Art & Ecology in Vietnam (I): In Conversation with Artists in Hanoi

Phương Linh Nguyễn, Memory Of the Blind Elephant, 2016, film still. Courtesy of Phương Linh Nguyễn.
Tuấn Mami, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, 2018, film still. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.
Tuấn Mami, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, 2018, film still. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami
Tuấn Mami, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, 2018, film still. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami
Tuấn Mami, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, 2018, film still. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.
Tuấn Mami, Mountain No.1, 2018. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.
Tuấn Mami, Mountain No.3, 2018. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.
The roof garden at Á Space. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.
Lê Giang at Six Space with her sculptures from The Peach Blossom Land, April 2019. Photograph courtesy of Louise Malcolm.
Lê Giang at Six Space with charcoal drawings of Hòn Non Bộ. April 2019. Photograph courtesy
of Louise Malcolm
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Vietnam’s first calamitous experience of human-made environmental degradation was in the 1960s, when the United States dropped Agent-Orange on the central provinces. Within a week, the toxic defoliant had decimated all forest life, leaving just a canopy of husks. There were repercussions, as flooding and mudslides increased when the scorched trees and ground could no longer absorb heavy rains.

Today Vietnam faces new ecological threats. The country’s relentless developing economy has often come at the expense of some of Earth’s most ecologically diverse environments, where invasive human activity threatens numerous species of flora and fauna, as well as local and indigenous people. In response, contemporary artists are making work that addresses different facets of the Anthropocene, invoking narratives that take us from ocean to mountain, jungle to city, and beyond. Here, Louise Malcolm talks to Hanoi-based artists Tuấn Mami and Lê Giang about their responses to the ecological impact of Anthropocene development in Vietnam.

TEXT: Louise Malcolm
IMAGES: Courtesy the artists

 

Hanoi, 4 April 2019. Hanoi Doclab screens two Anthropocene-oriented films.

The first, Memory of the Blind Elephant (2016), by Phương Linh Nguyễn (b.1985), investigates the cultivation of rubber trees in south-central Vietnam by French colonialists. In the film, Nguyễn visits the sites of old plantations—through the eyes of an elderly elephant who acts as a silent witness—and tells a complex story of change. Focusing on the social unrest that occurred as the indigenous landscape was altered, Nguyễn exposes Anthropocene narratives of colonialism and slavery.

 

Phương Linh Nguyễn, Memory Of the Blind Elephant, 2016, film still. Courtesy of Phương Linh Nguyễn.

 

The second film, by Tuấn Mami (b. 1981), is part of a body of work made in response to aggressive limestone mining near his family’s hometown in Vietnam’s Hà Nam province. Collectively titled, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018), the series, which takes a meditative and sensitive approach to the topic, has been exhibited internationally in various iterations of performance, sculptural installation and moving image.

 

Tuấn Mami, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, 2018, film still. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.

 

The next day, Mami and I are in a cafe discussing extraction. He tells me: “I visited Hà Nam in 2014 and was shocked at the destruction of the mountains. Toxic dust filled the air and people couldn’t breathe.” The conceptual and performance artist—who also co-directs Á Space in Hanoi—was spurred on to try a new medium, film. “I needed to convey the immediacy of what was happening” he told me, “and moving image felt right.”

Also titled In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, Mami’s film, described by curator Bill Nguyễn as “a tale of how our world ends,” takes us far up into the mountains to the site of the mines. The verdant tropical forest long gone, Mami captures endless expanses of desolate grey peaks shrouded in white mist. Ethereal as a Chinese landscape painting, until the whiteout gives way to hollowed-out mountains, dust-covered trees and an earth cracked with networks of craters and dusty roads. Goats roam over the scrubland on a futile hunt for pasture. Set to a Buddhist death chant, Mami’s Anthropocene narrative is one of capital: environmental degradation driven by commodity extraction for production, profit and power.

 

Tuấn Mami, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, 2018, film still. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami

 

In One’s Breath delicately balances critical geography with art. Mami tells me: “Some people asked me: ‘Isn’t it too beautiful, this destruction?’” With its epic, scarred landscapes and arresting tonal palette, the film epitomises the (industrial) Sublime; we watch with awe and morbid curiosity. Certainly, in Anthropocene discourse, the Sublime is negatively connoted and thought to overwhelm people and stifle activism. But Mami skilfully balances the film’s sublime aspects with human action: heavy trucks roar into town billowing clouds of dust over the stooped workers who trudge dusty roads, masks obscuring their faces. Others pull aside the dusk-caked tarpaulins covering their homes and temples, or describe the dislocation and depression of their jobs. “I’m an artist and use beauty to entice the viewer,” says Mami. “But the violence is there. It’s a slow violence.” Mami’s power is to show us the issues at stake beyond the aesthetic: social violence towards some of Vietnam’s most vulnerable people, including the poor and indigenous.

