Simone Hoang, Ký úc//Memento

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2015 (here). Softcover with a rope tie enclosure, 40 pages, with 18 color and black and white photographs. In an edition of 100 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Simone Hoang’s photographs explore the way we build and process memories, and her interest in this subject stems directly from her own personal experience.

Hoang was born in Vietnam and spent the first eight years of her life with her biological mother. Things changed forever when they were forced to flee the war in her home country, making their way to the Netherlands, where Hoang was ultimately adopted by Dutch family. She never saw her mother again.

Today, her memories from those early years have faded, turning into rather fragmented and blurry episodes – she hardly remembers her time with her mother. Disconnected from the country where she grew up, Hoang has been unable to revisit the places and people who constitute her unreliable memories from that period. The combination of too many missing pieces and a desire to understand the fragments she can recall has pushed Hoang to start a visual investigation.

“On average you create five memories a day. 5 memories a day, 365 days a year, for 8 years adds up to 14,600 memories,” she writes in the short commentary to her project, now published as a photobook entitled Ký úc//Memento. In it, Hoang uses photography to reconstruct and relive her lost cache of childhood memories. In the Vietnamese language, Ký úc means memory, or rather the flaws of memory, a lack of it.

The book has a soft blue cover and is wrapped with a thin rope in white and red (this combination of colors might be a reference to a Dutch tricolor). The process of opening the book – untying the ribbon and opening gatefolds – recreates the feeling of dealing with a secret, or something rather intimate and profound. Inside is a booklet covered with a red transparent sheet. This type of film is often used as a filter, and here it references a filter we, often unintentionally, use with our own memories – we change and alter our memories every time we replay them. As they change, we are left with fleeting feelings and sensations, rather than clear visual references. For Hoang, this red paper also recalls her childhood, as a similar kind of paper is used to wrap coconut sweets in Vietnam. The book is printed on uncoated paper and has light but distinct smell of ink, adding another sensation to the overall experience.  

Ký úc//Memento is an associative reflection of Hoang’s sporadic memories from her childhood in Vietnam and her photographs investigate this elusiveness of meaning. The cover image of the book resembles foamed water in the ocean, shot in black and white. Did Hoang and her mother leave the country by boat? Or is it an early memory of Amsterdam? Or perhaps it be can something completely different, resonating on some other symbolic level. This is followed by a tree seen in the dark, lit up with red light so that it looks like it is burning. Enigmatic and evasive, it sets the grasping mood of the visual narrative.

Hoang’s pictures are generally fragmented and blurry, seemingly based on distant feelings and ephemeral notions, and as a result, the overall flow is unavoidably dominated by instinctual sensory perceptions. Most of the photographs in the book depict nature in various forms – still water, trees, sky full of bright stars, soil under red light – and many of them were taken at night, perhaps playing with the ideas of encroaching mental darkness or fading memories. There are no people in the book. Perhaps she has no recollection of her family, or maybe she guards these bits of her memories with extra caution?

Seen together, Hoang’s photographs have an almost mysterious sensibility, where partial information doesn’t converge to understanding. Ký úc//Memento feels more like a process, a photographic journey inward and homeward, but without a satisfying conclusion. How accurate are these memories and how much have they been transformed? Given her pictures, her memories are likely almost completely gone and/or altered by imagination, yet these incomplete flashes constitute an important touchstone for Hoang’s adult life.

Ký úc//Memento is a deeply personal photographic project, engaging with childhood traumas and unanswered questions. It is a process of recovery and reconciliation, as Hoang moves between her abstract memories and worlds. We follow her meditative visual thoughts, sharing some of her emotional journey, the process becoming just as important as the result. This project brings to mind the recent photobook Moisés by the Argentinian photographer Mariela Sancari, who also turned to photography to deal with the banished memories (in her case, of her father who committed suicide when she was a teenager). While different in their formats and execution, both projects touch upon the important issue of dealing with unsettling memories and personal demons, using photography to heal and regain balance.

Collector’s POV: Simone Hoang is represented by Fontana Gallery in Amsterdam (here). Her work has not yet consistently found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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