more than meets the eye: the videos of Tran T. Kim-Trang

Blinding Light

Blinding Light: Notes Circling Ekleipsis

Allan deSouza (2004) 
Before my mother died, my last days with her are spent describing photographs I’ve taken the week before in Kenya, her and my birthplace–a place she hasn’t seen in nearly forty years. It’s also been my first visit back, and I’m the only one in the family to have returned.

I processed my film in Nairobi so that I would have the prints to show her. I wanted evidence and proof of where I had been and what I had seen, but when I see her I have to describe the photographs because she’s been rapidly losing her eyesight and has now become almost completely blind. She asks questions, clearly remembering the places I describe. I had taken some photographs specifically with her in mind and though I’m disappointed that she can’t see how they look now, I’m relieved that she doesn’t need the evidence. There’s the still-standing Kenya Fish Company, where she first worked. The Ngong hills, the Nairobi Arboretum, the Holy Family Cathedral, the Khoja Mosque, the lookout point on the Limuru Road. I tell her about the hornbills, the bee-eaters, the vervets, the hammerkop. She remembers them all. My descriptions–and I look directly at each photograph as I describe it–are a too-late attempt on my part to bring peace–if not to her body, at least to her mind. To bring her some moments of pleasure.

At this point, I’m refusing to accept that she might die, and think that our conversations will get her in a more positive frame of mind. What I’m secretly hoping is that positive thinking is part of the battle, that my mother will mentally “relocate” to the place she has always thought of as home; that her relocation will galvanize some kind of cure.

“The fog’s coming, the fog’s coming back,” she says, and clutches my hand in panic. I don’t know what the fog is, and think maybe it’s the morphine kicking in and she can feel her lucidity–the remaining contact with the world around her–with me–ebbing away. It’s heartbreaking to feel her being pulled away.

Ten, twenty, maybe thirty minutes later, she squeezes my hand slightly as she wakes from the sleep. She smiles weakly, the fog has lifted. I don’t know what the fog is; it isn’t caused by the morphine. When I ask her, she just says, “It comes,” as if that’s all I need to know.

Ekleipsis is the Greek word for abandonment, encompassing meanings of leaving, and failing to appear; hence “eclipse,” its derivative. Eclipse refers to a loss of light, but also a loss of consciousness. It can mean an interception between a viewer and what is viewed.

Now, when I think about those last few days with my mother, one of the hardest things is remembering the onslaught of this fog, of how it terrified her, whereas she otherwise displayed a stoicism that was almost intimidating. Before this final illness, I don’t remember having ever seen her sick; I think she suffered a generational, Third World shame in admitting the weakness of one’s body. Having grown up in countries where illness and trauma were readily visible, where there was always someone worse off than you, she presented a smiling, resolute face to the world while submerging every hurt, no matter how slight or deep. Of course, it was this submersion that contributed to her final illness; that, with hindsight, made it seem almost inevitable. And yet, if she were to speak to me now, she would say, this is what mothers do.

This is what mothers do. They submerge the traumas of their own lives and what they’ve witnessed, they hold it all in, push it down as far as possible and for as long as possible until their bodies finally rebel. This is the self-sacrificing model of motherhood–of womanhood–that she’d inherited.

Loss of light; interception; abandonment.

About a month after my mother’s passing and as a way of preparing for this essay, I began writing about the last few hours I spent with her. I wanted to link her blindness and the way we used images as our bridge with some of the questions posed by the video Ekleipsis. Also, I knew I couldn’t write about blindness and not write about my mother, or about myself. On top of that, I simply needed to get the words out. I thought it was a way of coping, coming to terms with the complex range of emotions, not just with the sense of loss, but also the anger, regret, guilt, the concern for and renewed bonds with other members of the family, the increased awareness of our mortality. I thought I was doing well. After filling a couple of pages, I found I couldn’t bear to read them, I even had to hide them from myself. Despite reminders about deadlines, it was two months before I could pull out my notes and look at them again. I had to give myself time to heal by imposing that temporary blindness.

Is it possible for images to help heal a trauma of the visual–a kind of homeopathy, using a poison against itself?

