Above: Queer-Vitruvian (2019)Vinhay Keo, Dye sublimation on aluminum.


Dancing in Darkness


Review
Kevin Warth


In Dancing in Darkness, Vinhay Keo’s second solo exhibition at Moremen Gallery, the artist depicts himself in voids while enraptured in dance. Keo has rigorously explored intergenerational trauma relating to the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge over the past year, but these newer photographs endeavor to instill joy and pleasure in his practice. This is not to say that the artist has discarded the past; these legacies now lurk at the edges of the composition, manifesting in literal and figurative darkness. Music, dance, and celebration are ways to leave behind our struggles, at least momentarily. Keo reaches a moment of clarity not through discarding his trauma, but through experiencing joy despite it.

Colored lights illuminate Keo as he moves, cloaking his body in primary colors that are reminiscent of nightclub ambiance. The artist utilizes long-exposure photography to capture his performance which results in ethereal, intangible imagery. In works like Chiaro-Obscura (2019), this effect is pushed to extremity; the artist’s features and limbs are nearly indiscernible and dissolve into lines of movement that dance across the composition. Body Collage/Collapse (2019) seems to depict multiple people locked in an embrace but is actually the artist’s figure layered and superimposed. For Keo, this bodily intimacy is indicative of pleasure as well as tragedy; after creating this image, he could not escape associations with piles of bodies, specifically recalling both the Pulse nightclub shooting and the Khmer Rouge genocide. The varied associations within these works illustrates the artist’s perspective as someone who is both queer and an immigrant. When embracing ambiguity, Keo is at his most successful.

By printing on metal, Keo imbues his work with an ethereal quality that would be absent in more traditional techniques. The photographs in Dancing in Darkness are produced through a transfer process called dye sublimation in which the image is reproduced on a hard material, in this case aluminum. The reflective nature of the aluminum causes the viewer’s silhouette to appear in the composition as if shadowy figures in the back of a club are bearing witness to the artist’s performance. This indeterminacy mirrors the blurred, ghostly nature of the figures, expanding the viewers’ role and the way we engage with the images.

The black void Keo depicts himself in initially seems outside of time and space. Time, however, is at the forefront of his photographs as they coalesce intergenerational trauma (past), a world of pleasure and acceptance that can be fleetingly accessed through dance (future), and the negotiation of these two (present). Keo’s temporal dialogue draws parallels with ideas that José Esteban Muñoz outlines in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. The author propounds that queerness is always on the horizon, a utopian ideal that we may never fully reach but must always strive for. Expanding on the interconnectedness of the past and future, Muñoz writes, “In Heidigger’s version of historicity, historical existence in the past allowed for subjects to act with a mind toward ‘future possibilities.’ Thus, futurity becomes history’s dominant principle. In a similar fashion I think of queerness as a temporal arrangement in which the past is a field of possibility in which subjects can act in the present in service of a new futurity.” In a similar vein, Keo allows historical residue to seep into images that are otherwise forward-looking; to fully progress, we must address the nature of our past, even—and especially—when it is difficult.

While the dancefloor of a gay club may seem utopian in concept, the artist’s brown body ruptures a predominantly white space. In a 2017 Vice article titled “Gay Bars Can be Mind-Boggingly Racist,” Mikelle Street reported on a number of racist incidents in gay bars, such as bouncers not allowing black patrons in and club owners telling graphic designers to use only white men on their promotional material. At many clubs across the country, go-go boys, strippers, and other performers are predominantly white and, when a person of color is visible in such a role, their race is often exoticized or fetishized. Early on in the creative process, Keo asked himself, “What does it mean for the marginalized body to dance?” The act may initially seem mundane, but it has the potential to be revolutionary.

Dancing in Darkness is a refreshing addition to the Louisville Photo Biennial amid highly traditional offerings—street photography, landscapes, photojournalism, et cetera. To further consider the context of the Biennial, it is hard to ignore the tension between Keo’s work and an exhibition at the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives titled Living the Cambodian Nightmare. The latter consists of images taken by Jay Mather, a former Courier-Journal photographer, of Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge. While the two bodies of work have highly different intentions, they are currently displayed to the same audience. The comparison raises a number of complicated questions about photography and power. Who is telling the story? Who do these images serve? How do we discuss painful topics? Keo offers one way of engaging with trauma, through a lens that is both forward and backward-looking.

Even though night clubs are associated with frivolity and excess, they have long been a space for queer people to come together and take part in the simple ritual of dance. As Keo demonstrates throughout Dancing in Darkness, however, these acts can be transformative. To allow pleasure to take over is to temporarily escape our past trauma and present vulnerability. The dance, of course, has to end at some point and the residue of history can never be scrubbed away. Rather than attempting this, Keo dances in—and despite—the darkness. He forges a space where we can acknowledge trauma, racism, and power dynamics while also charging boldly forward into a better tomorrow. At the boundaries of past and present, death and euphoria, and stillness and movement, Keo creates something that is deeply resonant.

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Notes

Kevin Warth
Managing Editor, Contributor
10.22.19

La Petite Mort (2019), Vinhay Keo, Dye sublimation on aluminum.


Robam Kbach Boran (2019), Vinhay Keo, Dye sublimation on aluminum.


Sampot Chang Kbem (2019), Vinhay Keo, Dye sublimation on aluminum.


Body Collage/Collapse (2019), Vinhay Keo, Dye sublimation on aluminum.


Chiaro-Obscura (2019), Vinhay Keo, Dye sublimation on aluminum.