Some emotions feel like they’re unspeakable. They’re present, but they’re cloaked in a silence that resounds with a depth of emotional collision. You push and pull against the tides of thought and the magnified criticisms of imaginary people reverberate in your mind. Sometimes those voices become tangible, like when you attend a family gathering of aunts and uncles at an ancestor’s death anniversary.
But when you attempt to speak, your words merely escape as glassy fragmentations that reflect your inner discordance.
Jennifer Tran’s debut installation performance Ink 墨 concerns the reconciliation of these hidden tensions. Tran places a looking-glass on the space that the Asian-Australian community, especially in their second generation, navigate all their lives. Through this performance, Tran – a Chinese-Australian – seeks to answer a difficult question: what does it mean to be Asian-Australian when you cannot wholly give yourself to either label?
Ink 墨 was performed in an intimate space at The Burrow in Fitzroy. Audience members were greeted by hanging charms as they are entered while the artist solemnly practised calligraphy.
Calligraphy is central to Tran’s performance because she is conscious of the power of writing as a mechanism to define the self. Past conversations also have a place within the present self. Tran voices the speech of her father teaching her Chinese calligraphy for the first time, audibly materialising the ebb and flow of dialogue between her and her father. The space, which is initially empty, becomes alive with Tran’s fond memories and her splattered ink. It feels as if her father is really there. Digging deeper into these kind of memories are as painful as they are explorative with unfulfilled expectations surfacing.
Like many women, Tran struggles with reconciling expectations imposed upon her to be mother and wife. She obsesses over these words, pacing back and forth on the crinkly calligraphy paper and murmuring them under her breath incessantly. It is only when she creates her own language free from the rigidity of these words that she experiences freedom beyond what her cultural roots expect of womanhood. That individual language is dictated by her movements only, not by any words.
Tran’s performance sees her body becoming synonymous with her pen. She writes her own narrative outside the restrictive limits of the paper. Hair dipped in ink, Tran is a subject of fixation as her body contorts and grapples with determining herself within Chinese calligraphy. She no longer needs to write her characters within boxes as she did in Chinese school. Her heritage and her aspirations, however different they may be, coalesce in one single person — Jennifer Kim Tran, as recognised by the Australian government. When she writes her own characters in Chinese calligraphy, she searches for purpose in her present identity, one that is entwined with her cultural roots and expectations. The renewed practice of calligraphy is liberating because she tries to dictate who she is.
The performance alternates between frenzied and slow and it feels almost cathartic for the artist. Moving forward requires wading through struggles that inhibit us. In Tran’s performance, the past and future collides into a tender present that demands vulnerability and sensitivity. To be understood, it needs to be felt.
As a Vietnamese-Australian woman, I don’t want to believe that tensions between the trauma of the past and the pull of the present are irreconcilable. In the small room of The Burrow, Tran’s Ink 墨 explores a struggle of contradictory forces; a struggle that suggests there are strongly embedded webs of pervasive expectations traditions that must be untangled from the present self. Tran presents this struggle as discombobulating movements and deliberations – a process endured by those who are navigating the tensions between conflicting identities.
It’s a personal lifelong journey for all people of dual identity, and for Tran, it seems that this journey is still ongoing. There’s solace in the fact that so many others are currently experiencing the same struggles, but the question remains: how does one reach the point where they’re comfortable with the push and pull of their multiple identities? The journey looks different for everybody.
These conversations go beyond the small room at the ‘Burrow’. Jennifer’s performance of Ink 墨 sinks into the diasporic narratives of Asian-Australians, like ink to calligraphy paper.
Ink 墨 was designed and performed by Jennifer Tran on 5 May 2019. It was directed by Piper Huynh and stage managed by Reis Low.