Conversation between Monika Nguyen and Carmen Rüter.
Entering Monika Nguyen`s installation `AOKIGAHARA Suicidal Lifestyle‘ (see more pictures here) the visitor finds himself in a perfectly styled concept store. White coloured interior is giving space to selected pieces of clothes, shoes and accessories contributed by Austrian designers. On first sight it seems like an invitation to get some of the latest fashionable stuff, but a “Here we go” remains still, feeling something`s disturbing this place.
CR: I personally did not know about the phenomenon of suicidal culture and was really astonished by the scope of fashionable lifestyle. Do you know about the roots of this development in Japan?
MN: On one hand it’s due to the fact of the frequency of suicides, even Japan has not the world’s highest suicide rate – but Japan’s mass media often communicates suicide cases and methods, so that a kind of “fad” occurred.
An ambivalent approach to this matter could also be a historical suicide ritual, called seppuku, which was practiced by members of the samurai until 1873 when it was abolished – the act was deemed to be honorable.
CR: You were honoree of „Preis der Kunsthalle“ in 2007 with a work about Boat People from Vietnam. Where does your interest in the reflection of socio-cultural themes come from?
MN: My parents escaped Vietnam after the war as Boat People in the late 70ties. Growing up in Austria, once in a while my father told me stories about their diaspora. Many people left over night with simple fishing boats which were not capable for a sea journey and could take several weeks – being aware of the dangerousness of facing typhoons, navigational problems as well as pirates, over a million refugees tried to elude the communist regime. Mainly I’m broaching the issues of exceptional and extreme cases in my works – why and in particular how people act in these situations.
CR: While choosing the right cosmetics for your suicide, you can take a look at Watari Tsurumi`s book “The complete Manual Of Suicide” a guide on how to commit suicide in different ways and places. In our system of values treating suicide in such a commercial way is quite irritating. How did you step over this theme? What was your personal experience during your stay in Japan?
MN: During my year in Tokyo I did a trip to Mount Fuji and a Japanese woman sitting next to me on the bus told me about the Aokigahara forest which lies next the holy mountain. I was quiet astonished when she described the forest as a popular location for Japanese to commit suicide. In a slightly casual way she told me about the methods, how people would prefer to die in there. At Tokyo’s train stations you might hear the announcement not to leap during rush hours.
CR: The book is written in Japanese, so only a minority, capable of the language, can comprehend it. This means, the book object is codified. At the first glance you see perfect scenes of fashion photography, at the second glance the pictures reveal suicidal scenes. What role does this kind of codification play?
MN: In my work in 2007 about Vietnamese Boat People, I’ve displayed an interview in Vietnamese but intentionally without subtitles – in this case it wasn’t much about what they said but rather more how they said it. I had the same thought by using the book “The complete manual of suicide” for this actual installation. The composition of the book and only just the fact that the book exists tells you more than what is written in there. A codification in my works allows the viewer an intellectual latitude, as I am dealing with socio-cultural questions – as an artist and not as a journalist.