Trinh T. Minh-ha: The Infinite Reflection Between Mirrors

(“Reassemblage: From the Firelight to the Screen” by walkinthaprospects on Youtube)

Still-image of film A Tale of Love. Produced and directed by Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean-Paul Bourdier. Photo © Trinh T. Minh-ha

Still-image of film A Tale of Love. Produced and directed by Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean-Paul Bourdier. Photo © Trinh T. Minh-ha

The image of this mirror reflects another mirror’s reflecting of the other mirror’s reflection… The endless reflective images between the mirrors, is one of the major concepts of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s works. Born in Vietnam, the prolific writer and artist Trinh studied composition, literature and ethnology in Vietnam, the Philippines, France and America. Her insightful cross-cultural and educational backgrounds profoundly contributed to her cross-disciplinary art practice. In her artworks and writings, naturally, Trinh offers multiple perspectives which have challenged the conventional and western notions.

3Trinh Minh-ha digital

Book D-PASSAGE: The Digital Way (2013). Written by Trinh T. Minh-ha. Photo © Trinh T. Minh-ha.

Trinh is a thoughtful multimedia artist, writer, composer, filmmaker and, in short, an art practitioner challenges the conventional boundaries.  As she described in Woman, Native, Other:  “My attitude in life is that there’s not one but many centres.” Through film, text and sound works, she investigates the gender and power relations lay behind the visual representation.

With composition and literature training, Trinh had an interesting connection with experimental sound works. In her early works she has tried to combine poems, digital sound and composition to produce Four Pieces for Electronic Music (1975) and Poems. Composition for Percussion Ensemble (1976). Although Trinh focused on writing, filming and art installation later on, she continues to apply digital technology on arts. She analyses the impact of digitalisation on daily events and arts of contemporaries. For Trinh, the digital artwork is characterized not by the technology which delivers it, but by the “passage” itself. In Trinh’s upcoming book “D-PASSAGE: The Digital Way”(2013), she considers new technology less as a medium but more as a “way.”


Nothing But Ways. Installation.T rinh T. Minh-ha and Lynn Marie Kirby. Exhibited at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco,1999. Photo © Trinh T. Minh-ha.

In Nothing But Ways (1999), Trinh worked with Lynn Marie Kirby to build up a translucent projection space setting up with layers of cinematic canvases at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This large-scale multi-media installation proposed twelve women’s poems. “I am a bleak heroism of words.” “RACE. ERASES.” The scattered words on different layers of canvases created a dynamic, provocative and yet poetic vibe. Through this piece, Trinh delivered her idea about digital device which is not the destination but the process. This digital process of Trinh’s art is the key of her artwork.


The Desert Is Watching. Installation. Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean-Paul Bourdier. Exhibited at Kyoto Art Biennale 2003. Photo © Trinh T. Minh-ha.


Still-image of film Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Directed, Written & Edited by Trinh T. Minh-ha. Producer, Production & Lighting Designer Jean-Paul Bourdier. Photo © Trinh T. Minh-ha.

In The Desert Is Watching, Trinh and her long-term partner as well as co-operator Jean Paul Bourdier created the image of desert by digital-videotaping the Utah desert. They used two DVD projectors, two slide projectors, one blue light and one green light on a long stretched cotton fabric. The viewers perceived the symmetrical and mixed colour-layered painted bodyscapes in the Utah desert. The desert implies different meaning to the viewers of different background, especially for those who were situated in a country where is no desert – Japan, for instance – “desert” has its hidden imaginative connotation. “Desert” could imply adventurous, dangerous, or even void, meaning. These changeable video images transfer the viewers to their own concepts of the “desert.” In this piece the unfixed desert is watching the audience.

In her visual works and writings, Trinh investigates the potentials and impact of new technology. She explores the way technology transforms our perception of reality.  The Internet, for instance, transports our perceptions across the globe. This means our perceptions reach to the other cultural customs, although merely on the virtual space. With extraordinary impaction for our daily experience, digits become a way to deliver information and meaning. “Endless travel in cyberspace, virtual reality, and the dream of limitless speed: technology changes our sense of self,” as Trinh addressed in her book The Digital Film Event. Through her text, audio and visual works, Trinh explores the ways of listening and hearing, seeing and knowing in computer dominated era.


