Teh Talks is a series of interview conversations with creatives.
Interspersed with the interview questions and answers are my personal reflections.
This interview can also be found in LooseLeaf Magazine, Volume 7
Khanh has a frenetic energy that makes a lot of sense once I start talking about her work with her. It’s a dynamic, pulsing interest that is very much self-directed. This means Khanh is not afraid to go down rabbit holes, chase the ideas till they’ve disappeared, then make her way around another curve into yet another idea tunnel. This capacity for scattered but themed thought adventures makes this interview deliciously entertaining, but difficult to organize into a cohesive conversation.
In the end, I’ve decided to offer a constellation of thoughts, and leave you to create the patterns.
Featured Image Source: “Serenading the Cattle With My Trombone“
Who are some major influences in your work?
I’m inspired by disability art in general because I think it challenges the centering of visual and hearing culture.
I’m also inspired by children. I want to make art that 12-year-olds can understand.
Art can get so bougie. If I can make stuff that people can physically interact with, and that can activate senses in their body that help them remember the experience in ways more than just seeing or hearing, then I’m intrigued by that.
I think it’s mostly challenging me.
I’m influenced by children interacting with art.
People hold memories so close to them at such a young age.
You started out in film but have now branched out to a lot of different other forms of art presentation. Can we talk about that journey?
I’ve been physically crafty my whole life. Then I went to film, and the medium is very digital. I didn’t know how much of a barrier it would be.
When you’re doing stuff on set, like lighting, where you can see what’s happening, that activates the part of my brain that understands. Editing is much less intuitive. I had fatigue overall with institutional film school. I don’t regret going to film school, but it taught me what I didn’t want to be. The industry wants you to be all in or all out. I get bored really easily, so I like having installation and film and jumping in between the two.
You hang out with different people and they bring out different sides of yourself. They are just different sides of yourself. If you stay within a discipline, all the problems are very big. When you can move between disciplines, things get put into proportion.
I love chaos!
How does your exploration of other forms of art impact your approach to film?
I’m definitely a cinematographer by trade. As a cinematographer, you are concerned about the image, the energy the image brings onto the film. I think the two mediums help each other a lot.
When I do film too much, especially for work, you get so caught up in the technicalities and the formal training of everything being on bigger sets that you lose the improvisation space you can get in installation.
Would you say there’s a distinct dynamic of playfulness and tenderness that’s often present in your work? Where do you think that comes from?
In installation, it comes from not having formal training in art. There’s no way I can make this figure look like a real person. I just literally did what I could do. I had never made figures before in my adult life. I was literally using the skills I had developed as a kid, but just left off when I grew older.
I’m really into accessible materials and looking at the art, knowing how you made it.
What were some big artist evolution touchpoints that happened between “Queer Love + Support” and “Gentle Durian”? How do you conceptualize a piece of work like “Gentle Durian”?
The first time, I was driven by wanting to meet other queer Asians. For the installation, I gathered information from queer Asians from different generations, what did they love or what was missing from the community.
That installation experience was a lot more gentle and vulnerable because I knew who the audience was.
When we think about organizing space, we often think of a physical one. But a big part of the piece was recognizing that space was among people.
The durian was all chaos. (laughs) I definitely couldn’t have done it on my own. I had to ask for help. Queer Asian Youth made an event called “Help Khanh’s Durian”. The durian, community-wise cemented my place, which felt really nice.
Do you have any process for deciding what to work on next?
It is often what feels the most urgent at the time. In a way, everything is reflective of the political climate. I don’t want to make explicitly political work, but something that is an acknowledgement of that: things that I am thinking about or concerned about. Urgency also can mean I’m obsessed with this kind of touch right now. I take on things very obsessively.
However, I am learning and want to be making stuff that’s more site-specific. Or at least, something that can change from site to site.
When I reinstalled “Gentle Durian” for Long Winter, it became a space for introverts, the installation space was much more focused on quiet and intimacy. Leading up to the install, I was repairing the spikes by myself. It made me think about the first time I made the durian, where someone was always here to help me. “Community structure” is what I associate with the durian now.
The durian came out of trauma at the time of creation. It was the first time I’d ever gone to therapy. Now I feel less attached to that trauma and depicting it.
I’m interested in “Challenging the idea of beauty”. When you’re in 6th grade you first start to understand that: facial beauty, body image, art. What is expected, what is polished, what is the right thing to do. It’s really about challenging our preconceived notions of what we think is correct.
Would you say the work you’re currently exploring in this season is clustered around a theme, an emotion or mood?
I’m trying really hard to make work without a goal. I’m pretty process-based based on previous works, but it was “process with a deadline”, controlled chaos.
I think I still need some kind of order. I have things that I’m interested in. I’m learning about what I lean to, and right now I lean toward the wheel. It’s mostly just ceramics. The wheel feels chaotic, but it’s very orderly.
What about chaos is interesting?
I’m always opposed to general structures. It makes people feel intimidated.
At Insomniac Festival, we don’t have roles as well. It helps our young members who are new. I think I hate school. The idea that in order to get “here”, you have to take one of these three paths.
I really hate being told what to do.
I’m a big believer in things. Shit works itself out.
Describe your seasonal mood as a colour.
Yellow, for my allergies.