Tightly secured with blue seat belts, cardboard boxes the size of file cabinets are strapped into two vintage airplane seats. But there isn’t a flight scheduled, and the airport is miles away.
The seats are part of an art installation by Van Hai, who was airlifted out of Vietnam as part of “Operation Babylift,” a controversial program in the final days of the Vietnam War to take away kids orphaned by the war or sent off by their parents.
The first plane out malfunctioned and crash-landed, killing 138 people, 78 of them children; Hai was on the second flight, eventually winding up with a family in Switzerland.
Forty-five years later, the artist is still contemplating his story of forced migration and exile. His short film “Left” — documenting his return to Southeast Asia with his Laotian-born wife and their children — is screening in a skyway above the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul.
Hai’s installation is part of “1.5: A Southeast Asian Diaspora Remix,” an exhibition on view through January in the M’s street-facing windows, exterior and skyways. It showcases work by more than 10 artists, most of them from “generation 1.5,” meaning they were born in Southeast Asia during the decades of conflict there, and came to America before age 12.
The exhibit was supposed to open inside the museum, but the M does not expect to reopen until June.
Converting its windows into galleries offered a chance to “maximize viewing opportunities,” said museum curator Laura Joseph. “The show has a very important message to share, and the M is so integrated into the fabric of downtown St. Paul.”
A ‘growing renaissance’
The exhibit was curated by Chanida Phaengdara Potter, who is executive director of the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that offers workshops and tools for Khmer, Hmong, Lao and Viet diaspora communities.
She wanted the show to coincide with this year’s 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
“We wanted to put this exhibition in a more public-facing space and help people see that this is about more than just war and trauma,” said the curator, who was born in Laos in 1984 and came to Minnesota in 1987. “It’s a commentary about American imperialism and the resilience of our Southeast Asian communities.
“We have a growing renaissance of Southeast Asian curators and artists who are redefining and reshaping what it means to be Hmong, Lao, Khmer and Vietnamese.”
Phaengdara Potter’s own installation “Fermented Feelings” mixes Laotian and American cultural markers. A shelf with jars of fermented fish stands in front of a TV playing “Rambo” on a loop in the windows facing Robert Street. The piece is a nostalgic tribute to her mother, who worked several jobs and cooked for the family late at night.
In another window, Laos-born, Chicago-based artist Chantala Kommanivanh presents an immigrant twist on “American Gothic” — his dad wears fatigues while his mom is dressed in traditional Lao attire. The background is their lush garden and single-family home in Chicago.
Kommanivanh’s family fled to the United States as refugees because of the Secret War in Laos from 1964-1973; the U.S. government supported the Royal Lao government and opposed the communist movement.
“My dad fought in the Royal Army in Laos. He was trained by American military to fix planes,” said Kommanivanh. “He considers himself a Vietnam vet, but the United States doesn’t, even though he fought alongside Americans in Laos.”
Evoking a sense of nostalgia
Artist/filmmaker Kat Eng’s large photographs of plants and people take over the museum’s wall on 4th Street. A mixed second-generation Khmer artist and filmmaker, Eng is not technically part of the 1.5 generation, but her artwork is inspired by the Southeast Asian diaspora.
In a series of photos she made over the pandemic summer, she captures a sense of nostalgia specific to Southeast Asian immigrants who grew up here in the 1980s and 1990s.
She photographs her father wading through a marsh in Minnesota’s driftless region rife with lotus plants — a landscape that ironically resembles Cambodia. Eng’s father was forcibly removed from his home by the Khmer Rouge regime, losing everyone in his family; he came to Minnesota by himself in 1980.
Other photos show her friend Narate Judie Keys, a poet and artist of the 1.5 generation, peacefully basking in a marshy area near Lake Hiawatha.
“A lot of Cambodian survivors of the genocide became alienated from nature,” said Eng. “During the war, the Khmer Rouge came in and emptied entire cities, and forced people to work in rural labor camps, surrounded by jungles filled with land mines. So being outside in wild places can carry associations with really heavy trauma.”
Eng originally planned to exhibit her film “Ko,” the first-ever kway teav, or “Cambodian rice noodle western,” about a refugee searching for home in rural Minnesota. But the pandemic canceled production, just like it moved the “1.5” exhibition into the museum’s windows.
“None of us are going to leave 2020 unchanged,” she said.