Harry Tabak was a U.S. soldier the last time he was in Vietnam. When he returns there this November, it will be as artist-in-residence at the Muong Studio, just west of Hanoi.
Tabak’s mission this time is one of cultural exchange. Invited to Vietnam by the Indochina Arts Partnership, he’ll participate in a six-week artistic exploration. Working with Vietnamese artisans, musicians, choreographers and dancers, Tabak will create an art exhibit and a staged performance based on his sculptural work.
For the New Paltz-based artist, it will be an emotional return to a place that’s never really left him. “Vietnam was always a conflict for me,” says Tabak. “I was in art school when I was dragged out.” Drafted into the Army, he was permitted to choose a vocation on condition he enlist for an additional year. Trained as a communications repair specialist, Tabak was shipped off to locations all over Vietnam — “with my M16 in one hand and my toolbox in the other” — traveling on mined roads and shot at on gunships.
His time in Vietnam was “horrific,” he says. Haunted by his experiences, he carried the guilt home, and has lived with it since. “I survived because I was a technician. They sent me to all these sites to repair equipment, and I somehow made it through all the close calls. But through it all, I was always resentful. I didn’t want to be there. I felt that the war was wrong.”
Throughout history, oppressive governments don’t last, he says. “The people at some point decide what they want. They’ll go through what they need to, and I didn’t think we should be there to impose democracy with our military.”
Unlike today’s soldiers, Vietnam vets didn’t get much support from their communities when they came home. Tabak went back to his studies at the Art Students League in New York City, advocating successfully for vets to attend the school on the GI Bill. (Up to that point, the education benefits of the bill could only be applied to a degree-granting school.) He joined a group of Vietnam vet/artists, who held exhibits in New York City and demonstrated to raise awareness for veterans.
Tabak discovered New Paltz when he and his wife, artist and writer Nava Atlas, were searching for a place outside the city where they could work and live in a more peaceful environment. The fact that New Paltz was a college town drew them initially, and once they experienced the area they stayed. (In an interesting side note, Tabak was represented in the city by the Samuel Dorsky Galleries. Dorsky endowed the museum at SUNY-New Paltz after Tabak introduced him to the region.)
Tabak’s art became increasingly focused over the years on his “Vines” series. The twists and turns of tendrils in tiny sculptural works, evocative of movement and human relationships, inspired large metal works that took the emotions to a greater scale. “My fascination with vines over the years just kept growing,” he says. “I saw something quite spiritual in them. They’re reaching for light, for something to grasp onto. The narrative is human growth, and the tendrils that come out of the vine are searching, trying to find something.”
Observing what happened when the tendril forms interacted with each other — suggesting something akin to human conversation — Tabak began to experiment with projecting light onto the works, throwing shadowy images of vines against the wall. “I saw the opportunity to create something stage-like,” he says.
Tabak began exploring the concept of creating interactive staged works at artist residencies at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts and at Spread Art in Detroit, where he collaborated with dancers who moved interpretively through and around projections of his vines.
For the residency in Vietnam, Tabak will create a performance work with Vietnamese choreographers, dancers and musicians, culminating in a staged performance in the Hanoi area. Proceeds will benefit the local community and cultural programs.
Tabak also plans to transform small compositions based on his Vines series into large-scale sculptures made from bamboo abundant in that region. “There’s a dialogue and narrative within these works I’m looking to explore in the context of both the ethnic Muong culture and that of the contemporary Vietnamese,” he says. Some of the bamboo sculptures from the resulting exhibition may remain in Vietnam.
The residency there represents far more to him than just another art project, Tabak says. “All of those things that happened there are still with me, so the idea of going back and doing this project feels very healing. It’s an amazing opportunity for reconciliation and to give something back. It is both humbling and exciting to be able to return to Vietnam as an artist on a cultural exchange.”
His contacts in Vietnam have assured him that he’ll be welcome, and that even in Hanoi they want to move past the events of long ago. “I’m already optimistic, because I’ve talked to a number of the Vietnamese and met a few of them, and they’ve been so warm and welcoming.”
An important aspect of the project for Tabak is the ability to pay the Vietnamese artists for their work with him. To do so, he’s established an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds (the link is on his website at www.TabakArt.com). Proceeds will be used entirely for the Vietnam project. “If I can get the support, I want to pay everyone fairly and generously,” Tabak says. “I don’t want to go there with little resources and have them feel like they’re doing me a favor.”
It’s part of the reconciliation, he adds. “I’ve never asked for funding for myself, ever, even when I didn’t have any money,” he said. “It was never something I could do. So it’s a lot for me to be doing this, and people have been very supportive, very kind. Total strangers have reached out. And it’s not just like, ‘Here’s a few bucks, now leave me alone.’ They feel like they’re a part of this, like they’re joining me on this project. And that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Tabak is raising funds by holding an open studio and art sale this Saturday and Sunday, September 17 and 18 from noon to 4 p.m. at 509 Albany Post Road, just off Route 299. A silent auction will be part of the event.
The more he raises, Tabak says, the more he can distribute in Vietnam as part of the collaborative aspect of this project. “I just want to leave it all there,” he says.