Melbourne-based artist Phuong Ngo used to visit his GP before embarking on one of his ten day performances. He’s choosing not to this time around, after his doctor advised against the entire project.
Why might a medical professional be so concerned? Ngo intends to endure starvation, hypothermia and sleep deprivation for his piece Article 14.1, part of Sydney Festival.
Over the ten days, his only objective – apart from staying alive – is to fold as many origami boats as possible, inviting the public to participate while listening to oral recordings of Vietnamese asylum seekers. The title, Article 14.1, refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Ngo concludes his ten day feat – an attempt to relive his parents’ experience of immigrating to Australia in the early 1980s – with a boat burning ceremony, recognising those lost at sea. Ngo has performed this work twice before and believes both ceremonies offered something unique.
“The first iteration in Melbourne, the public cried a lot; especially during the fire burning ceremony. For the second time, I did a lot of crying,” he says.
Ngo believes the isolation is his biggest struggle when performing the work, folding boats well after the gallery closes and into the night.
“At the end of the day, the doors are closed and I’m left there alone with nothing but my paper boats to fold. And that isolation is a real experience when you look at photos of boat people that travelled from Vietnam,” he says.
His only sources of food are the rations his family consumed while travelling by boat, back in the early 1980s. Ngo’s menu consists of dried rice, packet noodles, condensed milk and sugar cane. In previous performances, he prepared by limiting how many meals he’d eat in a day in an attempt to shrink his stomach. He’s opting not to prepare at all for his upcoming performance.
“It’s probably the only work where I can’t actually predict what the outcome is, beyond what is predetermined: people come in and listen to stories, they fold boats with me, I fold boats and get hungry, I lose weight, I burn the boats... But what sits around that, emotionally?”
Members of the public are invited to interact with the work by taking a seat on the eight tables and chairs provided, folding boats and listening to the stories told by Vietnamese boat people and their families. Ngo has over eight hours of audio, with stories ranging from five minutes to an hour.
“There were people that were coming back day after day, listening to different stories. And sometimes people would do four hours in the gallery listening, which was quite beautiful and unexpected”.
Ngo grew up surrounded by stories of his parents’ past, and they now consume his work, which ensures their experiences aren’t forgotten. He hopes first and second generation Vietnamese-Australians continue to communicate their experiences of seeking asylum.
“That moment in history – that decision by a particular generation to leave their country and become displaced, and move to a place without an understanding of the language – is a crucial element of one's own identity.”
The audience is also an essential and influential element of the work. Ngo originally intended to remain quiet – left only with his thoughts – but that rule was quickly abandoned.
“You create a work where you’re living in a basement, starving yourself for ten days straight, and the public hear about this, and the first thing they want to do is talk to you. It was the first rule to leave, and it hasn't come back since then.”
Ngo was also surprised to hear so many stories from members of the public from different cultural backgrounds.
“It’s not only the stories that are in the space, but the stories that come into the space I find really interesting as well.”
The performance is inevitably connected to Australia’s current debate over refugees and asylum seekers. Of course, Ngo is only speaking from his own cultural and ancestral background, but believes it could be “a small part of a greater sum”.
Phuong Ngo is performing Article 14.1 at the Museum of Contemporary Art from January 14 to 23, with a boat burning ceremony from 6pm on January 23.