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Immigrating Garden

An Interview with Tuan Mami.

  • Jun 15 2024
  • Eva Bentcheva
    is an art historian and curator. She holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, with a focus on transnational performance and conceptual art across Asia and Europe.

In the late afternoon of September 23, 2023, the inner courtyard of Dresden’s Japanese Palace was transformed by a unique German-Vietnamese gathering. Amidst simmering hotpots of finely cut vegetables and meats, personal stories were exchanged, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie. As night fell, the courtyard turned into a stage for a vibrant karaoke party, blending Vietnamese melodies with old German Schlager tunes, and mainstream pop. All this took place against the backdrop of the Japanese Palace’s Baroque, “chinoiserie” façade statues commissioned by August II the Strong, Elector of Saxony. The occasion was the launch of Hanoi-born artist Tuan Mami's “Vietnamese Immigrating Garden”.

This interview with Tuan Mami, conducted in December 2021, sheds light on the genesis of the “Vietnamese Immigrating Garden” project, originally known as the Immigrating Garden, and inspired by his observations of Vietnamese worker communities in Taiwan. Here, Tuan recounts his discovery of the widespread practice of discretely importing plants and herbs from Vietnam into Taiwan for personal use, despite Taiwan's strict regulations against such imports. By planting these flora outdoors in the city, the Vietnamese communities ensured their survival; the plants are often mistaken for weeds but remain accessible to their “owners”. Moreover, while often described as “Vietnamese”, many of these plants have their roots in other parts of the world, having been brought to Southeast Asia through processes including natural dispersion, colonialism, or trade.

The global history of these urban “gardens” was the inspiration for Tuan's Vietnamese Immigrating Garden No. 6, developed by the artist within the inner courtyard of the Japanese Palace during his fellowship at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen’s first Transcultural Academy session in 2023. Unlike the plethora of plants featured in the “Vietnamese Immigrating Garden’s iteration for documenta15 the previous year, the Dresden garden comprised only one specimen: a water celery plant (rau cần ta) which had survived in western Germany, and from which portions had been carefully collected and rehoused in Dresden for use by Saxony-based German-Vietnamese communities. Amidst the sound of traditional Vietnamese songs, the steam from hot-pots and riotous karaoke, the launch was both a celebration and an acknowledgement. In spite of the desire for museums to become spaces of inclusivity, minoritarian “cultures of survival” often require that many things remain hidden, unspoken, and for private use only. Not all is meant to be translated. Since the garden’s creation, this interview casts light on how artistic practice faces the challenge of navigating communities’ needs for visibility with the imperative of discretion.     


fig. 1


Eva Bentcheva: Mami, you have described your recent practice as moving away from “performance art” towards “performative installations” or “environments”. Could you explain what these terms mean for you? 

Tuan Mami: I have been doing “performance art” since the early days of my practice, such as in the series The Cover from 2007 through 2009 where I used condensed milk. On other occasions, I used the body and environment as materials in works like Lets it Grow Up-on (2010). I found the language and possibilities of performance art very open-ended and empowering for artists to explore different ways of thinking. 

A few years ago, I started to feel the need to push the limitations of this art form; especially after I began engaging with social issues and taking on a more research-based practice. I realized that there is scope to transform and develop performance art beyond its form and physical presentation. I have since been developing my art practice as  “performative installations”. For me, this art is defined by the creation of environments, platforms, or situations, rather than the representation of the body. It can include actions, objects, installations, and so on, but they all need to be involved in a performative-dialogic progress. In this structure, the artist and all participating elements/collaborators/visitors play certain roles and contribute to a journey of experimentation within a situation. This new orientation of my practice takes me away from seeing performance art as having separate parts, between the artist-audience-object-space. Instead, it brings them all together via sharing/creating the artwork.

EB: Thinking about this understanding of the “performative installation”, you also became increasingly interested in migration and human movement. What prompted this interest, and how have you developed it as a performative artistic research project? 

TM: Actually, my interest in migration and human movement goes as far back as 2011. I was invited to make a performance piece in South Korea after staying for an artist residency in the Nottle Hooyong Performing Arts Center. During my residency, I had researched Hooyong village, where all the inhabitants are now old people since the young moved to live and work in big cities. I became friends with the grandmas, and we would drink together every day outside their houses as a ritual of waiting and welcoming home people and family members after a long day’s work. But now, these same elderly are alone, and nobody goes home to them after work because they live far away. I invited these grandmas to make a work about their situation and this ritual. During the performative event, many tough and sad stories were told. I think the questions about human movement started growing in my mind since then.


fig. 2


EB: How have you continued to develop this via other performative projects, for example, those in Korea, Cambodia, the Czechia, and, most recently, Taiwan and Germany? 

The starting point for many of my works is research and observation. Each of my projects has its pattern adapted from reality and actual social issues. 