When I got an email in Nairobi that mother was in hospital (“she’s a little weak, and she can get better attention there,” the email read, downplaying any seriousness), I wanted to see the city and its surroundings through her eyes, or at least remember things for her.

“We [my uncle–her brother–and I] went for walks every day in the Arboretum–“
“Yes, yes,” she interrupts, “I remember the Arboretum.”

As for myself, I don’t remember it from my childhood; I only know the photographs my father took of us there, standing stiffly in front of bougainvilla or bird of paradise. With the failure of my memory, they’re the only proof I have that I’d been there before. Now I try and recall the different plants for my mother. It’s my Trojan horse, a way to get her talking about her own past, something she was normally reticent to do.

Jacaranda, yes. Purple flowers,” and she smiles in remembrance.

She tells me she would go there at lunchtime with her work colleagues.  When I think about it later, it strikes me as a long way from any of the places I know she worked.

My own work–as writer and photographic artist–is highly dependent on actively looking, usually at close range and often behind a screen or a lens. Because of various eye problems, it’s necessary for me to take regular breaks, sit in darkness and rest my eyes, a circuit break to prevent overload. If not, my eyes feel swollen and aching so that I can’t work. I need the temporary, imposed blindness in order to carry on seeing. Choosing what to work on and how much to work is a constant negotiation with my eyes.

Is it possible to choose one’s blindnesses and what are the consequences of not being able to do so?

When my mother said that the fog was coming, she described it in visual terms, that the fog prevented her seeing. Since she was already blind, I didn’t understand what she meant. I understand it now as a fog that obscured her inner vision–that complex amalgam of memory, imagination and projection. Without access to the externally visual, my mother was dependent on this internal visuality, especially since the physical blindness had been so recent and she hadn’t fully learned to compensate. The fog, then, was an internal blindness. I can only imagine her panic as this last refuge was being obscured.

Everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.                                          
--Daniel Sander

She tried to hide the disease from herself, and from us. Eventually it came, too late, to light.

When a parent dies, it’s the child who feels abandoned. It’s the child who feels that the light has been dimmed

I have also repeatedly observed a feeling of nausea in making an attempt to combine stereoscopic images which are vividly separated. Here we have nothing less than the physiological pattern for the generation of pathological hysterical phenomena as a result of the coexistence of vivid ideas which are irreconcilable with one another.                            
--Sigmund Freud

When I work too long at the computer screen, watch too much television or read for too long, my temperature rises. I feel slightly nauseous and have to lie down. I never realized how often it happens until I read Freud’s quote in the video Ekleipsis.

Symptoms: each of my eyes feeds me a different image, one slightly larger than the other; straight lines are kinked; one image is more yellow so that a white page is striated into bands of white and cream; the image from one eye has a slight ghosting so that text has a shadow–or most noticeable when I look at the moon and see, not an eclipse, but its opposite, an extra sliver of light.

Diagnosis: the prolonged effort of melding these images into one that is comprehensible is what leads to the feelings of nausea. A warning to the body to stop looking. A sickness of too much seeing.

To treat hysteria we have to create another hysteria artificially
--Juan-David Nasio

I watch Ekleipsis. I watch it again. I dream the images now. Like index cards (see under Trauma, under Nightmare) they pop into my head, one at a time, each one interleaved by a moment of black.

♦ rice n bloodstains ♦ pineapple ♦ spectacles ♦ jewelry ♦ Angkor Wat ♦ rice paddies ♦ women’s faces ♦ work camps ♦ eye charts ♦ soldiers ♦ prisoners ♦  refugees ♦

I shut my eyes so that everything goes black, but it’s never black enough.

The camera hovers over a page, a war-bird cruising white city streets and avenues, black text houses neatly organized in grids and lines, coalescing into words, sentences, taking shape as a history. Never a complete history, some parts out of focus or beyond the dark horizon, never an overview, never full disclosure. Always fragments.

It’s like being blind.

♦ bloodstains ♦ rice n soldiers ♦ jewelry ♦ prisoners ♦ Angkor Wat ♦ rice paddies ♦ women’s faces ♦ work camps ♦ refugees ♦ pineapple ♦ eye charts ♦ spectacles ♦

The Khmer Rouge killed anyone wearing spectacles on the assumption that only intellectuals wear them.

