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A Look into Tam Khoa Vu’s Hybrid Condition

MAI’s newest exhibition explores the diasporic experience of Vietnamese Canadians

On March 13, it was raining lightly and slush slapped against my sneakers as I walked down Jeanne Mance street toward Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI). When I opened the door of the large brick building, I was met with a gust of warm air, and immediately followed the signs toward Hybrid Condition. A small sign post outside of two velvet curtains told me to remove my shoes. I did, before pulling back the curtains and stepping inside the installation.

The room was dark, yet the four projection sheets standing in a square-like formation in the center of the room formed a bright light, impossible to overlook. Changing images and video clips flashed on the screen and commanded my gaze – an athlete in a basketball jersey dancing in a gymnasium, men laughing around a small table, a person in a navy blue suit and red tie speaking directly to the camera. A pulsing, quick beat accompanied the images, propelling them forward and adding an exciting energy to the footage.

Vietnamese-Canadian artist Tam Khoa Vu first drew inspiration for his immersive installation by talking to a group of Vietnamese diaspora who were living in Vietnam at the time. In an interview with the Daily, Vu said that “we were talking a little bit about this dual identity of belonging and also not belonging in Vietnam, and belonging maybe to whatever Western parts of the world we had originated from.” He explained that the term “condition” appealed to him because of its connotation of a “sickness.” He said, “It’s almost a little bit tongue in cheek, you know? There’s a little bit of this melancholia or sadness that can occur when reflecting on identity […] but it’s not entirely just trauma and pain […] it can be joy, also.”

Vu explained that at the surface level,  “hybrid condition” is “a cool sounding phrase that comes from different aesthetic backgrounds,” and that when you peel back the layers, “you can find deeper meaning to it.” This idea reflects the nature of Vu’s installation. At first glance, the viewer is attracted to the video installation and its fast moving images “like a moth to the light,” Vu said. “But once you sit with the work and experience the work, you realize all of the layers and what it does [on a deeper level].”

At first, Vu began creating Hybrid Condition to represent the Vietnamese diaspora within the world of fine and contemporary arts. Vu told the Daily that his name is “so front and center” to “show other Vietnamese people [and] other Asian people the possibilities within the contemporary arts world.” In developing his installation, Vu also imagined his 12-year-old self viewing his work. He said, “when I was 12 years old, I didn’t have role models to look up to. I had Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee […] and they’re not even Vietnamese.” Vu explained that there is nothing wrong with appreciating such figures, but that it “felt very limiting.” He added, “I like Kung Fu, sure, but I also like fashion, I also like shoes, you know?” Because Vu did not know other Asian or Vietnamese designers when he was a child, he wishes to be such a role model for youth today.

Vu is open to criticism. In fact, he encourages it from young people of colour as an avenue to create “space for the diaspora” in the arts world. He told the Daily, “If some 12-year-old looks at my project and is like, ‘wow, that is so whack, I can do that better,’ for me, that’s also incredible. It’s like, ‘go on, go do something that you want.’”

Vu’s installation does not only speak to diasporic populations or people of colour. Vu said, “I realized that I don’t need to tell a Vietnamese-Canadian, or a Vietnamese-American, or an Asian-American, or a Black-American, what it means to be othered […] because we know what feeling othered feels like.” Vu gives “110 per cent” of himself into his installation, and he wants “white people to feel 10 per cent of what it feels like to be othered.” If white people can feel even five per cent, Vu told the Daily, “I would feel like this installation has succeeded.”

To draw in a wide breadth of audiences, Vu works to create an inclusive gallery space. “I want to create a space that my mom can go to and understand, but also that is equally fresh, that your Mile-Ender can also appreciate.” One way in which Vu approaches this is through using modern digital platforms that can appeal to numerous demographics. His installation includes video extracts projected on four different screens, playing in a loop and at differing times, so that each visitor will have a unique experience.

When asked where he sourced the video footage, Vu told the Daily that much of his footage comes from memes online. He said that he “conducted a lot of that research the way a lot of people conduct their research – first thing in the morning, when you wake up and crack open Instagram.” He started saving numerous memes, and soon, individuals began sending Vu memes as well. Vu also shot a large part of the footage himself; one screen of footage is entirely shot by Vu in Vietnam.

Vu also uses social media as an “artistic vision” and as a “marketing tool” for his work. In addition to his visual artwork and his current installation, Vu is the founder of an import business, TKV Fine Arts & Financial Arts. The business subtly challenges perceptions of Vietnamese culture by giving new meaning to apparel and objects commonly found in Vietnam, such as grocery bags, sandals, and blue-collar workwear. Vu told the Daily that he uses his e-commerce business “as a vehicle for storytelling” to explain to his audiences why these common garments are important. Through his social media usage, Vu can market both his art installation and his business. He said, “When I have marketing and hype for the business, it channels into the artwork, and the artworks also feed into my art practice.”

In an interview with The Creative Independent, Vu said, “I don’t want to go to bed on Sunday just being afraid of Monday. Life can pass you by in that way.” Vu told the Daily that this mentality still informs his work today. Vu stated that he is “unabashedly” himself, and that his sincerity and upfrontness inform his work. He said that “a lot of Asian-Canadian people are typically seen as ‘timid,’ and ‘meek,’ and ‘model-minorities,’ and then when you have someone like me ‘qui peut changer de langue facilement,’” – Vu speaks English, French and Vietnamese fluently – “does that make people scared, or worried, or does it challenge their notions of what an Asian person is?” Vu predicts that his installation will encourage visitors to confront the question “am I racist?” and hopes that his work will overturn prejudices.

Vu strongly encourages McGill students to visit Hybrid Condition. Entry to the exhibition is free and runs until March 30 from Tuesday to Saturday between 12:00 and 6:00 PM. For more information on the exhibition, visit To learn more about Vu and his upcoming artistic pursuits, check out his Instagram page