Vietnamese artists offer alternative views of colonisation and history in an exhibition in France.
Carré d’Art in Nîmes, France, is holding an exhibition of eight Vietnamese contemporary artists who present alternative views of colonisation, altering assumptions of history. The show challenges the relationship between Vietnam and the global stage.
Carré d’Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Nîmes, launched “Residual: Disrupted Choreographies” on 21 February 2014. Running until 27 April 2014, the show is co-curated by Jean-Marc Prévost, Director of Carré d’Art, and Zoe Butt, Executive Director and Curator of San Art in Ho Chi Minh City, as part of ‘The Year of Vietnam in France’ celebrating 40 years of diplomatic relations between France and Vietnam. The exhibition illustrates how Vietnam’s artistic community criticises the historical consciousness primarily associated with its country, such as the guilt of war, the tourist getaway, the nostalgic colony. The eight Vietnamese contemporary artists on show present artworks that challenge the existing assumptions about Vietnamese history, colonisation and the country’s relationship to the world.
Vietnam as symbol and stereotype?
“Vietnam is a nation, but also it is a memory, a symbolic landscape,” say the curators. Vietnam has been stereotyped for a long time, to ease the guilt of war. Vietnam’s conflict, locally addressed as the “American war”, has appeared in movies and televised media more than any other in the twentieth century. In Vietnam’s complicated and contradictory social landscape, residues of colonialism are still evident in the urban environment where preservation, subsistence and destruction co-exist. On the other hand, Vietnam is also undergoing a rapid modernisation and economic development.
In a social and cultural environment in constant mutation and negotiation between the past, the present and the future, the artists present narratives that highlight the effects of such movement. The artists offer alternative views of colonisation and reassess ideas of collective behaviour, systems of class and the crumbling of ideological thought. As the curators state in the press release,
The artists in this exhibition are a motley crew of visual archivists and excavators. Their research and juxtaposition of historical events and social phenomena, relevant to the contexts they conceptually and physically live and traverse, triggers a nomadic approach to visualising fact and fiction. Their dance in the residual space of failing ideologies, post-industrialised communities, heterotopias and the ramification of representation are careful artistic choreographies that they understand are ever in repeat. The relation engaged by these artists disrupts and alters assumptions of History, their narratives highlighting the affect of movement as it is historically, conceptually and physically enacted and conceived.
The artists represent movement from four different and yet complementary perspectives. These movements – whether habitual, displaced, absent or casual – are transformed into deliberate artistic methodologies that, according to the press release, “question the impact and assumed structures of social control, such as the archive, entertainment, ethnography, psychology, monumentality and behavioral science.” In their investigative process, the artists study the residual fragments of memory that have become almost intangible and invisible in contemporary life.
The youngest artists on show, Lena Bui (b. 1985) and Nguyen Huy An (b. 1982), represent movement as habitual, as exemplified by the study of social behaviour or the collective as a strategy of survival. Lena Bui is concerned with the discrepancies that exist in differing realities, studying customs, myths, science and how human behaviour is shaped. Through her comparative studies, she challenges the viewer with residual elements from mutations and movements, as well as elements that are forever lost in the process. Nguyen Huy An’s practice revolves around his personal emotions, and issues of memory and isolation. His work often digs into the dark recesses of psychology and the origins of pessimistic thought, with an obsession with memory and the complexities of its repercussions.
Dinh Q. Le (b. 1968) and Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba (b. 1968) are two of the most influential contemporary Vietnamese artists. Both widely exhibited in museums and institutions around the globe, here they represent movement as displaced, such as the asylum seeker, the catalogued document, the spiritually disillusioned. Dinh Q. Le’s Barricade (2014) was created in collaboration with Hame (French-Algerian rapper Mohamed Bourokba). A mass of French-Vietnamese colonial furniture forms a barricade that divides the exhibition room in two parts, creating a visual and physical obstacle between the two. The barricade hides speakers that produce the sound of Hame’s rapping and revolutionary propaganda. References to war, a common enemy and the thirst for an era of freedom come to mind.
Erasure, commissioned by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), Sydney in 2011 is an interactive multimedia installation with a video of a burning sail boat, a ‘sea’ of collected black and white photographs of Vietnamese people, wooden boat fragments and a web archive.
The artist makes references to various degrees of migration, from the Europeans (the burning beached boat) who colonised Australia, to Vietnam’s boat people and his own personal experience of diaspora in the found photographs and the boat wreck. It is also significant to note that the commission happened at a time when Australia was re-evaluating its relationship to boat people from Vietnam.
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba deals with socio-cultural changes triggered by globalisation. For the show, he presented The Ground, the Root, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree (2004-2007). The video is a poetic depiction of how the modern, globalised and the traditional co-exist simultaneously in Laos. The video was produced with the collaboration of 50 students from the Luang Prabang School of Fine Arts. There is an exchange and a negotiation between tradition and modernity and a reference to the impermanence of things. The artist says about the journey portrayed in the video:
As locations and moments are left behind by the flow of the river, so will this symbol of Buddhism gradually fade away from the view of the painters, leaving them with some measure of doubt about the journey they have started.
