Signs and signals from the periphery: Ho Chi Minh City / Medellin
Two cities, similar social realities, mirrored at certain physical junctures
Two cities healing from a history of political conflict and trauma
One uses restriction of knowledge as method of protection, while the other seeks to disseminate knowledge as a method of protection
A project in progress ……
We have been hitting the streets near daily since arrival in Medellin, our local collaborators introducing us to the tangible and intangible creative social systems of Medellin, and its curious how similar they are to our home of Ho Chi Minh City, from the nomadic street vendors selling coffee; to the fruit and vegetable sellers with their personalized, custom-built bikes and carts; to the abstraction of particular objects as visual signs of drug or sex trade. In Medellin, what was markedly noticeable however was the frequency with which systems of protection was discussed, from the Virgin Mary statues placed in community parks as symbols warding off gang warfare; the ‘invisible borders’ (often river pathways) in territorial gang disputes that mark safety zones for the community; to the manicured recreational parks in areas such as Castille that increasingly deter the attention of young gang recruits away from violence. We met Don Miguel the founder of ‘Tinto el buen sabor’, whose coffee-selling business that began out of a social conscience is now an empire that employs over 150 local street-people in selling over 3000 litres of coffee a day in Downtown Medellin; we met Jose Manuel Barrio Nevo who fought for the use of the plaza outside Parque Berrio station for over 70 migrant-worker musicians to gather in dance in pursuit of their village-life community. All of these social networks are an impressionable visual presence indicative of a collective need, but they are also complex psychological strategies that demarcate and protect the usage and understanding of space. Like Vietnam, they are social and economic processes inherently tangled in political histories and class stereotype and sadly far too often overlooked as crucial elements of the larger social body. For Dinh Q Le, who began this project in Ho Chi Minh City, it was also, firstly, a visual lure to see street vendors crafting sculptural promotional assemblages that called forth the art of Dan Flavin, Fluxus or the ‘relational’ aesthetic ‘happenings’ of Rirkrit Tiravanijia (and often with more success). What was critical to the first body of work Le produced for this project in Vietnam and also to the collaborative creation of the second stage of this project in Medellin, was the question of ‘value’ and how the specificity of art as site offers space for a re-evaluation of the social strategies and services we take for granted. In keeping with the MDE11 examination of shaping and re-creating knowledge through art, this project-in-progress poses/contrasts the periphery of Ho Chi Minh City as a parallel dimension of Medellin…
‘Safety Zone’ by Daniel Felipe Escobar
The small flags of security companies that often can be found on the awnings of small business on the street are used as visual deterrent for crime in many metropolitan cities. In Medellin however these flags are visual signs ironically placed by police. Struck by the knowledge that the violence in Medellin is constantly on the move and that these areas where these flags are found are often the most notorious for its lack of security, Daniel Felipe Escobar took video documentation of his own ‘Safety Zone’ that moved through Medellin.
‘Infrastructure of Nationalism’ by Dinh Q Le
The usage of the Vietnamese flag as a social symbol is heavily monitored by the Communist State. Bike vendors selling the national flag are popular during sporting events in Vietnam (the only public events where large gatherings are permitted). When the home team has won, mass movement on the streets unfolds where young people wave their country’s flag in excitable glee. In this ‘readymade’ sculpture, Dinh Q Le pokes a cynical finger at the Vietnamese government for its national image is being held up by a rickety bike that reflects the unstable condition of Vietnamese society.
I’m Large. I Contain Multitudes’ by Dinh Q Le
This ‘readymade’ sculpture is a street vendors’ customized bike from Ho Chi Minh City. Ever since Dinh Q Le returned to live in Vietnam in the mid 1990s, the diversity of his hometown and its local strategies of doing business have continuously enamored him. This title refers to a poem by Walt Whitman entitled ‘Song of Myself’, where the idea of ‘self’ is such a complex, multitudinous entity that it operates often in a state of contradiction, not dissimilar to the historical character of Vietnam.
‘Me De Llin: Worthy of the Party, Great Glorious Leader, Hero of the People’ by Camila Botero
Compelled by the telling of her city through the exclamation of guests who marvel at its similarity to their own, Camila Botero is struck by how easy it is to take your own visual environment for granted. Drawn to the propaganda posters plastered across the urban architecture of Ho Chi Minh City, whose slogans are locally considered illogical statements of social aspiration and protection, Camila’s photographs seek to play tricks with the people of Medellin in an attempt to make them re-consider the messages of their own immediate community.
‘Virgin Mary of Medellin’ by Dinh Q Le
Intriguingly, statues of the Virgin Mary that are found as carefully tendered symbols of community protection in public parks across Medellin, are being slowly removed by the government. Dinh Q Le is struck by the relationship between these religious icons and the six Bibliotheca that were commissioned for the city, by Mayor Luis Perez. A push towards modernity is slowly taking place as the acquisition of knowledge now stands where faith once operated as a symbol of social protection.
‘Dear Mother’ by Dinh Q Le
Dinh Q Le enlisted the help of eight street-based letter writers to give their own perspective on the current local situation of Medellin by asking them to compose letters to Dinh Q Le’s mother, reassuring her of his safety.
‘Alternative current’ by Valentina Canseco
Understanding the population of Medellin as divided into physical and psychological zones of restriction (determined by the steep landscape of Santo Domingo or the territorial gang disputes of Castille), Valentina Canseco makes careful acknowledgement of the critical importance of civic services, such as electricity, in protecting and connecting community life. Here, she also refers to the metaphor of light as an essential tool that nurtures social improvement.
‘Garden on the move’ by Dinh Q Le
Gardens hold myriad purpose in history. From the ‘Garden of Eden’ in biblical mythology, to the decadent palace landscapes of Louis XIV, to the manicured Zen gardens of Japan and what all of these complex creations share is a philosophical pursuit of man’s relationship to the idea of beauty. Do we re-shape, accept, control or erase? In Vietnam, the public parks established under French rule are increasingly given over to high-rise developments. Here Dinh Q Le notes the beauty of a tended tree as it is given life, though ‘on the move’.
A project initiated by Dinh Q Le in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010 and now in its second stage with three collaborators in Medellin: Camila Botero, Valentina Canseco and Daniel Felipe Escobar.