Tommy Kha’s “Ghost Bites” Leaves Deep Impressions

By Jacinda Tran
March 13, 2023

In Vietnamese, ma cắn (ghost bites) describe the undetected injuries sustained in the night–such as bruises or cuts while sleeping–that leave an impression on living flesh. It’s the perfect analog for Tommy Kha’s current photographic exhibition, which grapples with the mystique of wounds wrought by displacement, difference, and distance. Now on view at Baxter Street at the Camera Club of NY through March 22nd, “Ghost Bites” tightropes between spirit and corporal realms, revealing an array of hauntings that gnaw at surface, skin, and psyche. Kha’s broader use of the photographic image to draw attention to the unseen heralds the launch of the artist’s first monograph, Tommy Kha: Half, Full, Quarter (Aperture 2023).

Framing a sense of connection amidst dislocation, Kha’s “Stations” (2012-23) series of 54 small prints form a line of latitude across the gallery’s three main walls, bridging nine large-scale prints and vinyls. The photographs from “Stations” depict altar spaces adorned with flowers and often bearing fruit as an offering to honor different religious deities – such as Buddha or the Goddess of Mercy – illuminated by joss sticks and/or scarlet bulbs. Most importantly, the altars provide a portal to the ancestral world. Suspended in the past-tense of the photograph, these stations, ranging between the artist’s homes of Tennessee and New York, capture the overlapping temporalities and spaces explored throughout Kha’s practice.

“Ghost Bites” maps the psycho-geography of a fractured self; of all the losses, phantoms, and questions that emerge from diasporic lineage. In the 36” x 45” print, Quarter Self-Portrait (Gran Sleeping), Arlington, TN (2019), Kha traces one-fourth of his heredity from a grandparent napping under a graphic fleece blanket, atop mismatched floral sheets. Behind her hangs a series of four lacquered wall plaques in-laid with iridescent nacre. To the left are four red paper decorations, each donning a different four-character idiom expressing four different wishes. As if plucked from a family album, four 4” x 6” prints peak from behind and along the edges of Quarter Self-Portrait’s frame; unnamed and unidentified snapshots of (and perhaps from) Kha’s matriarch in another time.

On the opposite wall, a large vinyl print of New China (New Lin’s Chinese), Memphis, TN (2019) extends across an angled surface, partially backgrounding a framed print of Lotus (Family Style, No 1), Summer Avenue, Memphis (2019). The two photographs of Asian eateries’ indoor and outdoor façades highlight the established familiarity that flecks vernacular landscapes across the US. In New China (2019), red and gold 福 diamonds share a wall with at least 16 Big Mouth Billy Bass animatronics lined up below a monumental light-up vista reminiscent of a scenic painting. Tucked into its frame, two personal family snapshots remain almost undetected, eclipsed by the humor and scale of juxtaposition.

Compositions like these encapsulate Kha’s work of photographic translation. On the floor of the gallery, Article (2022) features a fleece collage of photographed items near and far: 菊花茶, Café du Monde coffee, durians, a horseshoe crab, a jar of Bonne Maman, Longevity Brand condensed milk, a tin of Royal Dansk Danish butter cookies, etc. Though the flattened objects have been reimaged and reproduced at varied scales, the visual picnic brims with dimensionality as yet another altar to the scents, tastes, and haptics of recognition and remembrance.

While exploring the refraction of the self through assorted faces, places, and objects, “Ghost Bites” offers the souvenirs of a broader racial/cultural landscape. Through the hinges, transits, and intersections of Tommy Kha’s layered topographies, the intimacy and ephemerality of (shared) memory feels palpable yet out of reach, just below the surface. Much like the three Foundation (2023) bubblegrams in the corner, these qualities can’t be photographed; their figures are only revealed through darkness and shadow.

In Kha’s monograph is a beautifully succinct quote by scholar/writer Thy Phu: “Photographs show and tell. But sometimes the heart of the story lies in what remains untold.” The ghost bites of these untold stories leave a deep impression but cannot be fully captured, seen, or reproduced.

–Jacinda Tran is a writer, researcher, and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY (Lenapehoking). She is currently finishing her PhD in American Studies at Yale University, and working towards her first book project titled “Search and Destroy: Southeast Asia/ns through the Lens of US Visual Warfare.”

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