Saigon's renaissance man

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A 25-year-old American artist and university lecturer looks to serve as a "span" in the cultural bridge between Vietnam and the US


Alec Schachner, a 25-year-old American artist and university lecturer, prepares for his art installation performance Ong Tay va chiec guong (The foreigner and the mirror) in Ho Chi Minh City last month

He has a good command of Vietnamese and is willing to eat and drink with his friends on the street, just like any local.

But, more than adapting to the country's daily rhythm, Alec Schachner has spent time exploring the country as a scholar and an artist.

Before he came to Vietnam as a tourist in 2008, Schachner studied Vietnamese as a student at Columbia University in New York City.

After coming to Vietnam, the anthropology and literature graduate became enthralled with Vietnam. He began taking more Vietnamese classes so he could delve into the country intellectually.

Vietnamese literature quickly grew on him. He continues to read the works of Xuan Dieu, one of Vietnam's most famed poets, and studies Sino-Vietnamese to learn more about the works of Nguyen Du, who is most famous for his epic poem Truyen Kieu (Tale of Kieu).

After a year of studying, Schachner was invited to teach American literature at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. He teaches the subject in Vietnamese, and sometimes draws comparisons between American and Vietnamese texts to highlight a text's important points.

His knowledge of Vietnamese culture and literature later gained the attention of Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, a well-known writer, director, playwright and actress who has staged some of her works in the US. Ngoc invited Schachner to edit a couple of manuscripts like Chung toi la (We are) and Nguoi dan ba that lac (The lost woman) "” which are going to be published in the US.

"I have met with many foreigners, but I have never known anyone who is good at Vietnamese and understands Vietnamese culture as well as Alec," Ngoc said.

"He can analyze many Vietnamese poems that even native speakers can't understand. That's why I invited him to edit my works."

Besides working as a literature teacher, Schachner is also well-known among Vietnamese artists for his role in a number of unique and powerful performance art pieces.

In 2009 he directed the last act of Hamlet and staged it right at Le Van Tam Park in District 1. The actors were all overseas Vietnamese and expats who were studying and living in Vietnam.

This July 24, he held an art installation performance in HCMC where he appeared, totally naked, in front of a series of mirrors alongside a female artist.

Schachner said the performance, entitled Ong Tay va chiec guong (The foreigner and the mirror), was inspired by common misconceptions about foreigners.

"People usually estimate things based on their experiences, for example many Vietnamese think that I'm a back-packer, even though I'm teaching at a university.

"The mirror is the reflection of people's thoughts and feelings. And the nakedness signifies the complete exposure of my true self," he said.

Ngo Luc helped bring body painting to Vietnam and collaborated with Schachner in the above-mentioned performance.

 "Alec always has lots of ideas which are smart and unique with the style of a street performer," he said. "Although he's just 25 years old, Alec has a deep knowledge of the arts. He's really versatile an actor, a stage director and also a performance artist."

Schachner, for his part, never seems to run out of ideas for new projects.

He is currently casting actors and actresses to perform in a play adapted from the famous French work Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding) by Albert Camus. He hopes that the performance will be staged at a well-known theater. But even if that doesn't work out, he's just as happy to stage another performance in a public park, Schachner said.

The lecturer is also planning an interactive installation where he will invite the audience to expose their "craziness" by smashing things and screaming as they like. The resulting sounds will be recorded, creating something unique.

But it would also provide a unique and cathartic experience to the community "” which he considers the essence of art.

"In many cases, art is an escape, helping people to overcome daily pressures," he said.

"Given everything I have done and am going to do in Vietnam, I'm not only out to satisfy my own passions. I'd be very happy and honored if someone called me a span of the cultural bridge between Vietnam and the US."

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