Thinh Nguyen/Long Long: An Interview on Creation and the Human Condition(ing)
By Franceasca Seiden
Thinh Nguyen is an artist across all mediums. Thinh and Long Long are one in the same creating a diverse portfolio of work. They come with a magickal background from birth to death and resurrection that some may consider stranger than fiction. A story complete with gender to re-gender to gender identification as a child, a nine-year curse growing up in Vietnam and then moving to the United States. These experiences manifested in Nguyen/Long Long’s gift of becoming a visual creator. Our discussion leads us to a better understand surrounding the significance of the work created as one entity of the same soul, Thinh Nguyen/Long Long.
As a dear friend of mine says, “You can be clothed and be completely transparent and equally completely dressed and be armored so nothing can penetrate you.” In the case of Nguyen’s and Long Long’s work, they are a fully transparent being of light un-identifying with the cultural norm to re-identify as one’s authentic self, encouraging other’s do to so as well in the creative process. In reality the only identity that exists is of the one that we are projecting ourselves and there is a raw vibrancy stripped into most of the expressive pieces created by Thinh and Long Long are one in the same mind, body and soul within the artistic experience and the human conscious collective. Nguyen and Long Long create a visceral platform encompassing a mixology of music genre’s with a mantra-song endurance performances, multi layered collage self portraits recalling the society’s beauty standards by replacing them with the individual’s perspective of sense of self as well as zine’s that inspire thinking around being who you are not what you have been told to become or who you thought you were.
Our discussion is one of process, identification, activism, childhood, culture, society based on importance of authenticity and creative expression.
You had two openings in early April, one at Groundspace Project and the other at Charlie James Gallery, “Black Mirror,” a group exhibit curated by Julia Schwartz. You just had another performance at Human Resources as this weekend at Artwalk at the Brewery Art Complex, rounding out the month. It’s safe to say that your work is resonating with a wide audience.
Groundspace and Black Mirror opened simultaneously and are at completely two different sides of the spectrum. How do you feel to be part of such vastly unique exhibitions that have equally generated such praise?
Yes, I’m so thrilled to be in both! But unfortunately, I couldn’t be at the opening of “Black Mirror” because I was performing at Groundspace Project as “Long Long.” I heard there was an amazing turnout and there is a wonderful write-up about the show. Julia Schwartz did a great job at organizing it with some of my favorite artists like Kio Griffith, Kenyatta AC Hinkle, Cole M James, Elana Mann, and Abdul Mazid.
“Kiss Your Thin Lips Goodbye” at “Black Mirror” is part of a series of self-portraits called Self-Imposed inspired by my visit back to Vietnam where I saw the women in the village I grew up in completely veiled from head to toe. Out of curiosity I asked why would they do that and they answered, “I want my skin to be white so I look beautiful for my husband.” This seemed to be the norm with Vietnamese women. I find it problematic the idea that only white skin is considered beautiful and realized the Eurocentric beauty standards is part of the post-colonial capitalist domination.
I started the photography project by cutting eyes and lips from glamour magazines, taped them onto my face, and photographed myself, then Photoshopped my skin to “white perfection.” These insertions are so obviously applied that they quickly show the ease of pasting false identities onto others presented through mass media such as; hetero-normative idealized beauty, gender norms, and I wanted to counteract the social invisibility of Asian queer identities.
Long Long’s solo concert “Love Sex Revolution” at Groundspace Project was a series of protest mantra-songs I wrote for Long Long to perform as my way of personally dealing with and resisting against the current administration. I was so happy to have The Kellies (Elyse Reardon-Jungand Ichiro Irie) open for Long Long. Long Long performed six Mantras in song and then three more as collaboration with The Kellies. I appreciate Susan Joseph for giving the opportunity to realize the concert as multimedia experimental vocal performance.
Earlier we had discussed the transparency in your life, which translates into your art and with Long Long’s performances.
Long Long is the evolution and convergence of all my artistic approaches into a singular long-term project. It is my most ambiguous project yet. Long Long emerges out of the realization that Western art history is not my history, my assigned gender is not my identity, and my identity is not a product of my cultural values. Long Long is my performance in power, in hope of altering the power relations and finding the threads that connect us all.
I see Long Long as my “Superego” rather than “Alter Ego” because she is not a made up or a personified identity but a large part of my history and who I was growing up. Long Long is my reclaimed feminine self from childhood memories. I grew up as a girl in a boy’s body, dreaming someday I would become a songstress. At the same time, Long Long acts as my self-critical non-binary Goddess conscience, reflecting on oppressive social standards and cultural values.
Your experience as a child is one of the most fascinating life stories I’ve ever heard. I find it necessary for those who aren’t familiar with your work to know your background to better generate connection to you and the work.
My parents were extremely superstitious (still are), believing that raising me as a girl would save my life from evil spirits because of a fortuneteller’s prediction that I was going to die after birth. Two months after birth I was diagnosed with Polio disease and “passed away”. My mom had a dream that I was still alive, she ran to the hospital and asked to take me out of my baby coffin; miraculously I was still alive crying. So they followed the fortuneteller’s advice and raised me as a girl until I turned nine years old, when the curse was supposed to end. According to the fortuneteller, this would trick “Death” into thinking that I am a girl and wouldn’t collect my soul.
But Death wouldn’t have it. I was diagnosed with Malaria when I turned five with a 140 degrees fever where blood was sipping out of my eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and every pores of my body. I was considered dead, but fortunately, a mysterious doctor showed and my mom begged him saved my life. And he did, by plugging a giant syringe into my right lung and sucked out all the liquid that developed inside. I once again slipped from the hands of Death. From then on, I had to wear magical iron rings around my ankles, arms, and neck to keep my soul from leaving my body or be taken away by evil spirits.
