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

From on board the Abraham Lincoln freight ship: Xiamen Bridge and Port. Image courtesy of the artist.
From on board the Abraham Lincoln freight ship: shipping containers and rainbow. Image courtesy of the artist.
UuDam Tran Nguyen dropping the bronze fingertip cast into the Californian ocean. Image courtesy of the artist.
Bronze cast of UuDam Tran Nguyen’s hand, installation view from Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana. Image courtesy of the artist.
Bronze cast of UuDam Tran Nguyen’s fingertip. Image courtesy of the artist.
Rồng Rắn Lên | Serpents’ Tails, installation view at Galerie Quynh, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.
Rồng Rắn Lên | Serpents’ Tails, installation view from “Subliminal City,” Esplanade Visual Arts, Singapore, 2018. Image courtesy the artist.
Film still from UuDam Tran Nguyen’s Serpents’ Tails, 2015, showing Babel Tower, 2015, UV ink on flexible PVC, LED lights, aluminium frame. Image courtesy of the artist.
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CoBo Social Chinese Abstraction Series

As we cross the threshold of a new decade—one that will be important for the new paradigms it brings to humankind’s relationship with the world—it is worth pausing for a moment to look back. The 2010s saw environmental activism go mainstream, after escalating fires, floods and extinctions made stark the problems of Anthropocene development. Globally, artists and curators became activists through a proliferation of exhibitions, projects and artworks attuned to the subject of nature and the environment.

 

Art & Ecology in Vietnam (I) explored how artists in Hanoi traversed Anthropocene narratives of environmental degradation, caused by resource extraction, set in motion by colonialism and driven by capital. Here, Louise Malcolm talks to Ho Chi Minh City-based artist UuDam Tran Nguyen about how his multidisciplinary practice critiques, on one hand, the origins of the Anthropocene1 and, on the other, the hubris of our uncontrolled development.

 

TEXT: Louise Malcolm
IMAGES: Courtesy the artists

 

UuDam Tran Nguyen (b.1971)—who prefers to be addressed as UuDam, like a ‘branding’ he tells me—wrestles with vast ideas. Not content with examining the symptoms of our current environmental crisis, he takes on the expansive spatial and temporal roots of the Anthropocene, and neatly condenses them—along with a swirl of mythological prophecies—into potent visual messages.

This conceptual approach echoes throughout Uudam’s practice, extending from his installations and performances and even to how he travels to his international exhibitions. Back in September, UuDam was aboard the Abraham Lincoln freight ship, and en-route from Xiamen in China, to California. Like Greta Thunberg, he had opted for an eco-friendly but lengthy (30 days) trip to the States, for the next iteration of his ambitious eight-phase project, Time Boomerang, at Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana.

 

From on board the Abraham Lincoln freight ship: Xiamen Bridge and Port. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

“Traveling on the second biggest freighter in the world is a thrill,” UuDam tells me. “Imagine standing on top of a 20-storey building that is 366 meters long and 50 meters wide, moving at the speed of 45 kilometres per hour in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s so tall that you have to use the elevator every time you go to dinner.”

From UuDam’s photographs, life on the freighter looked infinitely exhilarating—the size, power, and the speed—and reminded me of Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic line in Paramount’s 1997 film Titanic: “I’m the king of the world!” And there’s the rub; for it’s our desire to rule the world that’s fuelled our restless expansion and environmental degradation.

UuDam instantly transports us to the heart of the matter: “I decided to take the freighter from Asia to America for three reasons that relate to my Time Boomerang project. I wanted to know the experiences of, firstly, pre-airplane travellers, who would reach new lands by sea and, secondly, in more recent memory, the migration experience of people that includes many boat people from Africa and Vietnam.”

 

From on board the Abraham Lincoln freight ship: shipping containers and rainbow. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

“The third reason is commerce,” he continues. “Aboard the ship, you can feel the energy that moves trade across the expansive blue of the Pacific Ocean and around the world. I wanted to travel the same sea routes responsible for the rise and fall of economies and nations since ancient times.”

Via this symbol-laden trip, UuDam collapses time and space to perform the origins of the Anthropocene story. He slips on the shoes of Modern-era European colonial explorers who crossed the world and claimed it as their own, along with the people and resources within it. And, in retracing their steps along well-worn trade routes, UuDam reconnects to the neo-colonial era when the development of neoliberal capitalism reshaped societies—and nature—in the interests of markets, and enabled the exploitation of the world’s resources for power and profit.

 

UuDam Tran Nguyen dropping the bronze fingertip cast into the Californian ocean. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Time Boomerang ultimately sees UuDam propelling bronze casts of his fingertips into the oceans of five continents2. This ‘hand-land-grab,’ inspired by the childlike action of measuring with one’s hands, evokes the Modern-era European thought: ‘Man—the measure of all things.’ This principle of Renaissance Humanism saw man as a rational and sentient being no longer at the mercy of fate or God, as told via artworks like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490). In ‘fingerprinting’ the ocean floors, UuDam performatively grasps the world like the explorers and colonisers of old, mimicking the Humanist framework that forged their beliefs.

 

Bronze cast of UuDam Tran Nguyen’s hand, installation view from Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana. Image courtesy of the artist.
Bronze cast of UuDam Tran Nguyen’s fingertip. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Modernity’s conceptual elevation of [white] man over the world, its people and over nature, led, eventually, to various German scholars, most famously Nietzsche in 1882, to declare: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” And perhaps we thought we had, when we ruled like kings. Yet, as fires engulf our forests, the hubris of our Promethean acts seems all too clear.

