Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis
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A customer enters an art gallery, finds a particular piece pleasing, and inquires about its price. Far too high, so he leaves.
It’s an early morning in mid-February. The gallery is a refurbished warehouse in Queens. The customer is a small, strange-featured man—but he’s of little consequence, quickly out of the picture. At the center of this story is the gallery curator, an émigré named Khiêm.
Our friend Khiêm has never noticed the piece in question. Part of a shipment of 15th and 16th century ceramics, it arrived only a few days before, one of a set of nearly seventy pieces. He decides he doesn’t much care for it. It’s a smallish, unremarkable urn, roughly two and half feet high, a foot in diameter where it opens. Black with a lacquer glaze and mother-of-pearl inlay, it features designs of a few wispy trees, a few cautiously crouched animals: a tiger, a tortoise, several tiny, grounded birds.
But there’s more. Near the bottom, something unexpected—a human figure. Khiêm looks closer, puzzled. Figures sometimes appear on cheap imitations hawked in markets, mass-produced in factories; never, as far as he knows, do they appear on originals. Very strange.
The phone rings—a technician calling about repairs. The gallery’s heating is down.
“I can’t come until tomorrow at the soonest,” the technician insists.
Meanwhile, another customer wanders in. A shipment arrives. A host of small chores arise. In such fashion the day and then the week pass by. Khiêm forgets the urn entirely.
On the following Friday he takes off work early, driving south to meet his current love interest. When it comes to romance he is a certain kind of fool: as quickly as he is interested, he is uninterested, and he’s on the cusp of such a transition now.
They meet in a small café in Alexandria, Virginia, near the waterfront, not far from where she lives. She arrives with her brother in tow. Is this a fatal choice? No: what might be an off-putting move to some suitors pleases Khiêm. He is very fond of Bình’s younger brother Viên, who like his sister is an artist.
Bình wears a low-slung sweater and a new perfume, maybe Chanel? This pleases him, both because the scent itself is pleasant and because tonight, coincidentally, he himself wears a new cologne. A perfect opening to remark upon it. Before he can seize the opportunity, however, Bình excuses herself, leaving for the restroom, so instead Khiêm turns to Viên, producing a slim, navy blue bottle from his suit jacket.
“Do you see this?” he asks. “A gift from my friend. From Paris.”
“Ah yes,” Viên says. “Very fancy, very extravagant.”
In case she hasn’t noticed it, Khiêm wants Viên to point out the fragrance to his sister. Now that the moment of meeting has passed, Khiêm doesn’t want to bring it up himself; that would be unseemly. If Viên thinks the request somewhat silly, he makes no mention of it. He appears happy enough to do his friend this small favor. Meanwhile Khiêm is suddenly lost in thought. Notice the cologne?—in a strange burst of recollection he is forgetting the cologne and remembering the strange man from a week before, the would-be buyer, his taupe raincoat and freckled face, and then the black urn with its impossible figure. Khiêm hadn’t noticed it at first glance: a matter of noticing.
Bình returns and Viên begins to say, with a just-conspicuous grin, “Have you sm—”
I have a question for the two of you,” Khiêm interrupts, the cologne forgotten altogether.
What do you know about…artwork where something’s out of place?”
Viên gives him a quizzical look. Bình pauses to think for a moment, then says, “You mean Thanh Gia Bào.”
Khiêm shakes his head slowly, unsure, but motions for her to go on.
“Thanh Gia Bào. The ‘public’ artist. His work is fashioned over billboards, on the sides of tractor trailers, on buildings, storefronts, street pavement. Out of place.”
Khiêm nods, still holding out a small hope she might steer somehow in the direction of the urn. “And does that make it worth more?”
“Worth more…” She pauses, shaking her head. “No, money is irrelevant.”
Khiêm groans inwardly. Money is never irrelevant. He shouldn’t have raised the subject. He can sense that whatever she’s about to say will have no bearing on the urn whatsoever. Sometimes he likes this quality, her scatter-shot approach to conversation, but at the moment he finds it irritating.
“There was once an experiment,” she says finally. “A French scientist coaxed an ape into creating a drawing, the first drawing ever made by an animal. I believe her name was Audrey.”
What in the world is she talking about? Khiêm wonders. Make sense, woman.
“It took months just to teach her to hold the charcoal. And what did she draw? Something so obvious it was surprising: a picture of the bars of her cage.
“I think of Mr. Bào’s art along similar lines. He draws attention to the bars of our cage, we Vietnamese in America.”
Our cage? Khiêm rubs his temples in frustration.