A voice-over, distorted, a voice halted in time, fixed in one place, unable to escape its prison, become fully comprehensible; a voice distorted, like over an intercom, not a voice of authority but one subject to authority. It’s telling me a story, but never a complete story, some parts always muffled, muted, never an overview, never full disclosure. Always fragments.

It’s like being deaf.

In an old Buddhist prophecy, an era of misfortune in Cambodia was foretold. An era without religion. Houses would be empty, people would no longer circulate in the streets, the untutored, the ignorants–the men who have fallen very low–would dare to challenge the power of the established. The educated men were condemned to fall much lower than the ignorants. Only the deaf-mutes would be saved during this period. To stay deaf and mute–I found my method of survival. Instinctively, much of the population became deaf-mute.


From the muffle of words I glean a tale of forced labor, beatings, torture, starvation, executions. Escape.

♦ work camps ♦ bloodstains ♦ spectacles ♦ pineapple ♦ refugees ♦ Angkor Wat ♦ jewelry ♦ eye charts ♦ women’s faces ♦ rice paddies ♦ prisoners ♦ soldiers ♦ rice ♦

The images repeat, compulsive, inescapable, like flashbacks of memories already implanted in my head. There’s been a physical escape, but the memories won’t go away.

I shut my eyes so that everything goes black, but it’s never black enough.

It’s a line spoken by Jean Seberg in Godard’s film, A Bout de Souffle. It’s poignantly ironic, since I mostly remember Seberg in the role of Joan of Arc, an icon of light. Whereas Joan’s death is mythically noble, Seberg’s–her decomposing body found in the back seat of a car parked in a Paris street–is only ignoble.

In the same week that then-president Nixon announced on television that U.S. planes had begun bombing Cambodia (though they had been clandestinely doing so already for a year), J. Edgar Hoover approved an order that Seberg be “neutralized” because of her outspoken support for the Black Panther Party. While the bombing raged it was the thought of miscegenation that en-raged the public as the FBI leaked a fabricated letter to newspaper gossip columnists that the father of Seberg’s prospective baby was a Panther. When the baby was stillborn, Seberg displayed the white body at a press conference to once-and-for-all quell the rumors.  Unsurprisingly plagued by depression in the years following that incident, Seberg tried numerous times to commit suicide before her final, successful attempt.

I remove my spectacles. Shut my eyes. It’s never black enough.

With eyes facing in every direction, the pineapple is all-seeing. Like the pineapple, the totalitarian State (or the clandestinely-run State) can see everywhere; at least it enforces, then reinforces the belief that it can. It must control all vision; it must designate what can be seen and what can’t; it needs to control even those images you see when you shut your eyes: it removes the possibility of counter-vision or vision as a critique by removing the witness.
And those that survive, their vision is eclipsed by what they have seen.

I shut my eyes. Loss of light; interception; abandonment.

My blindnesses, though irritating and personally distressing, are nothing. They are slight enough that I can speak of them; they are comprehensible.

Facing the incomprehensible: photographs of prisoners in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Prison just before their execution, their eyes wide but not in horror nor in anticipation of what is about to happen to them. We may look into their eyes, trying to understand the enormity of the horror, we may even look to experience it vicariously. There’s horror, yes, but nothing to comprehend. Eyes are widened, but shocked into blindness by the camera’s flash after being kept in darkness and the blindfold suddenly removed. There are no stories to be read in their eyes. No disclosures. Barely fragments.

The Khmer Rouge was even more thorough than the Nazis. Out of approximately fourteen thousand prisoners in Tuol Sleng, only seven survived. One, Vann Nath, is still alive. A painter, significantly. A witness by profession, he was commissioned in 1980 to create a series of paintings documenting what he had seen during his imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. Are the paintings more revealing? Only in the way that nightmares are. But that’s only a fragment of the story. These images are necessary for healing. We, all of us, need the evidence to remember. But this too, is still only part of the story.

