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Reading Rämistrasse #131: Rachel TonThat on Rebekka Steiger at Galerie Urs Meile - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #131: Rachel TonThat on Rebekka Steiger at Galerie Urs Meile

Earlier this month, I wandered into Galerie Urs Meile, where Rebekka Steiger was showing paintings she created while in residency in Saigon with the Vietnamese title, ma quỷ vô đồng tử, or, ghosts without pupils.

News, mentions of, or exchanges with Vietnam always intrigue me. As a Việt Kiều or overseas Vietnamese, I feel Vietnam remains an underdog country, with a robust enough economy to give it promise and a large enough diaspora to have some connections internationally. This contrast between size and reach makes any mention of it rare enough to give pleasure.

Tucked between Galerie Peter Kilchmann and Galerie Haas, the Zurich outpost of Galerie Urs Meile was modestly hung with Steiger’s vivid paintings. Steiger used acrylic ink found in Vietnam in a way that evokes watercolor, and there are moments when her liquid bleed of pigment shows true mastery of the medium. Yet having read enough of the gallery text to get the gist of the premise, it was difficult to identify a connection between Vietnamese culture as I know it and the work itself. The paintings feature recurring motifs: figures astride equines, horse-like animals, and foxes, none of which are commonly featured in Vietnamese arts and handicrafts.

Rebekka Steiger, Ghosts Without Pupils, Galerie Urs Meile, Zürich, 2023

Bild: Bruno Augsburger

The gallery text informs us of Steiger’s seven month residency in Vietnam and her effort to study and speak the language while living there, and outlines what is presented to be an informed look into Vietnamese spiritualism, containing several inaccuracies. Focusing on ghosts, and particularly on animal spirits, it overlooks the most culturally prominent and undoubtedly essential part of Vietnamese animism: ancestor worship. This belief in the spirits of the people who have passed is part of what drives the inauguration ritual described in the text; only by cleansing the space of past inhabitants and bad energy—similar to sage burning in Native American lore—can a new building, home, or business be readied for inhabitance.

Notably, while the term “hồ li” or hồ tinh” exists in Vietnamese, it most famously refers to one particular gender fluid fox spirit who was chased away from the outskirts of Hanoi by the legendary king Lạc Long Quân, or in just one other story, the ghost of a dead woman who appears as a fox with a human face to save Lê Loi from capture. Similarities to the Japanese fox spirit that transforms into a woman, the kitsune, only exist in relation to myths of Chinese and Japanese origin, but not in general Vietnamese lore nor in its symbols in art, possibly because foxes are rare in this part of the world, and are found only in the very north of Vietnam.

As I gazed bemusedly at foxes peering between lucid rainbow hues, I couldn’t help feeling as if this version of Vietnamese animism was created to package a soundbite of an experience, or to attempt to connect what was in the paintings to the residency locale.

Rebekka Steiger, Ghosts Without Pupils, Galerie Urs Meile, Zürich, 2023

Bild: Bruno Augsburger

There’s something truly admirable in having the courage to leave a small city in Switzerland to live in China and Vietnam, let alone taking the time to study their languages. But the way this exhibition is presented—suggesting that culture can be absorbed and understood in order to be explained—seems to attest to a failure at deeper understanding, and in a moment when transcultural exchange is at a post-COVID high, and in Switzerland, a country so small that it could not have the financial and cultural clout it does without international trade, partnerships, and exchange, perhaps we should dwell a moment on what could further that understanding.

Over the summer, I did a one month residency in a rural village outside of Hanoi. From my own experience and from my conversations with others, it seems that in every residency there is a universal moment of existential crisis where one wonders what exactly one is doing in this new place, and what precisely one is responsible to relate about it. Never was this more apparent than in this small village with its more or less single road through, a place where every stranger, Vietnamese or foreign, was stared at and remarked upon. The residency was situated so we could work in the Hien Van ceramics factory, and we, a middle aged artist from an exchange with a small state in Germany, one of the residency staff, and myself, resided in a nearby cluster of buildings.

Compounding these existential questions was the difficulty with communication. The German artist had never been outside of Europe before, and every translated conversation with the factory workers ended in some confusion; not only was their way of working with ceramics different to hers, but their process, work ethic, and expectations were also completely dissimilar. For weeks she continued to try to work in the method in which she was accustomed to, all the while feeling the burden of needing to come away with a clear product.

This exhibition seems to have fallen prey to this pressure to record and categorize every transcultural experience, undoubtedly fed by social media and the demands of the art world, and to questions such as “What did you learn from this?” and “How did you successfully engage with the culture?” But to attempt to tie these more nebulous moments up in a bow in order to deliver a singular narrative is a much greater failing than admitting the limits of understanding, or the complexities of transcultural communication—and in terms of trying to defend the why of cultural exchange, I believe that it is enough to have tried to reach out. The amount of effort exerted is usually apparent.

Another problem within this desire to simplify, or codify is evident in the vaguely colonial air of the gallery text which presumes to tell us about another culture’s spirituality with little research or fact checking. In this, I find another problematic factor to be the angle, which feels authoritative rather than an account of one person’s impressions.

Rebekka Steiger, Ghosts Without Pupils, Galerie Urs Meile, Zürich, 2023

Bild: Bruno Augsburger

If the act of cultural exchange is akin to looking through the window of another person’s house (with their express permission, of course), one must factor in what has been cropped by frame and sill, or the inner rooms which are impenetrable to an outside gaze. An example of this can be seen in the workflow and approach of the factory workers, a kind of working system which might seem baffling to outsiders. Yet this, I believe, is what Glissant meant when he wrote about opacity, that there will always be something that cannot pass through, something that cannot be understood except by those within the culture.

And though some of these are questions that go beyond the exhibition, what might have made it stronger is a deeper engagement with not only the local culture of everyday people in Steiger’s neighborhood, but local artists, especially considering that Saigon is the heart of the Vietnamese contemporary art scene. Discussions with Vietnamese artists or curators could have clarified the lore and symbolism of foxes in Vietnamese art. The effort, or lack thereof, speaks for itself.

Rebekka Steiger, Ghosts Without Pupils, 1 September 1–14 October 2023, Galerie Urs Meile, Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse

Geht der Raum für Kunstkritik verloren, müssen wir handeln. Deswegen schaffen wir diesen Ort für Kritik – Reading Rämistrasse – auf der Webseite der Kunsthalle Zürich und veröffentlichen Rezensionen zu aktuellen Ausstellungen in Zürich. Diese geben nicht die Meinung der Kunsthalle Zürich wieder, denn Kritik muss unabhängig sein.

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