Hubris punctuates UuDam’s acclaimed ongoing multimedia series “Rồng Rắn Lên | Serpents’ Tails,” (2012– ). “I thought about the exhaust coming from the mufflers of 40 million motorbikes in Vietnam,” Uudam tells me; “I was curious to see if it could actually pump something up. So, to measure the air volume, I used a plastic shopping bag. From that experiment came Serpents’ Tails.

 

Rồng Rắn Lên | Serpents’ Tails, installation view at Galerie Quynh, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.
Rồng Rắn Lên | Serpents’ Tails, installation view from “Subliminal City,” Esplanade Visual Arts, Singapore, 2018. Image courtesy the artist.

 

The immersive installation networks motorbike exhaust pipes, using them to inflate hundreds of metres of orange, lemon yellow, blue, lime green, pink and silver tubing made from plastic bags. Seemingly bright and joyous, these ‘serpents’ fly up and down, left and right, circle around and tangle, and belie the toxic truth.

“Sometimes, as humans in pursuit of happiness, we create something uncontrollable—something toxic—that we cannot see or deal with.” Uudam refers to the Hindu philosophy of the “churning ocean of milk,” which foretold an immense poison infecting the world. “My love of the world’s great myth has found its way into my work,” he explains. “The ancient people who created these myths were super wise but it’s a reality now. With our nuclear capability and waste, we are now at the stage they predicted; we could kill the human race many times over.”

Uudam’s three-channel video Serpents’ Tails (2015) closes with a scene in which a troupe of masked motorcyclists encircle and wrap a tall outcrop of a building with silver plastic tubing, in a sort of chaotic Maypole dance. “This is a prophetic scene inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel, an oil painting that I really love,” Uudam explains. The Bruegel painting depicts the Babylonians’ wildly off-kilter tower, a symbol of God’s punishment for human arrogance; Uudam’s narrative is apocalyptic. Interestingly, Uudam refers to his masked and caped motorcyclists as “contemporary knights.” It’s telling: knights in the service of the ‘kings of the world.’

 

Film still from UuDam Tran Nguyen’s Serpents’ Tails, 2015, showing Babel Tower, 2015, UV ink on flexible PVC, LED lights, aluminium frame. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

So, what can artists do to help us avoid such tragedy? Certainly, the prevalent mode of grandiose and highly produced art exhibitions are at odds with the issues at hand. “Museum goers don’t know that behind a polished bronze sculpture is a very long polluting process, from foundry to the final beautiful product. Packing and transporting the art from one place to another is the same” in fact, as Uudam rightly points out, “the bigger the artist becomes, the more trash and pollution. The carbon foot print grows with their name. Isn’t that interesting?”

But, he continues, “art can do something—it’s a small part of a big picture.” Uudam talks about his new project; Eco-Đi  (in Vietnamese, ‘Đi’ means ‘Go’). “I had been vacationing on a beautiful island in the south of Vietnam that was inflicted with trash… and came up with a new concept in response.” It is a pair of slippers with Lao Tzu’s timeless quotation, “good travellers leave no traces,” carved into the soles. “When you walk, his words will appear on the sand magically then this bas-relief will be erased by the wind and waves, but will appear again and again after each step.” This wonderful, ephemeral artwork will be a repeating reminder of our duty to be responsible visitors, respectful to the environment and culture of our destinations.

Uudam spans the space and duration of our involvement with the world. From critiquing the Anthropocene world order via the permanence of his bronze fingertips, with Eco-Đi he suggests a new one; a world order in which nature is on a par with culture. It’s ‘ecocentric,’ as opposed to anthropocentric and one that amounts to a new paradigm for understanding humankind’s place in the world.

 

 

 


  • contemporary ecocritical thought places these origins with the subject–object dialectic of Modern-era European thought, which led to Europeans’ belief in their dominion over nature, and to colonialism and capitalism.
  • [In consideration of marine and environmental law, Uudam launched only the bronze fingertip into the sea, and not its accompanying plastic tube].

 

 

About the artist

UuDam Tran Nguyen (born 1971, Vietnam) earned his MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York (2005) and BA from UCLA (2002). He also attended the University of Fine Art in Ho Chi Minh City for three years prior to his studies in the United States. Nguyen has been included in prestigious exhibitions internationally such as: TIME BOOMERANG California Edition – From S.E.A. Sea Atolls to the Next Dead Stars, Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana, CA, USA (2019); Shanghai Biennale, Power Station of Art, China (2019); So Far So Right, Kuandu Fine Art Museum, Taipei, Taiwan (2018); Sunshower, Mori Art Museum and The National Art Center, Tokyo, Japan (2017); Aichi Triennale: A Rainbow Caravan, Aichi Art Center, Japan (2016); Body/Play/Politics, Yokohama Art Museum, Japan (2016); Fiesta Mobile, The High Line, New York, USA (2015); Mien Meo Mieng Contemporary Art from Vietnam, Bildmuseet, Umea University, Sweden (2015); Asia Pacific Triennial 8, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia (2015); and Singapore Biennale, Singapore Art Museum (2013).

 

His works are in the collections of Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane, Australia); Kadist Art Foundation (Paris, France / San Francisco, CA, USA); Asia Society (New York, NY, USA); and MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art (Chiang Mai, Thailand).

 

 

 

 


 

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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