“Hah! And they love him for it,” says Viên. “Playing to American guilt.”
An old tune—Khiêm is no longer listening. Our cage, American guilt: these ideas, or some variation, he has heard from the two of them before ad nauseam.
“Let’s order drinks,” he announces.
For years the artist Thanh Gia Bào has spirited across the U.S., planting phantom images in all manner of public spaces. His tactics call to mind a number of artists in the rich tradition of agit-prop, protest art—Jenny Holzer, the Gorilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, to name a few.
In recent years, as he has grown increasingly infirm, Mr. Bào has stopped producing the actual images himself, hiring others to do the work under his careful supervision. As he explains it, the use of surrogates has become part of the art itself, a sort of performance he choreographs from afar, by walkie-talkie.
Each performance takes place or “intervenes” in public spaces at inopportune—or opportunistic, depending on how one looks at it—moments: mid-day graffiti sprayed in crowded intersections; 50-foot tapestries unfurled from overpasses; sculptures hastily erected inside corporate office-parks.
The scurrying surrogates and the startled, sometimes antagonistic crowds are integral components of the “performance spectacle,” insists Mr. Bào.
Viên himself doesn’t care for such “spectacle-art”; he mostly produces conventional landscape-paintings with oils or watercolors. By day he now works as a gardener and handyman in Northern Virginia, trades which earn him a fair living. As a sideline he sells his paintings, mostly of Sàigòn or D.C. cityscapes, to a local supplier for area hotels, motels, and restaurants.
Bình, who does similar work for similar clientele, received her training at Hà Nôi’s prestigious École des Beaux-Art l’Indochine. It was there, in fact, where she first heard the story of the ape-artist.
As stories go, it is not a particularly well-known one, despite its fantastic nature. Only Nabokov has kept it alive: supposedly he read of it while in the hospital, wracked with intercostal neuralgia. It was then that he felt the “initial shiver of inspiration” for his Lolita. Mentioned in that novel’s afterword, passed on to Bình by a painting instructor, a Nabokov enthusiast, the story has lasted on through the years, a fleck of dust on Lolita‘s dust-jacket.
Why, one wonders, is Audrey not more widely known? Should one ask Bình, the answer is guilt: Audrey’s art is a cry of resistance, equal parts anguish and outrage over her imprisonment, enacted not simply by the lone, French scientist but in the name of Science, conducted on behalf, and with the silent complicity, of all of us.
We who have placed those bars around her are not happy to be reminded of this truth.
Bình has a way of politicizing everything—a quality, in our friend Khiêm’s estimation, she’d do well to suppress, if not excise altogether. And Khiêm cares nothing for the art of Audrey, Nabokov, or Mr. Bào. He has little interest in art other than as a means to make a living. Whenever Viên and Bình have asked him to attend exhibitions, yes, he has gone willingly—as a social duty. He has even considered pulling some strings so that one or both siblings might exhibit something in a New York gallery, though in truth he doesn’t care for either one’s work. Pulling strings would only have been in the interests of sleeping with Bình.
A day later, back at the gallery, he re-examines the urn. He half-expects the figure to have disappeared, but it’s still there. Looking closer, he can make out slim arms and legs, the faint suggestion of mother-of-pearl-molded clothing and hair. He feels a chill. Perhaps with a magnifying glass he’ll discern more.
On a normal day the gallery is open to the public for only a few hours. The remainder of each day is reserved for appointments for representatives of museums, hotels, and for the cheaper pieces, the occasional restaurant. A manager as well as a curator, Khiêm must also arrange the shipments, file the various invoices and receipts, and handle the payroll. Time is scarce. Today, however, to his delight, no one visits, and what little paperwork remains can be postponed.
From a catalogue Khiêm locates an inventory of the last shipment. Number 605, Untitled, weight: 20.4 lbs. Undamaged. 12,000 dollars. Crafted in 1498 by Nguyên Vân Cao for the Vu family—this last information, he sees, is also inscribed in fine, miniature lettering on the base of the urn, presumably by Mr. Cao himself. All of the pieces, the records indicate, were crafted in the village of Bát Tràng, famous for its ceramics, located just outside of Hà Nôi.
So there’s no mix-up or fraud.
Khiêm really hadn’t expected to find anything; a proper mystery is never resolved so easily. He thinks back to that first moment, the first encounter, to the buyer who pointed out the piece. An inelegant little man, freckled, pale, with a thin fold of brown hair on the very top of his head. He had an odd energy, something about how he entered, how he walked. Perhaps there is a clue to be located in his features, his freckle-spangled face, his cautious movements? No. That morning he left too suddenly, and Khiêm noticed very little about him.
