’t know this. Hoang raised a hand to make scratch marks in the air but then awkwardly brought it down again as if this gesture, or perhaps the ease of this gesture, was also part of the problem.
Hoang said there were only a couple of people who knew about the project. I was the third. Everything he said about the project was pretty vague and nondescript (even for Hoang, who was once credited as ‘the quiet guy’ in a friend’s program notes). Conversations like these were more about getting a sense of the other person, and Hoang already knew I wanted him to move in. We’d met six months earlier at his first exhibition in the Little Saigon shopping centre, and even then I sensed his caution about where discourse might take the emerging artist. He told me about how the previous year while living alone above a chemist in Kensington he’d looked up every Vietnamese surname in the phonebook with a Footscray postcode, copying out each name and address onto a stamped envelope as he went.
It took most of July. Sitting in the kitchen with a box of postage stamps and envelopes worth a month of Centrelink payments, Hoang addressed a standard DL envelope to just under two thousand Vietnamese households in the 3011 postal area, and then sent them. The envelopes were empty except for a piece of red cotton thread.
Hoang’s second Footscray project took place at the end of summer in 2002. My partner had left me to join a monastery in the lush hinterlands of the Sunshine Coast, while I’d spent most of January eating polenta and staring at the pear tree in the back yard. The first thing Hoang did after moving in was organise a group exhibition called Open for Inspection. The concept here was straightforward: for the duration of the exhibition we kept all the furniture in the spare room and pretended that the house was for sale. A large sign on the front lawn said ‘Open for Inspection’ and ‘For Sale’ and showed a photo of the kitchen sink. Hoang and two others (Thuy Vy and Michael Bullock) exhibited a series of photographs and digital prints in the lounge, the main bedroom and along the hall. Everything was for sale.
The opening night turned into a party with friends, locals, even an arts lecturer from Monash. At some point in the evening Dave—a local community theatre worker and spoken-word performer—‘launched’ the exhibition with a bottle rocket left over from new year. Then he slapped an exhibition catalogue in his hand and started taking bids. Dinners, back rubs, portraits: like some abstract economy from a Borghesian dream narrative, everything was valid currency here. I remember a few neighbours peering out from their porches while Dave took bids on a house none of us could afford to buy. They didn’t seem annoyed. In fact several came by to check out the show. The exhibition was a success.
For two weeks that summer the Footscray house was open from ten till four, Tuesday to Saturday, and we took it in turns to mind the gallery.
Strolling to the market on a Saturday morning, past the fabric shops, the pho kitchens; or maybe it’s down along the river after dinner with Hoang taking photos, watching the container yards light up like a NASA moon station; or perhaps we’re navigating a shopping trolley of bill posters and homemade glue in the middle of the night. Always prolific in those days. An exhibition, spoken-word night, community stage …
At some point in the late 1990s Melbourne’s inner west became a refuge from a city waking from its low-rent slumber. A generation of post–Keating era arts students from Melbourne’s inner north had followed in the footsteps of older artists who, in the 1980s, had crossed the Maribyrnong River in search of cheap studio space and a sense of industrial scale. From Brunswick to Footscray, it’s as if the two locations of Franco Cozzo’s furniture stores index a twenty-year delay between postwar migration and a restless bohemia.
Meanwhile second-generation Vietnamese-Australian artists were arriving in search of a community to catalyse and an available position in Melbourne’s cultural field. In large-format photographs Hoang would transfer the anomie of Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs into the pained visual language of late 1990s Australian postmodernism: a sort of suburban noir of home renovations and shuttered blinds, bright light and cheap credit. A picture from the Open for Inspection exhibition shows two middle-aged women power walking along a gently sloping path between trapezoids of manicured grass and into the hollow of a concrete underpass. It could be called ‘The Zone’ in honour of Tarkovsky. (The photo was taken in Coolaroo, the suburb featured in The Castle, where Hoang spent much of his childhood.) Other artists such as Thuy Vy would document the garment factories run in Vietnamese homes in a cinematic Baroque style, while Chi Vu would produce neo-gothic stories of western (suburban) horror and lust.
By the early 2000s a somewhat jangled and precarious sense of Footscray-specific urbanity coalesced—or so we told ourselves—at the cross-currents of migrant and bohemian demographics. From the defunct La Scala Cinema to the Snuff Puppets, from the Women’s Circus to the Ethiopian Circus Band, from a chorus line singing ‘I like to be in America’ (S. Sondheim) to ‘I’m goin’ out West where they’ll appreciate me’ (T. Waits), the suburb seemed to follow an old Westside story of growth in the cultural sector.
