Tuan Andrew Nguyen - Animal Tales and the State of War

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Empty Forest – The Peaceful Resistance Was Devoured With Beer and Snake Wine series. Photo by Cao Trí. Courtesy of the artist.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Virus Of Belief, 2017. Photo by Cao Trí. Courtesy of the artist.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen, My Ailing, 2017. Two Channeled Video.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Empty Forest – The Peaceful Resistance Was Devoured With Beer and Snake Wine series. Photo by Cao Trí. Courtesy of the artist.
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In a 1946 interview for The New York Times, Ho Chi Minh compared the French colonials to mighty elephants and the people from the Viet Minh – the communist Vietnamese resistant organisation – to tigers. If tigers don’t move, then the elephants can easily crush them. But the future president of independent Vietnam warned that if they move by night, tigers can jump on the back of the elephants and make them bleed to death.

TEXTS: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

 

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Empty Forest – The Peaceful Resistance Was Devoured With Beer and Snake Wine series. Photo by Cao Trí. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Animals have always occupied a central position in Vietnam – culturally, religiously and politically. This has created complex and sometimes contradictory relationships between animals and human beings. In his new exhibition, Empty Forest, Tuan Andrew Nguyen depicts an animal world that is haunted by extinct species and devastated by humans’ greed for money and power. Like Ho Chi Minh’s tigers, the animals try to face and fight the oppressor, searching for the right path between violence and resilience. Interweaving revolutionary rhetoric with traditional mythologies and contemporary ecological issues, Nguyen continues his exploration of today’s system of beliefs, which is shaped by ancestral opinions, political propaganda and current capitalism.

 

The artist has transformed the whole gallery space into an unexpected menagerie. Hybrid animals and strange creatures are placed on pedestals, as if standing on altars. Bathed in a surreal light, they seem lost among the green plants. A ceramic elephant is carrying a weird cube crossed by green ceramic casts from an actual black rhino horn and the spines of animals; a concrete deer is standing on human feet with his antlers replaced by human hands; an eagle without wings is trapped in iron circles; while a black panther is transformed into a kind of porcupine. These could all be perceived as being relics of the animal world after they have been hunted and consumed by human beings. Vietnam shares a long tradition here with China, where animals have been worshipped for their supremacy, as well consumed, used in Chinese medicine for their power, and included in ritual sacrifices for their connection to the divine.

 

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Virus Of Belief, 2017. Photo by Cao Trí. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The representation of these endangered species is conceived by Nguyen as a set of “interventions”, since the sculptures have been created from objects that have been either found or modified from mere decorative statues that were produced by a factory. The artist worked with the craftsmen there to mutate the partial and disembodied forms midway through the usual production process. For example, the additional human arms and legs of the deer are from a statue of a herd boy playing the flute as he sits on the back of a water buffalo. The resulting amalgamated form reflects popular mythologies that feature half-human, half-animal creatures and are very common in Vietnam. The artist’s gesture also hints at the deeply held belief that certain parts of animals’ bodies have magic powers, like rhino horns or pangolin scales. Known for their medicinal virtues, these animal parts are believed to give people superhuman powers and cure incurable diseases. In a corner of the gallery, the head of the last Javan rhino sadly rests on its base, all on its own and deprived of its horns.

 

On the first floor, and dominating the scene through a large window, concrete pangolins silently demonstrate, holding protest signs made of fake animal prints (mostly tiger skins). Nguyen plays with this glass box, which reminds him of many of the taxidermy exhibits he saw during the shooting of his film and the research that’s carried out in animal and natural history museums. Due to the limited freedom of expression and civil rights there is in Vietnam, the artist hides and entwines the different layers of narratives in his work. Just like his pangolins, you could say, who cleverly camouflage themselves by waving their cryptic boards. The scaly animals refer indirectly to the large demonstrations that took place in the country in 2016 when a significant number of people took to the streets to express their concerns after the Formosa Steel Company environmental disaster left over 10 tons of dead fish along the Vietnamese coast. Both this event and the way that the government jailed and beat some of the peaceful protesters deeply affected Nguyen. These protests were among the largest that have recently happened in Vietnam, which brings the artist hope that awareness of environmental issues is growing in the country.

 

These exhibited “objects” are in constant dialogue with a huge two-channel video, whose soundtrack invades the whole gallery space. Entitled My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires, it epitomises the dichotomy between human beliefs and our consumption of animals, between what people want and what they destroy. Set in both actual and surreal landscapes, it showcases a multitude of animals forms – some living, some dead, others preserved, replicated, hybridised and imagined. Above all, it revolves around a fictional conversation between the spirit of the last Javan rhino (poached in Vietnam in 2010) and the last giant soft-shell turtle (which helped one of the first kings of Vietnam defeat the Chinese by bringing him a sword from the bottom of a lake). In short, the rhino wishes to convince the turtle to organise a revolution against human beings, arguing that his death would at least be useful. The turtle, however, searches for a peaceful solution, assuming that “to fight them is to be like them”. Their rather didactic conversation includes quotes from famous revolutionary people, such as Ho Chi Minh, Emiliano Zapata and Fidel Castro, which ground their discourse in the political sphere.

