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Cau Doi

2023, carved wood panels painted exact the same as wall color
varying dimensions

Traditionally used in pagodas, on altars, and outside homes, cau doi, or couplets, belong to a genre of Vietnamese literature written in both Han (or Chinese) and Vietnamese Nôm characters. The couplets can be poetic or prose, and contain two contradictory, parallel sentences that express the author’s sentiments in honor of certain events or occasions in daily life, such as a visit to the village by a royal dignitary, usually expressing good vibes. The form and genre became more relaxing of the rules, and today cau doi can be found written on red paper banners instead of carved on wood with gilded texts – and almost always in Han characters with tiny Vietnamese subtitles. The panels are also usually accompanied by bridging, horizontal text above that gives them context, signifying the reason or occasion for their being.


As someone who speaks Vietnamese on a beginner to intermediate level, with little writing and reading capability, the Vietnamese language has always been somewhat frustrating to me. It’s a language filled with complexity, wit and humor, and rhyme and rhythm. When my friends joke, I get everything but the punchline. I can’t fully access the culture because of this gap, and thus this installation is about a sense of lost in translation, and dumbfoundedness.  


The sensibility of my couplets are 100% Vietnamese, though, in terms of word play. It was important for me to contrast the content with the formal nature of the panels, which I find regal with an air of reverence. I take liberties with the rules, and composed a number of whimsical, suggestive phrases that are written in Nôm, the ancient script of the Vietnamese language that derived from Han, and for centuries fell in and out of favor with the shifting dynasties. Today there are very few scholars who can read or write Nôm – less than 100. I worked with two such Nôm scholars in Hanoi who graciously translated my texts. The yellow back panels read on the left: “I see what I saw”, and the right “you saw what you see”. This English tongue twister has to go through the initial translation into contemporary Vietnamese, and structured in a certain meter to maintain equal characters on both panels. Then it becomes Nôm. The text above here says I GOT YOU BABE, referencing the Sonny and Cher duet, because what else is a couplet if not a duet? This horizontal English text is hand-painted like dripping paint, and is the only element in the entire show that my hands physically have touched and “created”. But it’s also temporal as it isn’t part of the work, per se, and so will disappear.


The panels are painted the same color as the walls because this is an added rule of mine. Whoever collects or owns the work must always paint the câu đối panels the same color as the walls they hang on. In this way, the low relief wood carvings gradually build up layers and layers of provenance. Each brand and paint color is noted on the back of the panels. They create their own history in a way that I am not able to with my own life and archiving practices. Eventually though, they too will succumb to the inevitability of time. When perhaps 20 or 30 paint layers cover one another and the carvings become blurrier, they too will lose themselves. History and its preservation are work, and these works demand labor from their owners.


The mint green panels read “When you return, arms will be open wide” on the left, and the right “But all other doors will be locked shut”. Knock Knock on top suggests an incomplete riddle or latent joke.


The last couplet in rose is an attempt in Nôm of William Shakespeare’s popular Sonnet 18 – at least its first two lines. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” on the left and the other “Thou art more lovely and more temperate”.  The sonnet was written in Old English, in iambic pentameter, and even for native English speakers, reading Old English can be challenging.  


My daily task of seeking to be understood in English, Vietnamese, and French – in Belgium where I now live – finds a lightened mood in this room. Why not share the poetic torture of language with my translators, and you the audience?

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