"Laundry Day:" Talking with Vi Tri Quach, Visual Artist/Activist

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Vi Tri Quach was born in Vietnam.

There was this war thing going on. Got on a boat. Then there was this refugee camp thing. And shipped to a church in America thing. Then came to Boston because there was no other person of color in the town thing. Along the way there was the drawing Santa Claus in school thing that led to drawing comics at home thing that led to making art with purpose thing, somewhere in there, there was also finding community thing, struggle for justice thing and trying to live a life of purpose thing.

Azine: Tell us about your Laundry Day exhibit.

Tri: «Laundy Day» is part of a collaborative art exhibit, the Me/We exhibit. The original theme of the the project was Generations, three generations of Asian American artists. But the youngest artist dropped out. So instead, we changed the concept to two topics, Me/We. The other artist, Wenti Tsen did the Me side. He demonstrated the inside and outside of the individual, «Me,» and who we really are - the inside. I did the «We» side, to say, as an individual, I am not enough.

Azine: I'd like to use the written explanation of «Laundry Day» in the interview/article. Is that ok with you?

Tri: Yes. I left it like how it is on purpose because I don't like to intellectualize or explain too much. People said I should explain more, but the people I work with, youth, get more out of art and culture than any intellectualized ideas.

Laundry Day

Tri Vi Quach

The next wave of revolutionaries may not be wearing camo. The t-shirts represent the collective that is needed for change to occur. Different individuals doing work together and seperately in different areas of the community. Also the creation process is reflective of how we must use the resources that are available around us to create a statement that we then become and share with the world.

My art is a reflection of the elements that I find most valuable in art. For me these elements fall mainly in two categories, the creation of art for art sake.  That is, pushing the realm and thinking of what art is, pushing the techniques, creating visually and intellectually stimulating pieces. Then there is art as a tool, art as a culture, art as a vehicle for change.

My own work reflects more of the latter and a little bit of the former. Though I do strive like other artists to mprove upon my technique and my use of materials, it is the use of art for the prupose of social change that drives me to create. I want the audience to not only enjoy the visual aesthetics of the piece but also to begin thnking about what other possibilities are available.

Art for the people implies a certain level of accessability - not only in the cost or «elite-ness» of the art but also in the accessability in the interpretation of the art. This is a fine line I'm walking of dumbing down artistic expression for the sake of mass consumption but I do believe that there is a visual language that speaks to more common folk and one that speaks more to «art» folk. Defining and refining this language for common folk has been an underlying of my work.»

Azine: What does the title, «Laundry Day» mean to you?

Tri: The title has Asian American roots. We were forced into enclave economies, the laundry business. But also, clothes hanging out to dry is seen in working class communities. This is a statement on class, being proud of our working class roots. As Asian Americans, we were not allowed to do many things, but we also became successful through the limitations imposed on us. For my art exhibit, the t-shirts hanging on the laundry line are the shirts that are worn by specific people.

Azine: Why do you use the forum of t-shirts to represent your ideas?

Tri: T-shirts symbolize an anti-corporate thing. We don't control the media, corporations, newspapers, TV, radio, etc. But we can control what we put on our chest. We don't wear labels like the GAP, but social change instead. The t-shirt is the last bill board you can control. T-shirts are iconic American wear, and are a quintessential American fashion.

The t-shirts have to be hung in order. Out of context they don't make sense. The first three t-shirts I printed simplistically. They are quickly made, homemade designs, which altogether spell UP-RIZ-IN - uprising.

The next three t-shirts spell out T-H-E. The different t-shirts are designed with the words, No No Boy, symbolism of urban buildings with roots, a person with a raised fist.

The middle four t-shirts spell N-E-X-T. The t-shirt designs are of a person standing in front of a tank, dissidents, a panther and X for Malcolm X representing the great movements of the 60's and 70's, and koi (fish), an Asian cultural representation of luck and fortune.