Nguyen Thai Tuan (b. 1965) and Nguyen Trinh Thi (b. 1973) both represent movement as absent, as in the symbolic marking of what once stood or took place. Nguyen Thai Tuan’s paintings, significantly, always portray headless people. Negotiating the symmetry between fullness and absence in space and time, the artist creates a world that is suspended between the past and the present.
In his series Heritage (2011-2013), he juxtaposes Vietnamese historical sites and antique objects with the complex realm of memory and the political structure of society. Almost like phantoms with lost identities, the figures in his paintings surround themselves with things past that might restore a memory of themselves.
Nguyen Trinh Thi is an independent filmmaker and video artist and is the founder and director of DOCLAB, an independent centre for documentary film and video art in Hanoi. Her practice examines the position and role of artists in Vietnamese society today and explores memory in order to unveil hidden, displaced or misinterpreted histories. This is exemplified by her 2013 work Landscape Series #1, where the artist is interested in “the idea of landscapes as quiet witnesses to history.” Snapshots of people in landscapes pointing to something in the distance – a place, an object, an intangible event or evidence of it – are projected as a slideshow. The artist says about the work:
Together these anonymous witnesses, portrayed in compelling uniformity by innumerable Vietnamese press photographers, seem to be indicating a direction, a way forward out of the past, a fictional journey.
In Chronicle of a Tape Recorded Over (2007), she used the ‘exquisite corpse’, a method by which a collection of stories and images is collectively assembled, in which each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence. Here, she began her journey over the Vietnam War’s notorious Ho Chi Minh Trail. Tens of thousands of people died along the trail during the war due to the heavy bombardments by the American army. Along these roads, the filmmaker asks local villagers to contribute their tales while the camera observes their present-day life, merging past with present and reality with fiction.
The Propeller Group (TPG) (founded 2006) and Tiffany Chung (b. 1969) both represent the casuality of movement, in its repercussion, spin-off or consequence. TPG’s Monumental Bling (2014) is a version of their 2013 work of the same name. A large Lenin head attached to a long golden chain lies on its side on a pedestal, a symbol of the most potent Communist leader of the twentieth century and the most monumentalised individual in history (according to TPG).
The work in its original form proposed to acquire real Lenin statue heads, such as the one removed in Berlin in 1991, gold plate it and re-unite it with another Lenin, the 27-metre-tall statue in Volgograd, Russia. The work explores the border between identity and ornamentation, the portrayal of power throughout history and the malleability of personality in the public sphere.
Tiffany Chung’s practice blurs the boundaries between art, anthropology and sociology. She is interested in exploring the history of countries that, like Vietnam, were traumatised by conflict and have experienced rapid growth, by examining the past and foreseeing the future consequences. Chung says about her practice:
My study of urban progress and transformation in relation to history and cultural memories examines the shifts in the geographical landscape of different places, their growth and decline due to conflict, migration, deindustrialisation, natural disaster, extreme climate impact and human destruction. Through the exploration of the porous contours of pyschogeographies, my work interweaves specific historical events with spatial and sociopolitical changes to reflect the multi-layered relationship between site, map and memory.
Based on interviews, participant observation, anthologies and her own fictional writings, the essay film when the sun comes out the night vanishes (2014) blends documentary and fiction and is drawn from her research on the complexity of urban progress and population aging in post-industrial societies. Transgressing time and space, the film examines the transformation processes of small industrial towns and coalmine villages in Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture and their steady decline due to deindustrialisation and demographic changes.
In her performance video well-side gatherings: rice stories, the rioters, the speakers, and the voyeurs (2011), Chung examines ‘politics of the people’ through Kome Sodo, or the ‘rice riots’ during the Taisho Democracy period in Japan. The artist reflects on the social and ideological transformations in early modern Japan. At the same time, by using bricks as props, Chung subtly interweaves the conditions of Vietnam during its ‘black hole’ or ‘subsidy’ period (1975-1986). Bricks were used in Vietnam to mark people’s place while queuing all day for rationed foods and essential goods, as well as signals for ‘blackmarket gasoline’ with a funnel on top.
Another of her videos on show, recipes of necessity (2014, single channel HD video, colour, sound, 33 min) collects collective memories of people who experienced shortage and rationing during Vietnam’s subsidy period (1975-1986). The video delves into people’s suppressed memories of hardship and endurance beyond food deficit to reflect on the economic deprivation and strenuous sociopolitical conditions during this period in Vietnam’s history. Tiffany Chung’s works give a glimpse into an imagined and yet realistic future in the aftermath of colonisation and modernisation.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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