So for a time, it seemed, to work in Footscray was to be part of a minor avant-garde. And yet ‘capital, like trouble, rides a fast horse’, writes George Alexander. Read: artists are unwitting runners before the horsemen. Artists aren’t the stormtroopers of gentrification, they’re too busy juggling jobs, getting gigs, being caught in the slipstream of a value more abstract than median property prices. Artists are mortgaged to a future that rarely looks good on paper. For those who had walked around taking photos of the minutiae of the street, redevelopment boards were science fiction with the power of performative utterance. Already the old theatre on Barkly Street was being converted into city apartments that promised the kind of upmarket lifestyle locals could only stare at. Already creative entrepreneurs were refitting factory floors to sublet as office-sized studios with pressed wood partitions and tastefully exposed steel brackets. Artists didn’t need to enquire: the watercooler and Artforum magazines in the lobby suggested a strict ‘no sleeping in your studio’ policy was in place. Already the Maribyrnong River, once an estuary for industrial waste, had become river frontage. See a row of townhouses down at the old brickworks, their sliding doors and varnished patios like observation decks onto a pristine industrial wilderness.
Close your eyes and the sound of container trucks could be megafauna at the end of another age. A wake-up call from the Jurassic, a faint reminder this land was formed by lava flows that came all the way from South Australia. To look at the city from this place was to stand at the edge of the third-largest basalt plain in the world. Oral histories show Italians in the 1950s couldn’t believe their luck. Garden soil as black as Pompeii.
Impossible to think these were once Melbourne’s bad lands. With seedy voice-overs and careful editing, tabloid television conjured a suburb that looked like a spaghetti western made in Saigon with, say, Golden Triangle money: ‘The Good, the Bad, the Holiday Destination’. Not to mention the so-called ‘fruit and vegetable Mafia’—the crime families were all out there, somewhere, but nobody knew for sure. Hiding in brick-veneer homes with metal shuttered stares. Inside Vietnamese pool halls or Sicilian furniture stores. Of course, locals knew the only drive-bys were made by investors, and the only real shootings involved camera crews; location scouts looking for that gun-metal blue ‘made in Melbourne’ feel. And the promise buried in each film or TV series that used the west as a backdrop was that even places like these might find their chic.
When I first met Hoang, he was standing on Barkly Street handing out flyers for his first solo show. He was wearing a duffle coat and bus driver sunglasses as if raising money for some existential charity. Or perhaps as an eliptic reference to the blind man handing out maps in Jan Svankmajer’s Faust. I took a flyer and walked on, wondering what ‘Nguyen Tran Hoang/Hoang Tran Nguyen. Trien Lam/Exhibition’ could mean. The address was a small gallery run out of a hair salon in the Little Saigon market that was available on a month-to-month lease. There was a line of basins at the back where Hoang would sit at a small table and invite people to drink tea. The exhibition was a series of blue and red painted canvases with ghostly white outlines of naked bodies. Cotton swabs and banana leaves tried to anchor the painfully slight figures to the canvas linen. The colour fields had a vaguely washed-out feel, the shimmering figures somewhere between astral and police chalk lines.
The pathos of the show was brave, given the context. In Footscray in 2001 you could barely walk to the milk bar without bumping into a couple of paramedics crouched around a body on the footpath. Footscray had long been a drug hotspot, but that summer had seen the end of a drought. Two years before, a close friend had died after a ‘struggle’ with heroin and I couldn’t stop thinking of him in this suburb. Richard’s sheepish eyes and startled gait were everywhere: on train platforms and inside two-dollar shops, each time I sat on a bench in the mall only to be asked if I was ‘Jason’ or ‘Dylan’. Anonymous place holders at the degree zero of human exchange, the names are Joycean homophones for ‘chasing’ and ‘dealing’, the question telegraphed with a minimal movement of the eyes and lips without stopping. Hoang had made his paintings after nursing a friend through detox the previous year, and so we spoke that afternoon about the split-level lives and double-exposures, about how hard it is to coax back someone who has lost face with themselves.
And I? I was disheartened: my girlfriend Sherab was leaving me to be with her guru, I’d had to move house three times in two years, and now Richard’s ashes were buried in a mountain quarry two hundred kilometres down the coast. Perhaps beneath every new friendship is a terrible loss, a string of minor tragedies that encourages you to freefall through space. The economy of some forms of friendship is based on ‘potlatch’ (aka ‘pot luck’), a loss-leading celebration prone to excess and regret. Not far removed from art making, some would say. Before she left, Sherab told me to remember the two meanings carried in the word ‘courage’: to take risks, but also to take heart.