The last four t-shirts spell W-A-V-E. The t-shirts are designed with «Movement Reborn,» a Yellow star on red, (referencing the communist star in pop culture), a dissident, person in front of a tank, and a dandelion which grows through concrete, standing for resilience and perserverence.

Azine: Are there consistent themes that run throughout your artwork?

Tri: The theme throughout this exhibit is, «on your own, to stand alone, you cannot do anything.» Together we can. After the first three shirts, each t-shirt represents a person who is part of a greater whole.

Artistically, I use a dirty screen to print the t-shirts, so you get unpredictable results. This is part of the aesthetics. Like what we do. Community work is not perfectly choreographed.

Azine: How did you get interested in art and culture?

Tri: I've been drawing as far back as I can remember. In middle school, starting to study art in class. The idea that artists used art to problem solve really appealed to me. For the people I work with, art and culture speaks to them more than any intellectualized ideas. For example, I can have an essay or theory on the refugee experience, facts, dates, reports, and statistics, but they are more moved by personal stories – it's all important, but appeal to constituency is very important.

Azine: Is it something that moves people currently, but something that also helped you personally?

Tri: When I was younger, I appreciated art for artsake, crraftsmanship, and skill. But later, saw that I could have impact through artwork. The people I work with get more meaning out of shirts. They can visualize and touch them, even if they don't get the whole meaning.

Azine: Why did you decide to be an activist?

Tri: I don't think of myself as an activist or an artist. I just do it because it needs to be done. I see everyone around me – so much energy. Not me. I'd rather be home watching football. That's not to say that I wouldn't do art for myself, cause I would, but it wouldn't be to a strategic extent. To me, creating art just for myself is self-indulgent. Not selfish, but not meant to be praised. Like making cake that only you're going to eat. There's nothing wrong with it. That's how I see art. My value system. I see people who do the day to day work, and they get no recognition. Not to devalue art that's not meant to share a story or purpose…

There is a manufactured value system in the art world that makes art elitest. Like private collections, they keep art elite. Like a subculture of sneakers that cost $2,000 a pair. Art for only some. Why not make masterpieces, why not make them accessible? Because then they wouldn't be elite.

There are two purposes for art. The first is for social meaining, politics, and to tell a story. The other is for skill, as a craft, problem solving and as works of beauty. My personal values are that art serves the prupose of community building, social change, and empowerment. If there is a need for me to contribute to community building and social change, this is my route.

Azine: Do you consider your works of cultural expression being born of the Asian American experience – refugee, immigrant, American born? Or are there any major influences fron Vietnamese culture and tradition- stories, folklore, experiences, and practice.

Tri: My art work is born of the Asian American experience. I don't use art forms from Vietnamese culture. There is an Asian aesthetic that I'm attracted to that I both intentionally and untintentiaonally put into my artwork. I'm more attracted to traditional Asian art mediums like water color, brush works, block prints, and rock gardens as a form for where you place items. All my artwork is a result of the Asian American experience. My University of Massachusetts installation was about Asian American history. It's always community related.

Azine: Has your experience as a refugee in particular shaped your artwork?

Tri: There are some elements coming from my refugee experience, but the main emphasis is from my working class background. It comes from that perspective. How is it accessible to people like me? To intellectualize it isn't appealing for me. I didn't explain the «Laundry Day» exhibit in written form on purpose. People get what they get from it and move on.

There's an elitest mentality that art can only be understood or possessed by certain people, and others are locked out.

(My t-shirts) Like a wink. It's a verifyer to other people with a similar mindset. “This is what I believe.”  When other people get it, they can become part of it. Like the fist. «Power to the people.» There was a time in our country when change was on the tips of our everyone’s tongues, the fist was a signifier of that. “I'm critical. I think about work I want to contribute to the world.” That's my shirt, one of my people. It's taking a stand for something, like an invitation. In community building, you want as many visible signs out there as possible. Everyone wearing t-shirts signifying that «I'm critical.» Everyone wearing it says like, «Wow, my community is powerful.»