“The traditional analysis of knowledge […] takes knowledge to be a species of belief—specifically, justified true belief.” (Eric Schwitzgebel)
“[…] (dominant among psychologists and psychiatrists), delusions are belief states – it is an important diagnostic feature of delusions that they can lead to action and that they can be reported with conviction, and thus that they behave as typical beliefs.” (Lisa Bortolotti)
Belief has been one of the broadest and most debatable topics of the study of humanity. Belief as a philosophical enquiry or a psychiatric study often employs the empirical sciences as a way to prove that belief’s validity or impact. Belief is also a manipulative vehicle often utilized for political propaganda or in particular contexts seen as a threat to authority. ‘Unconditional Belief’ is an exhibition by collective ‘Art Labor’ (Truong Cong Tung, Phan Thao Nguyen and Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran), who imaginatively explores the concept of ‘belief’ in Vietnam by examining particular site and historical account. The exhibition surveys different layers of belief – from human dependence on spiritual power or sacred object in healing sickness, to the usage of education to disseminate religious ideas.
Truong Cong Tung studies Vietnamese people’s belief in suffering, fate and ideas of the supernatural. Like an anthropologist, he carried out field trips and research in ‘Magic Garden’ in Long An Province (a private garden open to the public believed to have healing powers), where he looked into people’s spiritual beliefs and rituals, practices yet to be verified by science as a cure. In his research, he discovered belief, or rather delusion is like dream and used as an effective tool to treat patients by psychiatrists. Cong Tung also expands his research to rituals of worshipping sacred objects believed to grant people wishes. His half-fictional, half-documentary artworks reveal layers of belief resulting from collective suffering or individual misery.
Phan Thao Nguyen uses religious belief as a starting point to trace the history of modern Vietnamese script, a Romanized alphabet system supposedly first introduced in the 17th century by Alexandre de Rhodes – a French Jesuit missionary – as an alterative writing system to the traditional pictographic character. Thao Nguyen creates her own imagined school named after de Rhodes, of which the curriculum is a place to experiment the belief: in the un-seeable, the poetic and the beautiful. In this obscure school, where everyone is blindfolded, she showcases blindness and illiteracy as the real obstacles of learning for pupil and teacher. She asks what justifies belief when there is no literacy and knowledge, but only poetry and beauty?
Selecting each project’s theme, curator Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran invites scientists from interdisciplinary fields to be collaborators and consultants for Art Labor. Their research process takes place like a laboratory of knowledge and artistic experiments. Besides organizing and designing art exhibitions, the collective curator helps conducting educational workshops between the artists, and scientists with different kinds of public, from academic students to hospital patients and bringing art projects to unconventional spaces such as hospitals or universities. Consequently, in that curatorial and research approach, Unconditional Belief is not simply an artwork display; it also experiments with the possibility of reading an exhibition as an artistic research book. Entering this book / exhibition, the viewers can walk in, touch, see and read; they will encounter turning points of the artists’ investigations, traces of their references from academic sciences, hints to decode the artworks and even the collective’s plan for future projects. Art Labor’s artistic productions for Unconditional Belief include artworks, texts, objects appearing in the exhibition, such as research materials and architectural, visual and audio sensations. Each of those elements contributes to the core concept of Unconditional Belief: the tension between belief, knowledge and delusion.
Art Labor’s Unconditional Belief is an invited project of Prod/Ponder of Conscious Realities program at Sàn Art. Being a part of this program enabled Art Labor to extend their interdisciplinary activities to a broader audience by collaboration with the Anthropology Department, University of Social Sciences and Humanity of Vietnam National University. Art Labor organized two intensive workshops with the students and lecturers in December 2013. During the workshop, the participants were provided foundational knowledge of art history’s understanding of iconography and Art Labor’s visual art practices. Workshop participants, whose anthropological theories and experiences were close to Art Labor’s concept of Unconditional Belief, shared collective dialogue between anthropology, sociology and visual art, discussing the potential of cross-disciplinary research, focusing on the impact of spirituality on Vietnamese society and culture.
Schwitzgebel, Eric, “Belief”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/belief/>
Bortolotti, Lisa, “Delusion”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/delusion/>