Running a gallery in a hair salon was a harebrained idea. Traffic to his exhibition was so slow that Hoang took to sitting in his beat-up Honda Civic in the car park and watching the gallery through a zoom lens. Not to take photos, but rather as an aid to meditation. The majority of the visitors were local artists whom Hoang invited to use the space until the rent ran out at the end of the month: the senior Vietnamese poets, staunch Modernists wearing berets and corduroy vests who would recite their published work with musical accompaniment; a Fluxus pianist who staged a 24-hour piano recital at a baby grand piano we brought across from Footscray Community Arts Centre; an Age journalist with a short story about a Footscray hair salon called ‘Goldilocks’; a country and western singer en route to Switzerland from New Zealand who was MC at the spoken-word night. The only form of payment Hoang requested was for some of us to participate in a gallery performance installation by wearing Victoria Police uniforms and giving away freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.
In writing about Hoang now, I’m reminded how close my portrait of him comes to the artist-protagonist figure in so much new Australian writing from the 1970s. Hoang liked to be off-camera; he would pursue conceptual projects with the sort of attention that hurt your brain just watching; he would interpret meanings but in a manner that implied ideas were materials too, like a staple gun or foam mounting board. I don’t know if this proximity is due to some enduring tradition in the self-presentation of Australian artists, or some aesthetic homology between this type of artist and literary writing about visual artists, or just some cosmic coincidence. Hoang was like many other artists for whom the booming economy in arts discourse in the 1990s provoked a sort of profound hesitation, as if it were better to buckle and retreat mid sentence than sail into a sea of false choices. Irony or gravitas? Dark or light? Making art is an attempt to short-circuit such translations. In Footscray there were enough translation issues as it was. Hoang preferred the flatlands of language where phatic discourse might take the edge off the intensity (cf. David Lynch’s habit of describing his films as ‘pretty as a picture’).
Hoang didn’t catalyse Footscray’s Vietnamese community so much as a group of artists with a similar interest in DIY situationism, which we thought was going through a revival. Such projects would find a niche as ‘community arts’, but we rejected the disciplinary logic of that designation, which we felt had reneged on the class and multicultural politics of earlier, more radical experiments. Such projects were often in ‘pop-up’ spaces (a house, a shop, a truck), and had a finely tuned ad hoc aesthetic, a willed amateurism (as celebrated in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind, Rewind), a word that resonates so closely with the Latin amator—one who acts out of love.
Despite such ambitions, the production was more like an Ed Wood set: find a group of people with nothing better to do, create an event that has a local angle in the title and a great poster picture, submit a proposal to council, which will then give us $1000 for street signage and insurance, call your contact at the local paper. Bingo! You’ve created a cultural space into which both artist and audience might stumble without knowing.
People often speak about ‘art and community’ in the context of Footscray art-making, but the space where art and the social overlap is not so easily cordoned off and ghettoised. Art qua art is no art at all; the overlap with ‘the social’ is a question of all art. The overlap is a fruit slice inside the Venn diagram of two overlapping ideas, the bite-mark that faces both ways; the space that throughout the twentieth century invited artist’s manifestos and municipal plans, animateurs and community cultural development workers and economic fantasies and municipal scoping studies—enough writing to fill a museum. Artists have always been caught between the revolutionary promise of a new social art that integrates art and life and the lure of Barbrook’s Class of the New (‘the independents’, ‘the creative class’ etc). No sooner were artists critiquing the alienation of work, the bourgeois home, the suburban rut, than this critique rebounded—kerpow—as flexitime, as loft-living, as unpaid internships and temping in a job you hate, as a permanent performance appraisal and opportunity for promotion. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, it seemed to us that such contradictions might again be outrun (by slow art, local art, art on/as precarious work, community art), that once again art might resist the privatisation of aesthetic experience by bending the rules of the game.
I call Hoang in Melbourne and tell him about this writing I’m finishing. He is in the middle of a video editing job and happy for the distraction. We talk about Canberra, where I live now, about how Footscray has changed, about whether he can stay in the studio with rents going up, the studio we all started in 2003 after Tim the trombonist left, Tim who had inherited the space from ‘Arf Arf’, the experimental poetry collective whose kids left signed drawings—‘Vasco and Otto’—on the kitchen wall, long since painted over …
I ask Hoang about the string project, and he says he can’t remember if it was every person with a Vietnamese surname or just everyone with the family name Nguyen. (I check an earlier draft of this memoir and discover that the mail-out was only to Nguyens). Nguyen is Hoang’s surname and reputedly that of 43 per cent of all Vietnamese outside Vietnam. He tells me the mail-out had several stages—some involved a 30-cm piece of red thread, others written messages on joss paper. There were some complaints about the joss paper due to the symbolic association with death (including an irate woman who came over with a tough-looking relative for back-up), while letter exchanges with other recipients led to the delivery of pots of flowers to people’s doors. No issues with the red thread though—it’s a common trope from Vietnamese mythology concerning how Fate binds individuals together, often at the ankles.