The mystery flows in another direction.
As every photographer knows, to notice means at once to not-notice. The act of seeing always implies some act of not-seeing. To focus the camera on a beach dune is to ignore the mountain range in the rear-distance, the glen of trees to the side.
One thinks of Marguerite Duras’ popular novel The Lover. Set in Viêt Nam in the 1940s, its cast of characters strangely includes no Vietnamese. Nor do any Vietnamese appear in the background. Readers follow a French narrator as she wanders the streets of Cho Lón, look on as she conducts her torrid affair with an older Chinese man—and meet no Vietnamese.
To restate, only Chinese and French, the country’s past and present colonizers, are visible. Surely there are Vietnamese about; it is not a country, even in the dreamy, kaleidoscopic world of the novel, stripped entirely of its people. How could the narrator fail to notice them?
Make no mistake, canny Duras herself did not miss the people, not with her feeling eyes. The absence, the silence she’s crafted is meant to hum, meant to draw attention to itself. Look at how we look, Duras implores, how we are blind.
This is roughly the same question, inverted, the artist Thanh Gia Bào means to ask American audiences. How do you look at us? (Are we invisible to you?)
Back in Viêt Nam, Mr. Bào has long enjoyed the notoriety he slowly gains in certain corners of the States. He first became infamous in the late ’70s for his public evocations of homosexuality, which in many corners of Viêt Nam was still unrecognized. Circa 1960 a comment about it might receive a blank response—the confusion of someone denying the very possibility. But gays are everywhere around us, Mr. Bào said in 1978, when he began leaving chalk-sketches, graphic depictions of gay sex, on the cobble-stone market-squares of Sàigòn. Whenever one was washed clear, another would appear.
To Mr. Bào, it is precisely the responsibility of the artist to speak the unspeakable. To question what he calls “the charged silences of a culture.” To force the public to notice. As artist his impulse is to look not only outward, to the Western regard of Vietnamese, but inward.
How do we look at ourselves?
A few days have passed. Khiêm is on the phone. A fax arrives, an information sheet, sent by the company from whom the gallery originally purchased the urn. Same data already in the catalogue. He calls back. Another sheet arrives, this one more detailed. Number 605: acquired in 1998. Previously owned by a private collector; purchased in 1962. Before that, owned by a series of private collectors; initially acquired from the Vu family in the late 1800s. Nothing else.
How to proceed from here? With mysteries Khiêm has little experience. He’s led what he considers a fairly ordinary, un-mysterious life. Born in Sàigòn to a wealthy family, he lived comfortably there, running a restaurant-lounge he inherited from an uncle. The work was pleasant enough until a small fire forced him to close. He sold the title to a friend at a good price. An ordinary life.
At the suggestion of a cousin, Khiêm came to the U.S. in the late 1990s.
“You already speak fair English,” said the cousin. “See the country. Manage the gallery. You make good money here. You don’t need to know anything more about art than what’s on the inventory. I’ll give you fair commission on whatever you sell.
“Afterwards, you come back to Vietnam and you’re a king. You buy any woman you want.”
To Khiêm, that was the stuff of a good sales pitch.
Business was brisk. If no one bought Vietnamese art in Viêt Nam save for European tourists, here it sold hand over fist. Once he settled in, his cousin began vacationing nine months out of the year, chasing American college girls the other three. The gallery was Khiêm’s to manage.
Reflecting back on those early months, he remembers his first, anxious sale: a set of rather grotesque vases to a midtown hotel. He remembers the hurried morning of the first shipment’s arrival. Beside the loading dock a vagrant peed furiously against the warehouse wall, and to Khiêm it was strangely comforting, reminding him of all the nights of drunks peeing against the wall of his lounge in Sàigòn.
His thoughts skip to Bình, who will visit in two weeks. He has yet to mention the urn to her. On the evening in Alexandria he thought better of telling her until he was sure the urn was authentic, but since then, some other impulse has kept him quiet.
Perhaps it is time to tell her of the urn.
There is an episode The Lover visits again and again. Circles, one might say, not so much like a hawk circles its prey as a kite circles its flier. The young French girl rides a ferry across the Mê Kông River. She makes her return home to Sàigòn from school. In each return to the episode we learn more, and eventually its import becomes clear. It is here that she meets her future lover.
She is fifteen and a half. She wears a near-transparent silk dress, gold lamé heels, a man’s fedora, and dark cherry-red lipstick. He cannot resist her.
