No skin off our teeth?

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Her work often pushes the limits of her body, exploring issues of personal privacy, and female identity. Through her actions in front of an audience, she is developing her own language to cross the barriers of social prejudice and pressure."

Ha's work never fails to shock and discomfit the audience, forcing them to move beyond social norms that most of our daily lives are bound by. She forces people to rethink and re-imagine, and by that yardstick, her work is effective, if controversial, in a society where social taboos abound. 

In her latest performance, Ha went several notches up on the shock factor.

Introducing a basin filled with dried pig skins, the 35-year-old artist deliberately and repetitively ironed each of the pieces. Then, she squeezed them and put them on her bare face, arms and legs. Fumes rose as Ha then ironed the pig skins that covered her flesh, fusing them to her skin. Then, not distracted by screams from the audience, some of whom covered their eyes with their hands, she peeled the scalded skin off. She calmly repeated the routine and ended the show with a modest bow to the viewers. The performance lasted nearly an hour.

Predictably, online forums were soon abuzz with comments on her work. There was some praise, some attempts to understand, several dismissals and outright denunciations.

While recording the performance was not allowed, some photos were taken and leaked, bringing a wider audience into the debate.

"I think she wants to show the similarity in the preciousness of life of animals and humans. Pigs are also scared when we slaughter them. Every living creature has emotions. Ha did nothing much, but I think she's talking about the importance of life. Her collecting and wrapping the bits of skins reminds us to respect every creature born," said a blogger nicknamed trieulong0902.

Dong Ha, editor with a film company, said that this type of art is for oddballs with weird tastes, not for the majority.

Dao Anh Khanh, a renowned installation and performance artist, told Dat Viet newspaper that Ha's show, which can be seen as self-mutilation, was not the first in Vietnam.

"This kind of performance usually includes violence to highlight the act and shock the audience. I was also frightened when watching Le Ngoc Thanh and Le Duc Hai, experimental artists, piercing their ears with needles and sewing their noses. I observe, but do not intend to participate in these kinds of performances. It is true that just the artists suffer [as a result of the performances], but I do not encourage it."

Installation artist and painter Ngo Luc told Thanh Nien only Ha can explain her shocking performances. He pointed to more terrifying shows like the ones by Chris Burden, an American performance artist who nailed himself to the back of a Volkswagen in 1974 and, in another, got his assistant to shoot him in the arm.

Vietnamese artist Rich Tran also used a razor to carve his head, resulting in blood flowing down his face, Luc said, adding, "We should not call Ha's show or similar shows a form of self-mutilation, because there is no rule for standard for agony or pain. The artists have breaking ideas, and they want to express them.

"Even death is nothing to fear. The most important thing to contemplate is whether we should hurt ourselves or not. The defining feature of post-modern art is to help viewers to think freely. The experience of the artist creates meaning in their work. It is also dependent on the artist's confidence, to help them pursue their target and face harsh criticism. If you really want to do it, just do it," he said.

For himself, Luc said he did not get the message that Ha was trying to convey with her performance.

"I was neither scared nor impressed. Maybe we have to meet Ha and get her explanation."

Ha has not yet made any public comment about her act.

Rumors say that she is worried that her presentation will cause trouble for the Nha San Studio for causing a public stir.

The Phap Luat (Law) newspaper commented in an article that Ha's performance will affect the audience members' thoughts and actions. Intentionally or otherwise, Ha's performance  can exacerbate the tendency to inflict self-harm that affect those struggling with depression, it said.

Ha herself has said that her work is about removing her own inhibitions as much as anything else.

In comments to a newspaper about her previous performance, Ha explained that the act of taking all her clothes off set her free from a complex about own body. In an act called "Fly Away," she removed all her clothes, poured glue on herself and covered herself with feathers. Then, after miming flying motions, she released a live bird from her mouth.

Three years ago, she baked penis-shaped bread and invited the audience to eat them, and took photographs of people holding the bread.

She explained on a website (original in English): "In Vietnam if you mention a man or woman's private parts, it is considered blasphemous. When a sexual issue is raised, most native Vietnamese are embarrassed. To them private parts are regarded as dirty and ugly, and sex is considered shameful. Vietnamese women are perhaps those who suffer the most when it comes to sex. They are not in an active position. They have to wait and keep silent. They cannot shout out loud when having sex. Women are expected to be submissive and to preserve their virginity until marriage.

"Speaking out against what is traditionally expected of me as a woman, I have chosen to use the penis as a powerful symbol for what is considered taboo in Vietnamese society. I have created a series of penis as loaves of bread that will hopefully inspire viewers to consider these issues."

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