When traumatic events reach the stage or the exhibition space, there can be a fine line between remembrance and art, as the opening of the September 11 Memorial Museum in New York recently demonstrated. Ea Sola’s Sécheresse et pluie (Drought and Rain), dedicated to the memory of violence in Vietnam, raises questions of its own. Is the purpose catharsis? And if so, who experiences the fear and pity?
The first iteration of this work, created in 1995, featured Vietnamese women who were drafted as soldiers during the war against the US. Sola later reworked it for young ballet-trained dancers in Hanoi. The third and latest version, presented at the MC93, is for a younger generation of women, all between 58 and 75 today, who sang to comfort soldiers during the war.
Sécheresse is full of ghosts. When the lights dim, a crowd of figures slowly glide in from the wings, filling the stage behind gauze-like screens, images of hills obscured by clouds. The scene has a hint of the descent of the Shades in La Bayadère about it, but as they move forwards, you see that they are just a dozen women, all holding life-sized cardboard images of soldiers, women or elders.
Musicians sit on both sides of the stage, and play slow laments, with solitary characters representing the Rain and the Sun. The powerful traditional music speaks of a culture grounded in nature, in which drought and rain are part of a natural cycle as well as wistful metaphors for the damage of war.
Sola takes a little too long to build up to the most affecting scene: 11 women gather on the woven mats and shuffle impassively on stage, back and forth, slowly adding gestures to their steps. Hints of grief and violence appear, in claw-like hands or arms tearing at the air near their hearts, and in the disturbing smiles they offer later on. One by one, they hold out small photos of people lost to the violence – and not just soldiers. The final image speaks of vivid pain rather than peace as they kneel in front of larger versions of the portraits, their backs heaving violently.
It’s a rare window on to a country France ruled for decades before the second world war, often violently, and rarely remembers nowadays, but much of Sécheresse et pluie remains slightly enigmatic. Despite the Vietnamese cast’s intensity, the result is more introspective commemoration than artwork.
The bows provided their own answer, however. Seemingly moved by the warm reception, the women on stage broke into joyous, candid smiles, waving at us before disappearing into the wings. To them the recognition matters; here, it may just be our function as the audience to provide it.