 

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, My Ailing, 2017. Two Channeled Video.

 

According to Nguyen, revolutionary language and people’s spiritual beliefs or their belief in the supernatural are so intertwined in Vietnamese culture and tradition that it is difficult to approach one without looking at the other. Communism banned superstition and religion, and the Vietnamese history is full of clashes with Buddhists. But this restriction has created space for alternative beliefs, never mind the ones rooted in daily propaganda and capitalism. The animals’ dialogue also refers to the colonial wars: the ghost of the rhino cannot find peace, just like the souls of the Vietnamese soldiers who could not be buried after they died during these conflicts. The extinct species stand on the side of oppressed populations, particularly those who have been colonised. In fact, the turtle compares the Vietnamese people to animals that are exploited for their labour, abused and murdered. It is difficult to understand how far the artist wishes to push the comparison, and if he suggests that the Vietnamese people – or the Vietnamese identity – are now under the threat of extinction. It is left to the audience to recompose the narratives, according to their own sensibilities or, rather, their own beliefs.

 

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Empty Forest – The Peaceful Resistance Was Devoured With Beer and Snake Wine series. Photo by Cao Trí. Courtesy of the artist.

 

With Empty Forest, Nguyen is addressing multi-layered issues, such as the extinction of certain animal species, the indomitable greed of humans, the current prevalence of superstition, the possible end of mankind and the eternal fight between oppressors and the oppressed, directly or metaphorically. Ironically, he is doing so by giving a voice to animals, while acknowledging his own anthropocentrism and the impossibility of them actually having a voice in our society.

There was a time, however, when human beings listened to animals. Zhuangzi (c. 370 – c. 290 BCE), known as the father of Daoism, thought that animals were superior to human beings, as only they knew how to act in harmony with Heaven (i.e. with the Dao). He believed humans were unable to do this and so constantly distorted their own innate nature. The situation that Nguyen illustrates proves Zhuangzi’s argument to be right, as human beings are now running towards their own destruction. This dramatic vision reflects today’s urgent need for a radical move towards a new and inclusive relationship with nature, together with a reconciliation between the human and non-human. In that global context, a revolutionary language is increasingly used in discourses, such as Bruno Latour’s call for “repoliticizing our concept of ecology” and the philosopher’s description of our times as being in a state of war.

 

 

About the artist

Tuan Andrew Nguyen graduated from the Fine Arts program at the University of California, Irvine in 1999 and received his Masters of Fine Arts from The California Institute of the Arts in 2004. He is a co-founder and currently board member of Sàn Art, an artist-initiated exhibition space and educational program in Sai Gon, Viet Nam. Tuan has shown in numerous film festivals, internationl exhibitions, having works in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Carre d’Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum. Tuan has received several awards in both film and arts, including an Art Matters grant in 2010. His work explores the body as sites and and as moments of resistance in public space and the impact of mass media on these moments of resistance. In his continual attempts at reworking the power dynamics of public space and mass media in general, he founded The Propeller Group in 2006, an art collective who positions themselves between a fake advertising company and archeologists of hidden historical conundrums. Accolades for the collective include the main prize at the 2015 Internationale Kurztfilmtage Wintherthur and a Creative Capital award for their video project Television Commercial for Communism. The collective has been featured in numerous international exhibitions including the The Ungovernables [2012 New Museum Triennial], Made In LA [2012 Los Angeles Biennial], Propsect 3 [New Orleans Triennial 2014], and the Venice Biennale 2015.

 

 

Tuan Andrew Nguyen - Empty Forest curated by Zoe Butt
9 December 2017 – 7 February 2018
The Factory, HCMC

 

 


 

Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specialized in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in Hong Kong.

Prior to moving to Hong Kong, Ha Thuc spent two years in Tokyo and published Nouvel Art Contemporain Japonais (Nouvelles Editions Scala 2012) about the post-Murakami Japanese art scene. Her book Contemporary Art in Hong Kong (Asia One, 2013), which was first published in France (Nouvelles Editions Scala, 2013) provides essential keys to apprehend the city’s vibrant contemporary landscape and exposes the countless links between art, history, culture and identity. She recently published a book about Chinese contemporary art analysing the interactions between the art scene and China’s rapidly changing society (After 2000 : Contemporary Art in China published in French language Nouvelles Editions Scala, France 2014 & MIP, Hong Kong 2015 for the English and comprehensive version).  

As a curator, she focuses on promoting dialogue between artists from different cultures, while reflecting on social and political contemporary issues. Her recent exhibitions include Radiance (French May, Hong Kong, 2014), Hong Kong Bestiary (Platform China, Hong Kong, 2014), Shelters of Resistance an in-situ installation by Kacey Wong in the courtyard of the City Hall (YIA Art Fair Paris, 2015), The Human Body : Measure and Norms (Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015) and Carnival (Hong Kong February 2017). She is on the International Curatorial Advisory Board of the Open Sky Gallery in Hong Kong and curated the 5th Large-scale Urban Media Arts Festival, 2016.

 

 

 
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