We have given ourselves over to the visual. It is the visual image–more than likely the photograph–that we will remember in years to come when other memories have failed. It is the photograph–and our enduring faith in its veracity–that we will hold up as proof.

This is where Ekleipsis tries to intervene. I say “tries” because all one can do is try, given the near-impossibility of actual intervention. All one can do is plot a map towards light. Crucially, Ekleipsis attempts to re-visualize or counter-visualize events under the Khmer Rouge occupation, a period whose intent was to impose an absolute scopic regime through total surveillance and an equally total erasure of counter-vision while the rest of the world conveniently looked the other way.

Ekleipsis doesn’t offer evidence. It doesn’t offer proof. Its intent is not to convince by argument, by reason in the face of unreason. Or, let me put it this way, it doesn’t pursue reason because it was reason above all else, reason above humanity, reason towards the great goal, reason regardless of consequence that led to what was beyond reason.

We need more than evidence, more than proof. And as I write, a different president comes on the TV, in a gray suit, a red tie and a smirk on his face even though what he is saying is, I think, meant to be taken seriously. Trying to justify a different bombing campaign (though the bombings had continued over the previous ten years), he says, We had evidence, but no, we haven’t found proof.

If he did have evidence, which he says he does though he doesn’t show it, and if he did have proof, would I believe him?

–Aujourd’hi, maman est morte. Ou peut-etre hier, je ne sais pas.
–Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I’m not sure.

So begins Albert Camus’ novel, L’Etranger. I first read it in its original French as a teenager. I don’t remember what I thought of that first line. I must have felt a similar distance as the narrator seemingly does, a similar indifference. Maybe. I’m not sure. The prospect of my own mother dying–and waking to that life-changing phrase, “Today, mother is dead” [the French allows this variation in translation]–would have been inconceivable to my then-sheltered mind.

Now, and contrary to most critical interpretations of that opening line, I understand it as someone who is so traumatized by its immensity (and has yet to come to terms with it, has yet to be transformed) that the perception of chronology–of time passing from one moment to the next, of sequence, of consequence–no longer applies. Time, like life, is ruptured. An interruption, a stoppage of light. An eclipse.

The morning after my mother died (also, incidentally, the day after my birthday. My birth day now also remembered as her death day), I climbed out of bed, unsure if I had slept, but with my first thought being, my mother is dead. Maman est morte. I remember following a routine of washing, dressing, maybe even eating, but all the while my mind was stuck in that one present thought, an interminable present that seemed to broker no future: mother is dead.

Yes, it could have been today, it could have been yesterday. I didn’t know. Clocks moved on, but I couldn’t have said for sure if time had.

This is the moment of trauma, or rather the extended period of trauma as the shadow blocks the light. This is the period when time appears to stand still, when everything seems to stop. When one is caught, unable to transform.

I imagine seeing time not as a line one might walk, unspooling from past to present to future, but seen head-on, as a point in front and behind. That is, because one sees from the line, one can only see a point the thickness of the line. Everything behind and everything before are seen condensed into this point, as an immediate present. Is this the traumatization of vision, that one can’t let go of what has happened and one can’t see ahead to what might? Is this the blindness of repetition, of

♦ work camps ♦ bloodstains ♦ spectacles ♦ pineapple ♦ refugees ♦ Angkor Wat ♦ jewelry ♦ eye charts ♦ women’s faces ♦ rice paddies ♦ prisoners ♦ soldiers ♦ rice

of nothing before, nothing after, just this endless, constantly repeated present?

Trauma as the inescapable reenactment of the past on the present.

But this too, is only part of the story, since the shadow passes, though imperceptibly so. The birds start singing again. The transformation occurs, even though we might not be aware of it.

I wonder what makes me remember works in French, first A Bout de Souffle, then L’Etranger. I’m trying to think about Cambodia, and then it strikes me. Thinking in English doesn’t help me understand the enormity, the incomprehensibility of recent Cambodian history. And since this region was once French-occupied, would this other colonial tongue help me? Can Camus, say, help me understand?  Writing from that other French-occupied territory, Algeria, can he offer me comprehension? (As a writer, I need this faith that language can bring comprehension; and if one language won’t do it, than I have to at least try another.)