She describes the following in the various versions of the episode:
the rails of the ferry
the river and its tributaries, flowing “as fast as if the earth sloped downward”
herself—her dress, her makeup, layered to disguise her freckles
the cars aboard the ferry, in particular a black limousine, a Morris Léon-Bollée, and inside, a Chinese man at once elegant and effete
What she misses, or scotomizes:
a teenage male, shirtless, slouching against the ferry-railing
behind him, a woman and child, the woman wearing a man’s black tuxedo jacket over a gauzy blouse
down the rails, several laborers, all middle-aged men, smoking and laughing
a throng of pre-teen girls in school uniforms
in the shade cast by the car-hold, two young women bearing baskets of produce—cucumbers, purple mint, litchi fruit
To watch the Chinese man the French girl must crane her head around the teenage male, then wait for the mother, chasing after her son, to pass. To approach the French girl, the Chinese man must step around the squatting laborers, make his way carefully through the throng of school girls, ignore or decline the sales-pitch offers of the produce-women.
The point is that the narrator must work to not-notice the Vietnamese all around her. It is not an idle act of ignoring, of erasing. It is an active, challenging one. A brutal one. And a necessary one, for her and for us, her readers: there can be no romance, no story of romance, without the exclusion of the extraneous, the complicating, the ugly flotsam.
When Bình calls, Khiêm is pleased to hear her voice. The threat of losing interest has evaporated. He has looked forward to her frenzied nature, even looked forward to her politics. It is a Tuesday evening. A week has passed.
She will take the train up this Friday evening, she says. It will be her first visit to New York, or at least her first to see him. Will she stay in a hotel? They don’t discuss it. With him, in a hotel, either way, if she enjoys the stay she may come again, may come to stay, may someday desire to move in with him. The progression plays out by image in his head. Always it ends with the simplicity of naked bodies.
She’ll call again before Friday, she says, let him know when to meet her at the station. They say their goodbyes.
Afterwards he prepares himself a cup of tea. As he ladles a spoonful of honey into the mug, he finds himself staring again at the urn. It sits as the center-piece of his kitchen island. He stores it in his loft for safe-keeping, he’s been telling himself. Safekeeping—hah! It is his now. An anachronism, a unique piece, it will be priceless.
The next step is to contact an art historian for authentication. And to be sure that no other ceramics, at least of this vintage, have ever featured anything like a small figure. The imagination stirs. He might also go to Bát Tràng. Perhaps in the summer, or the next fall. Contact the previous owners, those still alive, or if dead, their children, or their children’s children. Do you remember a small figure on an urn? A silly-seeming question, he knows, but the one he will press forward. From there he’ll go to Sàigòn, to see his friend and the lounge, several other old haunts. Visit his elderly uncle, maybe. Visit a museum, a series of private collectors. And on and on.
What if Khiêm and Mr. Bào were somehow to meet?
One must concede that the mystery of the urn-figure remains out of reach, at least temporarily. It will only be solved, if it is ever solved, with years of diligent investigation. So a meeting between Khiêm and Mr. Bào is the only sort of resolution available to this story.
Let us assume Mr. Bào chooses to mount one of his public paintings somewhere in the vicinity of Khiêm’s warehouse-gallery, eminently plausible. A few months have passed. It is April, say, and Mr. Bào is on the final leg of a ten-city junket. He travels with his surrogates by caravan.
Two nights after he arrives in the area, Mr. Bào begins his work. He spends the first night scouting, calculating. The night of is not for calculation; the night of he works slowly, intuitively, almost aimlessly. The surrogates follow their cues, follow his conductor’s strokes. It takes most of the night to finish the image, which is, he decides later, to be one of a set. He will complete another four or five, scattered about the city and its suburbs, over the coming weeks.
Khiêm passes the image a few days later, perhaps while returning from dinner, or from a shopping trip, or while heading to a show.
Or more precisely—the better question—does he notice the painting or no?
Of course not.
Large and loud as it is, Khiêm is closed off to it. It doesn’t register. He has become like the girl-narrator of The Lover. This is what the meeting signifies: Khiêm’s is a near-unbelievable blindness, the humming silence of The Lover replayed. The meeting is performance, featuring not only the image itself, the surrogates swarming at work, and the various passersby who spot the painting in the following days. These are only lesser movements of a larger dance. The major movement, the climax, arrives only when Khiêm passes the image and fails to notice it.
Look at him not-noticing.
Look at how we look at ourselves.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis is a Vietnamese American writer living in the Washington DC area. His poetry has appeared in AGNI and The New York Quarterly.
This story is included in issue #41: Freak. Copyright © 2008 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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