Art

Death and Trade in Vietnam

Nguyễn Trần Nam, "A Part of the Structure," (2014), all images by the author unless noted.
Nguyễn Trần Nam, “A Part of the Structure,” (2014) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted)

HO CHI MINH, Vietnam — The exhibition Come to [What] End? tackles big questions in the way that art does best. The show features three artists from Session Five of Sàn Arts’s residency program, Sàn Art Laboratory: Phạm Đình Tiến from Ho Chi Minh (HCM), Rudy Atjeh from Yogyayakarta, Indonesia, and Nguyen Tran Nam, from Hanoi, Vietnam. Each artist considers the unique locales and recent histories of his surroundings as inspiration for the show.

Sàn Art is a contemporary arts nonprofit based in HCM. The organization has a long history of elevating the conversation around contemporary art through their galleries, a series of workshops and lectures called Conscious Realities, and their residency program, San Art Laboratory. They’re currently in serious financial jeopardy and hosting a fundraiser with an online auction on Paddle8.

Nguyễn Trần Nam, installation show, image courtesy the gallery.
Nguyễn Trần Nam, installation view (image courtesy the gallery)

The work by Nguyen is the best in the show. Tucked in a darkened back room, Nguyen’s installation deals with death with a refined but hauntingly powerful touch. After a visit to the Independence Palace in HCM, Nguyen was struck by the president’s room filled with trophy animal heads; considering Ngô Đình Diệm’s use of the death penalty for social control in the 1950s, Nguyen began contemplating death as a symbol of power. While taxidermied animals have long been prized by the elite, Nguyen’s reimagines the guillotine as both a symbolic and utilitarian trophy for power.

Like most countries, Vietnam has a bloody history, but it remains in the recent collective consciousness. Reflecting on this past, Nguyen poses a simple but profound question: What if death can be used as a tool? If so, how efficacious is it? What political gain is served by death?

Nguyen is also one of the rare artists who can artfully use blood in a work. Like Marc Quinn’s “Self,” Nguyen uses his own blood in “Endless Loop” (2014), a simple but devastating piece consisting of stone, tin, and blood. “Endless Loop” is a dismal history of blood and progress at the most fundamental level: from stone tools we forged metal, and look where that got us — lots of blood.

Nguyen’s subtly devastating art recalls Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. The work is deeply political but allots space for the audience to breath, to draw their own conclusions. Visually neat and simple, the pieces elicit a haunting internal debate.

Phạm Đình Tiến, installation shot.
Phạm Đình Tiến, installation view

Phạm Đình Tiến uses the disappearance of Malaysian Airline Flight 370 as a springboard for a reflection on the precariousness of our own lives. The work is a very well executed and tight series. Using mirrors and chrome, Phạm places the viewer into the doomed plane, and asks, how would you confront your own death? How would you change your life if you knew you’d die tomorrow?

The work is visually pleasing, but I felt as though Phạm was using the recent disaster as an easy hook. In another work, a video called “Yesterday” (2014), he references the face of a young victim of the crash. This felt crass and distanced me from asking the important questions Phạm was hoping to elicit.

Phạm Đình Tiến, "When," (2014)
Phạm Đình Tiến, “When” (2014)

Phạm’s best work is “When” (2014), which is more ambiguous and poetic. “Time seems to freeze with a flock of airplanes instead of roaming the sky, lay dead on the ground. These planes are akin to fruit on a tree, once ripe they fall,” the exhibition essay explains. Reflecting on this tragic but natural process of life and death is the best of what Phạm’s work has to offer.

Rudy Atjeh has made a vibrant and immersive multimedia installation that I enjoyed but was out of place with the rest of the show. While Phạm and Nguyễn deal with death in a subtle manner, with post-minimalist forms, Atjeh’s installation is exciting and chaotic, asking very different questions about culture, tradition, and trade.

Rudy Atjeh, "Jeumpa," (2014)
Rudy Atjeh, “Jeumpa,” (2014)

During Atjeh’s residency in HCM, the artist was inspired by the similarities between his hometown of Aceh, Indonesia, and HCM. Using colorful lights, paper cut-outs, rice, and sound, Atjeh captures the vibrancy of marketplaces and the complex trade relationships that connected Vietnam to his home country.

Marketplaces are one of my favorite destinations in a new city. They are often the liveliest spaces where a tourist can easily visit and see what the culture is really about. What do people eat? How do they bargain? How do they talk casually in public? Atjeh’s installation — with the sounds of the market bouncing about the gallery — captures that energy.

Come to [What] End? is the best show I’ve seen during my rushed 20 days in Vietnam. I left stewing on big and important questions, rereading the exhibition statement several times for clarity and further contemplation.

Come to [What] End? continues at Sàn Art (3 Me Linh Street, Binh Thanh District, HCMC, Vietnam) through February 5.

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