In L’Etranger, the narrator’s response or lack of response to his mother’s death is turned against him, used as evidence of his lack of compassion, morality and remorse. His refusal, or inability, to enact socially “correct” responses to trauma (the death of his mother) by getting on with his life with no apparent eclipse, no dimming, no passage of darkness, no transformation–these are offered as proof of his amorality, and therefore of his undoubted criminality. His inability, or refusal, to face the trauma of his own impending execution following a murder conviction, is also what propels him towards it.

Is there a lesson here–that the inability to face trauma compels one to re-enact it upon oneself? Is this the supposed “hysteria”? Is the apparent calmness of Camus’ narrator a stereotypically masculine response to trauma, a masculine performance of hidden hysteria that I, my mother’s son, have inherited?

I don’t tell my mother that I couldn’t find our old house in Nairobi, or that no one would take me to the neighborhood because they said it was now too dangerous.

Having not seen it, the memory of the house where I grew up is now even stronger (though I know that my memory could also be largely fabricated), and I realize that memories don’t require an actual return. In fact, they require its opposite. Memories feed off distance.

Mother doesn’t ask me about the house, and I wonder later if she also doesn’t need the fact, in case it usurps the memory.
When I ask her about her childhood, she smiles. I’m not sure if it’s a smile from the pleasure of remembering, of being led away from her hospital bed, or whether it is a smile at my transparency in trying to lead her away from her hospital bed. She tells me things I’ve never been told before, things about herself. I feel like I’m finally beginning to learn something about this woman who has been shrouded in mystery for as long as I can remember. Later, when I ask others about what she has told me, they tell me none of it is true.

Did my mother simply forget, or did she deliberately lie, fabricate a history to keep me happy, to lead me away from her hospital bed?

It might be that, even at this point, my mother couldn’t bear to reveal herself, but later I think that the idea of irrefutable history matters less than the importance I give it. What might equally count is a shared pact between my mother and I to believe. Or that history is conditional upon what we need to believe, so that we can believe in each other.

While I am attracted by this proposal, I am equally disturbed by what it allows to remain hidden.

In the time it has taken me to write these pages, my mother’s death has passed into fiction. This is not to say that it hasn’t occurred or that I am any less affected by it. Fiction, after all, is a more encompassing way to understand occurrence, not a way to deny it. (I have the photographic evidence of my mother in her hospital bed and, later, in her coffin, but these are hidden away, a proof that I don’t need and don’t want, yet a proof that I can’t bear to destroy.)

I mean that what I have written about my mother is partly true, partly fiction. As the days pass, it becomes less and less important to know which is which or to separate one from another. Fiction is not exactly a way for me to fill the gaps or understand the enormities and incomprehensibilities of history; it is more a way to help me negotiate them. It allows me to tell my own lies, to get–not at the truth–but somehow behind the façade that truth erects. It allows me to get behind the fictions and lies that have been told to me as truth.

It’s wanting to hear what isn’t being said when a president appears on television to tell us what he wants us to hear.

I think I watch Ekleipsis in a similar, fictional way. This might be a failing or a strength but I don’t know how else to live with even the little knowledge I have about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge except by looking behind the screen, through fiction, through art, through poetry and, if necessary, through lies that will lead me away from the prison photograph. Away from the hospital bed.
Allan deSouza is a California-based multi-media artist engaged in decolonizing processes by restaging historical material through counter-strategies of fiction and (mis)translation. His works have been shown extensively in the US and internationally, including at SF Camerawork; the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; the International Center for Photography, NY; Pompidou Centre, Paris; Gwangju Biennale, Korea; Guangzhou Triennale, China. His current book-length projects include How Art Can Be Thought, an examination of art pedagogy and a lexicon of terms used within the art critique; and Ark of Martyrs, a rhyming “rewrite” and accompanying video installations of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. His writings have been published in various journals, anthologies, and catalogues, including Third Text, London, Art Practical and Shifter Journal, NY. He is represented by Talwar Gallery, NY and New Delhi, and is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art Practice at University of California, Berkeley.

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