I first seek to learn about each community and society, then to develop my project around a special situation I have encountered during my study. For example, in my project Myth East Mist in Korea, I worked with people considered an almost invisible community - the mothers of Vietnamese brides who come to Korea through brokers to marry Korean men. Their mothers come to Korea with them to help raise the grandchildren and also have a chance to work and earn money which they then send back to their poor families in Vietnam. They mostly live alone and are isolated. My project is about creating a holiday for them and inviting them to come together and share their lives with us.

For another project, I found a Vietnamese community that has been based in Cambodia for generations, who have always lived on rivers at the edge of society and have often needed to camouflage themselves to blend into society to avoid all political conflicts. Based on their lived realities, I created a work in which Cambodians and members of the Vietnamese diaspora were invited to come to my exhibition and exchange their life stories alongside my art objects. After a while, all the stories and objects blended to tell us about life as a human being.

EB: It seems that the “pathways” of overseas communities have played an important role in your practice. How have such contacts with overseas communities shaped your approach to performativity? 

I consider learning, understanding and working with the social issues of immigrant and diasporic communities as a core part of my art practice. Somehow, for each work, the “subjects” who I am “researching” end up teaching me. They guide me on how to present their issues, and how to create a form, or format, for my project. Working with communities, especially with Vietnamese immigrants, is a very special experience. People from different communities have very different behaviors. To develop an artwork, I have to live and learn about their lives. From the very beginning, it is already such a performative process and a part of my work. 

EB: Your current ongoing project Immigrating Garden deals with the Vietnamese communities and diasporas in Taiwan. Yet, in contrast to your previous projects in which people are represented, this work tells of their lives via the histories of illegally imported plants into Taiwan. How did this project evolve? 

TM: Over months of research, I had the chance to meet many Vietnamese people living in Taiwan, from refugees during the Vietnam-China War to people who came to Taiwan as Vietnamese brides, imported laborers, students etc., and many of them living there still missed their homeland, especially the smells and foods from Vietnamese vegetables and herbs. Many had gone to great lengths to collect Vietnamese plants and grow them on the small rooftops of their houses, the balconies of school dormitories, the back sides of the factories where they worked, or even on random empty small plots of land on sides of streets, but, it proved difficult to make even that little wish come true. Not only did many of these people work very hard every day, but their little informal “Vietnamese gardens” faced the added challenge that it was - and still is - illegal to bring seeds, plants, or even fruits onto the island of Taiwan. One time, I visited Mrs. Dung who lives in the countryside and who has a big garden with all kinds of Vietnamese plants. She said, “Sometimes when I have headaches, a sore throat, or a stomachache, I just go to my garden to pick some herbs to use as my mom and grandparents taught me since I was young. Also, it is very helpful to cook something home-like from your motherland’s vegetables when you feel homesick or miss your family.” This inspired me deeply.  Immigrating Garden” is a performative installation based on the story of Mrs. Dung’s garden. She immigrated to Taiwan from the northern part of Vietnam 20 years ago to work as a laborer in a factory. Since then, Dung’s mother and father have come to Taiwan frequently to visit their daughter, each time secretly-illegally bringing seeds or small trees to make a garden for her. The idea is that Dung can use Vietnamese plants for traditional medical treatments or cooking, have familiar tastes and smells around her, and also see her hometown’s garden view and feel less nostalgia. My project is built upon Mrs. Dung’s idea of a garden, as well as from other stories and resources from many Vietnamese people living in Taiwan. The garden as a performative installation is a reflection of deeper political issues around migration which have shaped our minds and culture, and symbols of how our mentality is related to our memory and daily life. This work is still in progress, but ultimately I wish to build a garden as a “library” of Vietnamese seeds, plants and immigrated stores to share with people.

EB: Thinking about this garden as a “performative installation”, how are visitors in Taiwan and beyond, particularly members of the Vietnamese community, meant to interact with it? 

The garden is meant to be built using “immigrated” resources which already include many actions and stories that aren’t necessarily visible (e.g. illegal transportation, planting in secrecy, etc.), but which are imprinted on the plants themselves. The garden is meant also to be built with a lot of help from Vietnamese people living in Taiwan. Once complete, it will turn into a social platform for interactions, exchanges, and working together to shape and maintain the garden. General visitors and key figures who contributed to its making will sometimes gather together to learn and share Vietnamese plants, immigrant stories, cooking, eating together, and so on. This for me is the true value of making a “performative installation” as a living practice.



This interview was originally published in a special issue, Pathways of Performativity in Contemporary Art of Southeast Asia”, co-edited by Eva Bentcheva, Annie Jael Kwan, and Roger Nelson, of the Journal Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, Volume 6, Number 1, March 2022, pp. 223-229. It is reproduced here in an edited version with the generous permission of the journal and the artist.  

Available open access:



    Tuan Mami lives and works in Hanoi. Mami is an interdis- ciplinary-experimental artist, working with site-specif- ic installation, video, performance, and conceptual art, who constantly explores new media, means, and meth- ods of evolution using reflective questioning and social research.



    Cover, fig. 1, fig. 2: Tuan Mami, Immigrating Garden (Dresden Iteration), 2023. © and courtesy of the artist. 



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