 

Tuấn Mami, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, 2018, film still. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami
Tuấn Mami, In One’s Breath—Nothing Stands Still, 2018, film still. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.

 

Back at Á Space, Mami shows me his series “Mountains” (2018). Each small sculpture a rock, surrounded with soil and moss, they evoke Hòn Non Bộ [Vietnamese miniature landscapes] but without trees.

“My stones, which I collected, are from the peaks of Hà Nam’s threatened mountains,” Mami explains. “In our Buddhist culture, we believe that mountain tops are spiritual places where the Gods stay.” Fitted with motion sensors, the Mountains are a flock of roaming robots programmed to run away from humans. “For me, they have all the spirits of mountains, so I adapted the Mường epic Đẻ Đất Đẻ Nước [The Birth of Soil and Water] and gave them the power of travelling or running away.”

 

Tuấn Mami, Mountain No.1, 2018. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.

 

The animist beliefs that transfigure Mountains into 21st century icons are echoed in Mami’s performance Land of Spirit and Mythology (2018), for which he created a cave-bar on the roof of  a Taiwanese bureaucratic building. In a series ceremonies, Mami and his visitors shared drinks brewed from locally-sourced herbs in order to commune with the gods of nature. By addressing the Anthropcene through animism, Mami quite rightly implies that we might move forward by looking back to older, spiritual and more holistic, ways relating to the world.

 

Tuấn Mami, Mountain No.3, 2018. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.

 

Mami tells me that after the opening of his exhibition at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre  (2018), all the Mountains were found sitting together by the installation Frozen Lakes (2017). We empathize with their group solace because, in reality, mountains can’t escape humankind and nor can workers fight big corporations. Within the large-scale environmental and social violence associated with the Anthropocene, justice is much harder to obtain.

I ask him: how can artists help in the fight for ecological justice? “I think that artists are sensitive, and care about changes to the world they are living in… they hope to create a better world, not just for now but for the future, too.” It’s true that art is uniquely placed to envision unseen futures, push conceptual boundaries and pose difficult questions. “My work asks ‘what if’? What if the connection between humans and nature collapses? What if we sweep away nature and all we are left with is an artificial world to live in?”

Out on Á Space’s lush roof garden that overflows with tropical plants (looked after by a smart eco-watering-system if no one is home), Mami shows me a book he’s been reading. It’s the eco-bible, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) by Naomi Klein. “A friend gave it to me. It’s awesome. So, if we face facts about the non-stop destruction of nature by humans, we can see what we are coming to… we’ve got to reconsider our actions and protect what we have before it’s too late. That, I believe, is how we can find climate justice.”

 

The roof garden at Á Space. Courtesy of Tuấn Mami.

 

Others in Hanoi think similarly, including Nguyễn Anh Tuấn who, as artistic director of Heritage Space, gave the theme Beyond Destruction to this year’s M.A.P [Month of Art Practice]; and Gang of Five artist and curator Trần Lương, who has been looking at issues surrounding flooding and settlement.

An innovative approach comes from artist Lê Giang’s (b. 1988) interest in utopia and artificial, or ‘post’ nature. Popularised by philosopher Tim Morton, the concept of post nature posits that the world we inhabit is already human-altered to the extent it is longer ‘natural.’

 

Lê Giang at Six Space with her sculptures from The Peach Blossom Land, April 2019. Photograph courtesy of Louise Malcolm.

 

In her studio in Hanoi,Lê Giang shows me her joyously-kitch n Non B-influenced sculptures and charcoal drawings. “For this body of work—the sculptures in particular—I was very inspired by the ancient tale The Peach Blossom Land,” she tells me, describing the famous East Asian story of a heavenly utopia. Molded in fluorescent pink, turquoise, orange, green, red and violet plastic, her small sculptures of mountains-come-blossom trees give form to post natural ideas and show us that the world around us—from Hòn Non Bộ, to our rooftop gardens and parks—is already human-made and artificial.

