Vietnam's past haunts America's present

Charlie Don't Surf: 4 Vietnamese American Artists

At Centre A until May 21

The title of this small survey of contemporary Vietnamese- American art adds a note of scathing satire to a chord of racism, colonialism, and casual atrocity. "Charlie don't surf" is a quote from Lt. Col. Kilgore, a character in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, as he presides over a scene in which American soldiers surf while their comrades obliterate a Vietnamese village. Title and exhibition speak not only to remembered terrors of the Vietnam War but also to its resulting diaspora and prolonged aftermath, on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

In conjunction with Centre A's previous show, by Calgary artist Kim Huynh, Charlie Don't Surf marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and takes on a range of themes, including displacement, alienation, cultural difference, gender, fear, and desire. Most movingly, I think, many of the works here allude to the complexities of memory and trauma, to scenes, sensations, and experiences lost or obscured, then partially recovered and reexamined.

Images of water and of small boats recur in the work of all four artists represented in the show, and speak both to a form rich with traditional cultural meaning and to the history of "the boat people", the refugees who fled communist-controlled Vietnam by sea in the late 1970s. In the thickly layered, semi-abstract paintings of Ann Phong, the open vessels are also employed as symbols of the female body and its vulnerabilities. Tossed by turbulent waves of deep, oceanic blue and explosions of searing white and yellow, the little boats and sketchily realized female figures-some with hands raised to fend off unseen acts of violence-articulate past terrors and present traumas.

Phong's opaque and translucent layers of paint mimic the workings of memory, as do the interwoven strips of black-and-white and coloured photographs in Dinh Q. Líƒ ª's Untitled (Persistence of Memory #17). Here, the artist juxtaposes a news image of a fleeing Vietnamese family with a movie scene of war and conflagration, examining, among other issues, the ways in which popular culture shapes our understanding of history and world events.

The experience of the boat people is also alluded to in Nguyen Tan Hoang's video projection, PIRATED!, which rapidly montages original and appropriated film and TV clips in a jumbled memoir of queer-Asian identity, geographic displacement, sexual fantasy, and cultural longing. Tran T. Kim-Trang's video documentary, amaurosis: a portrait of Dat Nguyen, is one of a series of that artist's works exploring ideas of vision and perception through the metaphor of blindness. Dat Nguyen is an Amerasian guitarist, blind and orphaned as a child in Saigon and now living and working in California.

Concert shots and interviews with him are intercut with brain scans, medical diagrams, flashing lights, palm beaches, fishing boats, hummingbirds, and meditations on aloneness and otherness. As with other works here, the references seem to be as much to the identity of the video maker as to her ostensible subject, as much to the Vietnamese past as the American present.