At a Hanoi Prison Museum, a History Too Painful to Aestheticize
HANOI, Vietnam — The “Hanoi Hilton” is the sarcastic nickname bestowed by US prisoners of war on the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, formerly North Vietnam. Most Americans know the prison as the place where wounded prisoner of war (POW), Senator, and one-time presidential candidate John McCain was imprisoned for five years during the Vietnam War. Originally built by French colonialists in 1896 to house recalcitrant and revolutionary Vietnamese rebelling against their foreign rulers and named ‘Maison Centrale,’ the prison was built with stone walls 13 feet high and two feet thick. Its fearsome iron doors and locks were specially constructed in France and shipped to Hanoi. Most of Hoa Lo was razed in the 1990s to make way for shopping malls and apartment buildings, but a small section remains, and has been converted into a museum.
The purpose of the museum is ostensibly to show the revolutionary Vietnamese heroes’ struggle against brutal colonial repression, but the space is much more than a monument to political conflict. It is a reminder of utter, complete, and devastating misery, and how draconian discipline and punishment — no matter the regime inflicting it or who the prisoners are — is an affront to and directly contradicts basic human rights. The means of punishment employed at Hao Lo were rope bindings — including hanging from a hook with legs bound to feet — feet chained in irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, as an installation, is working on a level similar to Laurie Anderson’s recent show Habeas Corpus at the Park Avenue Armory (minus the telepresence) and S.A.C.R.E.D., Ai Weiwei’s series of sculptures about his detention by the Chinese authorities. Ai was not the first to use maquettes and prison dioramas — Hoa La is full of them.
There are actual pictures of the prison and the way the museum is recreating the conditions the prisoners were in through exhibits with a number of pictures.
This looks like an art website, apologies if anything is at the website that is offensive, this story looks fairly straight-forward.