By Aki Camargo, ETA 2018–19
After peeling the straps of velcro off my sandals, I placed my bare feet on the inviting red carpet. It was just as fuzzy as I had expected. Almost like I was entering a friend’s dorm room, I carefully maneuvered my way around the neatly placed furniture. On the top of the table was a pile of fake bank notes stacked on top of each other, written in an accented roman script that struck a vague familiarity. Next to these bills was an iPad glued onto the plastic table, running a video of how to fold them into what looked like miniature boats.
A man approached me. Take a seat. Make yourself at home.
Phuong Ngo’s interactive performance, Article 14.1, illustrates a poignant message through the simple yet radical act of collective action. As a creative from Melbourne, Ngo invites museumgoers to help fold 10,000 paper boats, paying homage to the Vietnamese refugees who fled the Vietnam War almost 50 years ago.
The exhibit resembled a dorm room, I soon realized, because Ngo would make this corner his temporary home. The Australian-Vietnamese artist would live in this exhibit for ten days. He would wake up, fold boats, eat a pile of saltines for his meals, and repeat. Ten days—the same number of days it took his parents to cross the South Pacific on boats, fleeing persecution and seeking a new life.
After I finished folding my first boat, I chuckled in embarrassment. My feeble attempt reminded me of the many paper cranes I used to fold as a middle schooler in Japan. 1000 paper cranes—a gesture of commemoration for those who lost their lives from the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima. Each crane, folded as a means to grant a wish, served as a call for peace and dignity for all. A similar universal call for humanity is evident in Ngo’s performance, named after Article 14.1 in the UN Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Like the Japanese cranes, Ngo’s boats remind us of the bravery of every refugee. These fragile vessels carried humans—fathers, mothers, children – whose livelihoods were stripped from them, as they fled war and violence.
I folded my fifth boat, feeling slightly ashamed for not folding enough. But I did recognize the urgency of Ngo’s message. Article 14.1 underscored the unbound sacrifice of migrants, as they embarked on a new life to a foreign land.
What does it mean to incorporate activism into art? To Ngo, they are one in the same. Article 14.1 reflects his personal yet provocative approach to process generational trauma and sacrifice. As a child of Vietnamese refugees, he embarked on this artistic endeavor to interrogate how refugees are deeply embedded in Australian society, but may not necessarily be visible.
Whether it is entering Australia through the treacherous waters of the Pacific Ocean, or the United States through the precarious deserts of the Rio Grande, refugees and migrants are intimately weaved into the fabric of our nations, narratives and societies. 14.1 urges museumgoers to respect the lives of migrants. They are doctors, janitors, teachers and artists. Even if that means folding 10,000 boats, 14.1 honors each and every one of them.