The performance titled “Bless You Hold Me” by Cam Xanh and Bill Nguyen happened at MoT+++ main space and opened Big Day of Performances | Happy Birthday Bill. Curator and artist Bill Nguyen tattooed a poem by Cam Xanh (titled “Abuse/Mày”) onto his right thigh, while Xanh sat across from him and repeatedly applied red lipstick, only to then remove it using Bless You Hold Me brand tissues, which accumulated in a pile at her feet. Nguyen also used Bless You Hold Me tissues to wipe the excess ink from his thigh.

The performance took place upon artist Bill Nguyen’s 30th birthday and incorporated an installation, consisting of Cam Xanh’s poem “Abuse/Mày” suspended in pink neon between the two performers, who sat across from each other at a pair of pink-fur-covered plastic tables and stools. The title of the work emphasized the tender friendship between the two artists, which also touched upon the agonistic nature of gifting, the confrontation of one’s own mortality, and the inextricable relationship between pleasure and pain.

The performance lasted about 4 hours and came to a close when Nguyen completed his tattoo and was presented with a birthday cake bearing the words “It’s not a cake, its a f****** piece of art”, a playful acknowledgment of the fact that this was not your typical birthday party. Cam Xanh and Quyen D. Pham, read poems in homage to Bill Nguyen, with Xanh reading her poem “Abuse/Mày,” and with Pham reading the poem “As I Began To Love Myself” (written by the actor Charlie Chaplin on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

During their collaborative performance titled “Bless You Hold Me,” Cam Xanh repeatedly puts on lipstick and imparts lip-shaped smudges on tissue papers while Bill Nguyen manifests another act of mark-making: tattooing his thigh with a poem by Cam Xanh. The poem, written with words that all begin with the letter ‘m,’ sonically resembles a merry nursery rhyme or playful tongue twister while in fact, the content is a series of defamations. An unidentified speaker is hurling vile mockeries at an equally anonymous subject, using swear words that target the body such as “pale lips,” “flat face,” “catty nose,” “askew mouth,” “pus-filled ass” or “sightless eyes.”

As Cam Xanh, the author of these callous curses, carries out the nonchalant application of lipstick and lightweight production of rouge-stained tissues, the audience of the performance are intentionally confounded by the light-hearted appearance of her gesture and the intense contempt contained in the poem. Whether Cam Xanh identifies with the perpetrator or the victim of this (non)fictional verbal abuse, which she admits she would never audibly utter due to the constraints of her proper upbringing, the act suggests an opposite resolution to violent language. Using the titular brand of tissues “Bless You Hold Me,” the performer works with soft, almost weightless paper, gently mouthing the letter ‘m’ but instead of uttering yet another ‘m’-initiated blaspheme, she simply marks the silky tissues with an afterimage of a kiss, and allows the the airy papers to float away. The repetition of the act suggests a deliberately feminine declaration of self-love, a process of lightening past vulnerabilities and caring for the body that remains.

The remaining body inevitably harbors scars. Bill Nguyen’s approach to the poem does not let cruel language silently evaporate with each outbreath like Cam Xanh’s but instead, immortalizes and physicalizes the derision on his skin. I remember the artist once open-endedly divulging that the poem speaks to his fraught relationship with his family and to a larger extent, a series of former injuries. The abrasive words of the poem and their biting appearance on his body perhaps commemorate unsaid agonies. The loud mechanic buzz periodically whirred by the tattoo gun accentuates the violence of his act, and yet the self-infliction of pain seems nearly meditative to the artist and captivating to his viewers. There might be an oddly therapeutic dimension to tattooing. The present endurance numbs out previous hurt and the oozing blood carries an outflow of internal torment.

There emerges an invisible harmony between Cam Xanh’s choice to make a poem out of vituperations and Bill Nguyen’s decision to inscribe himself with the same indignities. Both artists unapologetically expose their personal release, linguistically, psychologically and bodily, by making a spectacle out of their frustrated inscriptions. The central prop to their parallel acts is a graceful chandelier constructed out of pink neon lights shaped as the poem’s disassembled words. Under a mesmerizing cascade of reddish hues and blurred letters, the two artists co-independently perform an exorcism of private demons while methodically, tenderly arriving at serenity. The performance happens on the Bill Nguyen’s birthday, but perhaps the real celebration is the artists’ personal ways of making do with profanities, the oft-tabooed breed of language that serves as forceful channels of innermost woes and momentary vessels of memorable liberation.

Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên

This performance was part of Big Day of Performances | Happy Birthday Bill

Location: Ground floor, Saigon Domaine, 1057 Bình Quới, Ward 28, Bình Thạnh District, Saigon, Vietnam