As an artist and an activist, Ho Chi Minh City-based artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen comments on the global crisis, moving from the tainted relationship between humans and animals.
The artist’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong explores themes of animal extinction, mythology, political context and cultural beliefs at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong.
The multimedia exhibition “My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires” provides the Hong Kong audience with an unusual yet culturally familiar perspective to explore politics, economics, culture and humanity in general through the lens of animals. Six works are on display, ranging from a two-channel video to embroidery and sculpture. Vietnamese-American artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen produced this series of works based on an extensive effort in researches and areas of studies on the relationship between humankind and animals, the endangered and extinct species, and their symbolic and historic meanings. These investigations are specific to Vietnam’s current state of development, but the broad relationships mirror the global crisis of animal extinction.
First spark of interest
The artist was captivated by the relationship between animals and humans when he first learned that there is a global threat of extinction of the rhinoceros species. The artist began engaging in conversations and has paid attention to relevant events regarding this.
Specifically, Tuan noted to Art Radar about several historical incidents that frame this series of works and render the themes of the exhibition. In 2010, the last naturally occurring Javan rhino, Rhinoeros Sondaicus Annamiticus, was poached and killed in a national park. The rhino’s horn was found cut and taken. A few years later, another rare and geographically unique animal, Rafetus Leloii, the turtle of Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi, Vietnam, died and left the species in extinction. Its significance was the turtle’s symbol of Vietnamese independence against colonial China. In 2016, the first large nation-wide protest occurred in Vietnam, addressing the massive fish deaths due to political corruption and unregulated environmental crimes.
These historical moments prompted the artist to explore the driving forces behind them, some of which could be political, economic or cultural. For example, in Vietnam and China, there is a cultural belief that rhino horns cure cancer, leading rhinos into the target of hunters and the monetary trade behind. It is within this historical context that the works in this exhibition have grown, have been shaped and have formed as the artist’s interest took fruition.
Revolution and freedom in the animal world
One of the most captivating works shown in the exhibition is the two-channel video My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires? (2017), from which the exhibition borrows the title. In essence, the video is a conversation between the wandering spirits of two animals, the Javan rhino and Rafetus Leloii, which had first introduced Tuan into this exploration. Through personifying the two animals and the narration of the revolutionary vision by the rhino to free endangered animals from human oppression, the artist discarded “our” (humankind’s) perspective and replaced it with the animals’ perspective. At the same time, images taken by the artist in Vietnam, including images of children throwing food and objects at animals in the zoo or snakes being butchered for their meat, unfold in slow motion, further intensifying the friction between humans and animals and the narration of the characters.
The entire eighteen-minute film flows fluidly as if it is supposed to be relaxing but in fact it further highlights the contradictory ideologies and the understanding of the relationship between humans and animals. The characters in the film introduce the relationships between Vietnamese mythology, the country’s political complexities and the nation’s animal ecosystem to the audience through beautiful yet gruesome, real yet mythological, and conflicting yet significant narratives and visuals. The result is a seamless yet intense emotional journey in which the audience is asked to reassess their beliefs, perspectives, and rethink in what ways to coexist with animals in our world.
The Warning: the irony in the animal world
The Warning (2017) is a LED sign with colorful rolling text that captures a conversation between the rhino and the pangolin, and the dragon, two of the most illegally trafficked mammals and a mythical animal. The installation precedes the film and is what inspires the further exploration and production of the two-channel video. While the conversation is simple and the sentences displayed are short, some statements illuminate the reality and consideration of survival in the animal world. For example, the pangolin said, “But it’s not being wanted that’s gonna ensure your existence, man.”, thus posing a contradictory logic that arises from the imbalanced power relationship of the oppressing and oppressed between humankind and animals.
The artist’s creative process: explore and find
As one can see from the works showcased in the exhibition, it is obvious that the artist is not afraid of exploring, questioning and answering a broad and uncomfortable question about humanity and the harm resulting from self-serving purpose. His creative process also takes a bold and resonating approach. From working with silk thread embroidery to polyurethane and carved wood, Tuan Andrew Nguyen does not restrict his creation in material and medium. The artist’s art making process is largely situated in found objects or processes. For example, he may find objects like a wooden panther that might have decorated somebody’s house prior to the end of the Vietnam-American War at forgotten corners of antique warehouses. To him, these objects meant to bring “life” to an idle space while some objects like trophy animal heads and horns were dead objects. As the artist noted to Art Radar,
For me, these objects not only reveal a bit about how we see our place in the world as humans, but also how objects function to us, whether we see them as imbued with powers, be it spiritual, political, magical, medicinal and/or otherwise.
He practices continuous reassessment of our beliefs and reconsiders from what each reality could be constructed to be true.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen was born in 1976 and now lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of California, Irvine in 1999 and received his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 2004. Tuan’s works have been shown in numerous film festivals, international exhibitions, and have become part of the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Carré d’Art in Nîmes, France, the Museum of Modern Art of New York and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Besides being an artist, Tuan is also the co-founder and board member of the artists-run exhibition space and educational programme Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As an activist, he also founded The Propeller Group in 2006, a Ho Chi Minh City- and Los Angeles-based art collective who defines themselves as “a platform for collective thinking and coordinated action”. The group has won accolades, among which the 2015 Internationale Kurztfilmtage Wintherthur and a Creative Capital award for their video project Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC) (2011–2012), and participated in numerous international exhibitions.
Through the thought-provocative themes explored in the exhibition, Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s works implore the audience to reassess our relationships with the world around us and to do so constantly and critically. Currently, the artist is preparing a new multi-channel video work that looks at the history of French colonial soldiers from West Africa and Indochina, to be debuted at the Sharjah Biennial in March 2019.
“My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires” by Tuan Andrew Nguyen is on view from 28 June to 28 August 2018 at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, G/F, 10 Chancery Lane, SoHo, Central, Hong Kong.
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- “Monuments and Memorials”: Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Lê at Singapore’s STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery – May 2018 – STPI Creative Workshop and Gallery holds first major solo exhibition of Dinh Q. Lê’s work in Singapore
- Curiosity and the role of the artist: Vietnamese artist and filmmaker Nguyen Trinh Thi – interview – December 2017 – Hanoi-based artist Nguyen Trinh Thi’s career weaves stories about her home country Vietnam
- Life, Guns, Death and Reincarnation: Vietnam’s art collective The Propeller Group – artist profile – November 2016 – Vietnamese art collective merges artistic and commercial practice to unveil the shadows of capitalism, communism, consumerism, and shared cultural histories
- Shifting tensions in Vietnamese contemporary art: A brief history – January 2015 – Art Radar takes a look at Vietnam’s art historical context to explain the dynamics of its contemporary art
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