L’Autre marche (The Other Walk). Installation. Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean-Paul Bourdier, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France, June 19 2006 -2009. Photo © Trinh T. Minh-ha.

In the installation of L’Autre Marche (The Other Walk), Trinh created a passage with the images she took of the local customs and artificial sceneries in Asia, Africa, Oceania and America. The imagery is as a contrast to the notion of the categorisation of Musee du Quai Branly, as a museum that features indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from the world. She projected the photos on the ground to create a passage for the viewers to walk on. As Trinh’s description: “Walking is an experience of indefiniteness and of infinity. With each step forward, one receives wide open and deep into oneself, the gifts of the universe.” Meaning generated and moves with the rhythm of the viewers’ walking on the passage of the global cultural images. It is the rites of passage.

“To prevent this counter-stance from freezing into a dogma (in which the dominance-submission patterns remain unchanged), the strategy of mere reversal needs to be displaced further.”     – Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other, p40


Still Image of film Reassemblage (Senegal, 1982). Director: Trinh Minh-ha. Photo courtesy of Bas Raijmakers PhD (RCA), © Trinh T. Minh-ha.

The narration of Trinh’s works, the imagery and the text, is non-linearitical. She challenges the conventional narration of subject and subjected complements, where the reader or viewer expects an omniscient, scientific voice for guidance. Trinh’s non-linear strategy shows clear in her film Reassemblage. Shoot in Senegal, Reassemblage was oriented from an ethnographic field research in West Africa for her project of University of California, Berkeley. Trinh displayed moving pictures of Senegal local females and their daily events that she observed, however, Trinh refused to categorise nor speak about the images.


Still-image of film Naked Spaces – Living is Round.Directed, written & edited by Trinh T. Minh-ha. Produced by Jean-Paul Bourdier. Photo © Trinh T. Minh-ha.

Reassemblage presents constant changing of angles in the shots, Trinh resists to stay neutral but tries to create a space for possible dialogues between her viewers, readers with her artworks. Because of the lack of dominating, omniscient voice-over, Trinh allows the viewers to roaming in her moving images and sounds while indulging in each viewer’s own mind, as if they are in their own ideas and free their own dreams.

“In trying to tell something, a woman is told, shredding herself into opaque words while her voice dissolves on the wall of silence. Writing: a commitment of language.”  

  – Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Woman, Native, Other, ”p.79


Still-image of film Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Directed, Written & Edited by Trinh T. Minh-ha. Producer, Production & Lighting Designer Jean-Paul Bourdier. Exhibited at Secession 2001. Photo by Pez Hejduk.

Meanwhile, Trinh sustainably transmits women’s voice in her works. In the film Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) features the interviews with five contemporary Vietnamese women. Trinh’s analytic yet poetic prose reflected the meaning of the interviewees. The installation blended still-screenshots from Surname Viet Given Name Nam with different forms of narrating, showed at her solo exhibition at Secession, an Association of Visual Artists at Vienna in  2001. One of the texts for the still-image suggested Trinh’s strong concern for women’s role and challenge of today: “I am willing to talk but you should not have doubts about my words. There is the image of the woman and there is her reality. Sometimes the two do not go well together.”


Night Passage. Produced and directed by Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean-Paul Bourdier. Written & Edited by Trinh T. Minh-ha. © Trinh T. Minh-ha.

For all productive writings, visual, audio and multi-media artworks, Trinh does not intend to dominantly guide the viewers to understand her work in one way. Her absence of subjective voice, notwithstanding, inspires and encourages the viewers to develop her/his own thought to respond the contents that Trinh’s works presented. Trinh’s concern for gender, information technology, ethnography and, all the alternative responses from the audiences that she could possibly aroused, are to approach the deeper meaning reside in her work. This is the effect of “the infinite play of empty mirrors.” [in Trinh’s wording in Woman Nation Other.p.22] The mirror is the symbol of viewer’s mind. What we watch is watching us, what we think about is thinking about us. Trinh constantly crosses the art boundaries to approach the profound ideas of the marginal. The dialogue must be continuing, between the author and viewers, between the subject and the subjected, through her endlessly cross-disciplinary approach.
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Creative Commons LicenseThe texts of gwenart by Gwen Kuo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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