Sobey Art Award 2021: Gabi Dao
In a lime-green room aglow with an angled screen, resounding glass silhouette sculptures and beaded curtains, we become immersed in a speculative realm. Awash in ethereal sound, Coco – a ghost, coconut tree and invisible narrator of Gabi Dao’s installation, a sentimental dissidence – asks other protagonists to help her remember. Coco Means Ghost, Dao’s 2019 video-poem, layers archival fragments, individual and family recollections and lingering questions linked to Vietnam, unfolding narratives about intergenerational memory – both its legible recordings and its deeply visceral textures. In cinematic ekphrasis, the glint of a man’s knife against a coconut tree lands with Coco’s question. Is memory our double-edged sword – its historical burden key to understanding ourselves? Is mediation – the tools that record, project and also obscure stories – another? Who and what is permitted to speak, and how? Dao’s hypnotic intermediality cues sensation before cognition, feeling before fact, to communicate embodied ways of knowing and remembering. How we remember, less so what, becomes a gateway into somatic residues, which spill from the gaps of official archives and constructed histories. Echoing Coco: “subjectivity survives ideology with a sentimental dissidence.”
Dao insists on counter-memory, blurred temporalities, non-linear narratives and multiple truths. Through moving image, sculpture, installation and the psychoacoustic properties of sound, she reveals the bonds and ruptures between people, place and materiality within the entanglements of late capitalism, conveying how pasts persist. Confusing current aesthetic logics of complicity and control, Dao shows how we are implicated in much larger cosmic forces – and how, through the murkiness, we find moments of agency in a post-truth world. She opens a space between worlds: a process she terms “Domestic Cinema,” which is about how “you inherit your history through speaking, listening, telling stories, but also in non-verbal, psychic ways through the mind/body/spirit, culturally and collectively as a people.” This process began in her 2018 video The Protagonists and coalesced in her 2019 video installation, Excerpts from the Domestic Cinema Ch. 1 and Ch. 2, where Dao adapts her father’s story of immigration to Canada into a syncopated, layered experience. It also critically expands in her 2021 collaborative video installation, Last Lost Time, about the contested and intersecting spaces of local cross-Pacific sugar production, racial capitalism and art.
In Excerpts, through sequences that challenge tropes of trauma and loss perpetuated by Western media stereotypes, Dao gives us resilience bound with tragedy in a space crafted through accumulated activity, memory and care. “What details wage in the realm of the domestic cinema?” she asks in a text-poem unfurling across images. The details, her father explains, are complex and appear everywhere throughout the story. “You may want to excuse me for this,” he says pragmatically, “because the past is painful and hasn’t healed yet.” Surrounded by potted succulents and ticking metronomes, he reads from pages that fall to the ground like garden leaves. The garden provides a narrative backdrop: like the home, it has its own rhythms, filling with ominously coloured smoke as the story unfolds. Meaning is conveyed through saturated materiality, sound and alternating gestures of obfuscation and clarity: leaves strewn across family photographs, a photocollage grafted onto a green-screen-suited self, and glass surfaces sprayed, blurring before being wiped into visibility. “Wading through fragments, mess, forces me to spend time in entanglements,” Dao explains. “It is a way to slow down consumption and find clarity on my own, following my own logic to sense through and put things together, rather than let the algorithms of hegemonic power do that for me.” Old home videos show the artist at age five, playing with her sister and asking: “Dad, how did you make that movie? … When I grow up can I do that?” He responds gently, “Yeahhh, I show you how to do that.” Continuing the tradition in her own way, these rhythms of family snapshots, scenes from home life, and her father tending plants show us how fate and determination – despite war’s displacement – can still grow into abundant life and survival.
Dao’s subsequent video, Coco Means Ghost, from a research trip along Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, charts four stories of Ông Đao Dù’a, a “coconut monk” who founded a spiritual anti-war community in the late 1960s on the South Vietnamese island Côn Phung, known to tourists as the “Coconut Kingdom.” Coco interviews protagonists about their connection to this magical fruit and this mythic individual; their responses reflect the belief, aspiration and alienation that persist within the complexities of place and nation. Lan, the artist’s mother, flips through family albums, recalling her aunt’s involvement in the commune. Ông Nam, a Côn Phung resident, and Mr. Lê, a tour boat guide, recount stories of past wars and present geopolitics while traversing the Mekong River’s milky waves – whose glimmers and nearby industry also impart truths. Biotechnology scientists at Ho Chi Minh City International University’s laboratory work to produce more resilient coconut strains to alleviate the global supply chain inequalities experienced by Vietnam’s coconut farmers. Between glimpses of hydroponically lit specimens, each shares their motivations to sustain farmers’ livelihoods and wider society. Their associations with Ông Đao Dù’a are distanced, enshrouded in folklore. Ending at Côn Phung, the site of the haunting, we learn that the Communist government abolished the spiritual community in 1975, after Saigon’s fall, amidst competing political forces for power and a people’s faith.
The interplay of Dao’s editing, oblique views, reverberant sound, and shimmering effects awakens other pathways toward what narrative and object can be. These communicate through the metaphors of material resonance: a temple’s bell and tiled monuments at the hour of magic; the roar of the Mekong that has witnessed war, industry, tourism; the repeated sound of a coconut slashed open – echoing absurd, violent artificiality, long after the act. Vietnam: a place her family once called home, calcified by multiple colonial histories, Western media (mis)representations and capitalism’s veil of wider obscurants; a place that absorbs these stories and emanates them sensorially. Amidst these accretions, Dao offers echoes of cultural knowledge, inherited second-hand, tinged by both inaccessibility and a persistent resilience. “Is this the closest I can get to you?” Coco asks, as if to bridge the distance. “I and you. ‘And’ is a word between worlds.” As the video fades to an image of the Mekong, meaning leaks from screen to sculpture: the two silhouettes begin speaking to each other electronically. Cut from architectural glass, each pair of profiles – one facing towards, the other away – overlaps, their reflections creating a third in-between being. We hear Dao’s mother, from a deeper past, recording over a “Foreign Accent Improvement” tape given to immigrants in Canada in the 1980s. Her practised English lilts sincerely, beautifully; we feel the feminist assertion of being in her accidental gesture. The glass speaks with her, through attached transducers, resounding its own materiality. Standing between the sculptures and feeling their sonic vibrations, we experience how stories speak through, between, and all around, the things humans say.
“I want to hold space for communities to see themselves,” Dao says. “I want to look at this world in the most abundant way: from all angles.” Her practice reveals these narrative constellations of prismatic possibility, recuperating traces of the past towards resilience and futurity. Expressing languages of the liminal, and those on the supposed margins, she nudges us to connect worlds through the “both / and”: moving beyond binary oppositions at a time of great divisiveness, and accepting the multitudes of existence. These democratic exercises build transformations in perception, and relationally between beings, over time. In the words of Trinh T. Minh-Ha (Brooklyn Rail, 2016): “To see openings for change in society, one has to change one’s own seeing. Or more inclusively speaking, to effect change, one has to alter the way one takes in the world.” Dao’s work does precisely this.
The 2021 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Sobey Art Foundation, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 20 February 2022. The 2021 Sobey Art Award winner will be announced in November. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 2021, published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.