When I turned nine, my hair was cut short; my dresses were taken away, the rings were cut off, the “curse” was lifted, I was once again… a boy.
Later that year, I vaguely over heard a conversation between two adults about the fate of my life and my older brother. They were deciding who to “take” away, it’s either me or my brother. Later that afternoon, I was accidently struck by a windowsill on the left side of my temple, which put me in a comma for a few months. And the day I woke up from the comma, my brother was found dead, he committed suicide. Coincidence, fate, magic? I don’t know.
Of course I had very little recollection of all of this, it was all told and retold to me by my mother. The story is just too fantastical that even I, myself don’t believe most of it, but it’s too good to not share. THAT was my starting point for the project and I resurrected Long Long a year ago in a solo exhibition called “I Die Because” with an endurance performance where I lied on a single bamboo pole balancing my body as a metaphor between life and death. I went on to do various Long Long vocal performances, including the first break out performance where Long Long sang for three hours non-stop.
Explain the three hours of endurance performance that mixture of a Political Protest and Mantra-Song, “My Body My Power.”
“My Body My Power” was Long Long first ever-vocal performance curated by Cindy Rehm part of the Association of Hysteric Curators for “Coming To The Table” exhibition at the Angels Gate Cultural Center. I wrote the Mantra-Song in response to the culture policing of our bodies in response to Trans restroom rights and women’s reproductive rights in mind. Long Long sang, “Don’t tell me what to do! I do what I want with my body!” for three hours nonstop in various musical styles from Pop to Jazz, both to protest and as empowerment.
Long Long performed and had a mini series at Human Resources LA, as well as debuted “D/center Whiteness” zine.
The mini concert series compose of three mantra-songs called “War Cry” is part of Having Left: Intersectional Perspectives on Migration with artists Christine Dianne Guiyangco, Seo Yun Son & Eunhae Yoo by curated by Hyunjee Nicole Kim, presented by Intersectionality NOW as part of their spring 2017 programming residency at the Women’s Center for Creative Work.
“War Cry” is in response to the devastation of war, the displacement of refugees, and death of innocent civilians. It is my own personal reflection on displacement, and the many heartbreaks I felt seeing images of a little boy’s body on the seashore, the boy sitting in an ambulance, the girl running from Napalm bombing, or the bodies twitching in agony from the chemical attack. Where is the humanity in all of that?
And yes, I’m debuting the first of the trilogy zines on whiteness, “D/center Whiteness”. It is a call-to-action-poem about confronting a political climate when whiteness is centering itself as supremacy. It is needed to be examined and dismantled in the social political arena as well as within us. It is available for free courtesy of Intersectional NOW and Women’s Center for Creative Work.
What is your opinion on gender identification?
Gender as most of us are aware is a social construct based on the binary of male and female. Having grown up in my primitive years as a girl, I still identify myself and relate more easily with women than with men. Having said that, I realized for myself, it’s not so much about being male or female, but it is about how and what the cultural norms valued in terms of the ideology of masculinity and/or femininity. In this particular culture (and most cultures around the world), valued ideological masculinity, which as a result is an oppressive patriarchal society in power.
If it is a social construct and norm to which the culture valued, then it can be re-evaluate its values and re-define its social norm. That is essentially why, I believe (and am myself) in non-binary gender. And Long Long is my amplifier of this super non-binary consciousness as a political and spiritual revolution towards gender and sexual fluidity.
We also discussed Spirituality and Sexuality and how the two intertwine, this is also part of your artistic process, and can you give us more on your take?
While researching about different religions around the world, I realized in most cultures gender and sexuality construct fundamentally derived from religious and spiritual beliefs. Often times those believes are oppressive and repressive, which create cultural, social, political, and personal conflicts, resulting in violence and war. For example in this culture, the original sin of Adam and Eve story is the based beliefs of spiritual and cultural patriarchy that valued masculinity over femininity. And sexuality is based on this heternormative beliefs, anything that deviate from that is sinful.
And as you noticed most of Long Long photography conflates religion (spirituality), gender and sexuality, because I want to exemplify an alternative way of thinking about spirituality that is beyond the oppressive binary and the repressive sexual desires. We all are after all are animals with millions of years of sex/sexual evolution to reach this point in our civilization. But to be civilized to be controlled.
And last, what did you mean to be civilized is to control the totality of human being?
What I mean is that, the idea of being civilized is a form of (social, political, and cultural) control with the values, beliefs, morals, and norms we adhered by that is considered to be advanced. Because we live and function within these power structures of control, we can never be completely free. We therefore constantly seeking for freedom, free from domination. But freedom can never be reach as long as we are controlled to be civilized. The advancement of humanity spiritual and intellect revolution must be based on the liberty for human beings to be human in all its forms, expressions, and desires.
Long Long is free, Long Long is my super non-binary consciousness, believe I am free because I am Long Long.
Upcoming performances and events:
Saturday, May 6th, 2017 @ Charlie James Gallery
“Black Mirror” group exhibit walkthrough and discussion Saturday, May 6th 12pm – 2pm (discussion with curator Julia Schwartz and the participating artists) at 1pm Charlie James Gallery
969 Chung King Rd, (Chinatown) Los Angeles, CA 90012
*Exhibit closes May 13th*
NOTE: Black Mirror is taken from the dystopian TV show on Netflix, which examines the dangerous capacities of technology and social media to shape our thoughts and control our behaviors. Black Mirror refers as well to Claude Glass, small mirrors used by artists that abstract and distort the reflected subject.
Saturday, June 3, 2017 at LACE
Irrational Exhibits: Mapping the Divide 10th anniversary at LACE opening June 3rd with live performance, installation and video. Invite attached.
*Exhibit closes June10th*
Keep up with Thinh Nguyen/Long Long via website and social media visit