 

Lê Giang at Six Space with charcoal drawings of Hòn Non Bộ. April 2019. Photograph courtesy
of Louise Malcolm

 

The utopia of the Peach Blossom Land is conceived of as a blissful place where humans live in harmony with nature, but Lê Giang has another take. She explains: “There could easily be a future with no people. How will nature react to our disappearance? Will Utopia come only when we are gone?”

Despite the progression of Lê Giang’s ideas towards post humanism, her sculptures are reassuringly hopeful. Made with reused PVC plastic in collaboration with Vietnamese recycling specialists Hami Plastic, who employ reconditioned 1990s machinery, the message is clear: if we use our resources well, perhaps we can survive.  

Lê Giang goes on to talk about Citizen Earth, her current project at Six Space, which she co-directs with curator Đỗ Tường Linh. The year-long project aims to raise awareness of critical environmental issues through artistic and educational activities in north-central Vietnam. To accompany Lê Giang, who is researching gemstone extraction, the project has invited four artists to explore different facets of the Anthropocene. They are Phạm Thu Hằng, who won the  Best Director award at the Singapore International Film Festival for The Future Cries Beneath Our Soil, 2018; Nguyễn Đức Phượng, who is interested in tracing local indigenous ways of living with nature; Lạc Hoàng, who will collaborate with an anthropologist and urban planner to examine green cities; and fashion designer MIENTRANT (Trần Thảo Miên), who will examine fashion waste. “This project will show us ways that we can live responsibly and in harmony with nature,” says Lê Giang, “then, maybe, we can avoid a future without humans.”

 

To be continued with Art & Ecology in Vietnam (II): In Conversation with Uudam Tran Nguyen in Ho Chi Minh

 

 

About the artists

 

Tuấn Mami (b. 1981) is known for his daring and meditative performance, installation and video art. Trained at Hanoi Fine Art University, he has participated in numerous international exhibitions, projects and residencies. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘In One’s Breath-Nothing Stands Still_No4,’ Teratotera, Tokyo, Japan (2018); iterated at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (2018); Framer Framed, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (2017); and Heritage Space, Hanoi, Vietnam (2017). Recent group exhibitions include ‘Co-Inspiration in Catastrophe,’ MOCA Taipei, Taiwan (2019–20); ‘Where the Sea Remembers,’ Mistake Room, Los Angeles, USA (2019); ‘Southeast Asia Performance Collection,’ Haus Der Kunst, Munich, Germany (2019); ‘Documenting Change,’ Colorado University Art Museum, Boulder, USA (2019) and ‘Trùng Mù/NAILS*hacks*facts*fictions,’ District Berlin, Germany (2019). In 2020, Tuan will participate in ‘Matter of Art,’ Prague Biennale, Czech Republic. Additionally, Tuấn is engaged in curatorial activities in Hanoi and co-founded the Nha San Collective in 2013 and in 2018 Á Space, which supports young artists in Vietnam.

 

Lê Giang (b. 1988) is a sculptor known for her large-scale installations. Following an MA in Fine Art at the University of the Arts London, in 2013 Lệ Giang returned to Vietnam and set up the art-educational Blossom Art House, in Hanoi and in 2015 co-founded Six Space, which supports young artists and brings visual arts closer to the community. In 2018 she was featured on Forbes Vietnam’s ‘30 Under 30’ list. Solo exhibitions and installations include ‘Vestige of a Land,’ Goethe Institut, Hanoi (2017), ‘Phan Niem,’ Vin Gallery, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (2018), and Art Central, Hong Kong, 2019.

 

 


 

Louise Malcolm is an art researcher and advisor. She manages the Hugentobler Collection, which includes Vietnamese art from 1930–1990 and worked in art research at the University of Zurich (2014-18). Conducted through ongoing discussions with artists, Louise’s research focuses on the relationships between man and the (natural) world in times of ecological emergency. 

Recent curated exhibitions include Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm: Finding a Future in the Past and Zodiac Animals: Celebrating Tet (both London, 2018). Lectures include Shaping Identity in Contemporary Vietnamese Art and The Rural in Modern and Contemporary Vietnamese Art (both University of Zurich, 2017). Louise organised the exhibition, book launch and talk “Contemporary Vietnam through the eyes of an art collector” at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, 2017, with Asia Society Switzerland.

 

 

 
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