As with the rest of the Southeast Asian region, Vietnam has seen a spiked increase of video production in the past decade, courtesy of the wide introduction of cheap video technology, pirated DVDs and software, and easy access to the Internet. The new material produced in this period explore new technical, thematic and conceptual territories, coupled with new ways of distribution, which provide an interesting contrast to a local educational system still falling short on contemporary art and video education.
Việt Nam Phở Sho is a sampler of this phenomena, in the form of a series of exhibitions and screenings that survey Vietnam’s best video work from the past five years, as represented by some of the most interesting artists, spaces and initiatives working with the video medium. This project aspires to be an introduction that will hopefully spark the first of many collaborations between the Philippines and Vietnam.
Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City contributes ‘A twist of the past for the present’ with 5 single-channel installations by four artists and one collective, on view at the UPFI Ishmael Bernal Gallery and Green Papaya Art Projects. In between are special screenings of select works at UPFI’s videotheque and Green Papaya Art Projects.
A TWIST OF THE PAST FOR THE PRESENT
The contemporary cultural landscape of Vietnam is provocatively engaged in these five short videos presented by San Art. In these works, the residue of military control is nuanced in Red Etude by Nguyễn Minh Phước; the gradual demise of folk traditions is musically referred in Memories by Nguyễn Như Huy; the lament of lost knowledge and youth is repetitively in rewind with Nguyễn Trinh Thi; the irony of the Vietnam War and the symbols/narratives of survival is animated with Đỉnh Q Lê and the contentious usage of public space in Vietnam is graffitied with Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn and Phù Nam Thúc Hà. This body of work was first screened in London at TATE Modern in May 2010 as part of San Art’s participation in No Soul For Sale 2.
South China Sea Pishkun by Dinh Q. Lê | 6:30 min | 2009
This video is Lê’s first animation, and it turns on the liberation of Saigon on April 30, 1975, which precipitated the infamous and chaotic evacuation of the remaining U.S. presence by helicopter. Hundreds of helicopters fled in panic out to the South China Sea in hopes of landing on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. An unknown number of them crashed, or were pushed off over-burdened carriers into the sea. The helicopter, that ubiquitous wartime machine with its ominous trademark sound became practically synonymous with Vietnam because of its wide use – and widespread failure – during the conflict. Between 1962 and 1973 alone, almost five-thousand U.S. helicopters fatally crashed, with fully half of these due to mechanical failures.
In Lê’s meticulously clean, hyper-real animation, rough waters lie in wait to claim metal wreckage as helicopter after helicopter falls into the sea. The helicopters are without pilots; some hover, struggling desperately to maintain above the waters before finally giving in; some seem like lifeless masses thrown violently from a merciless sky, while still others dive into the waters with a suicidal mania. In a spectacular, never ending display, the U.S. war machine, once symbolizing American might and technical prowess, fails over and over and over again. (written by Hong-An Truong)
Spring Comes Winter After by Nguyễn Trinh Thi | 4:03 min | 2009
In ‘Spring Comes Winter After’ 2009, Thi observes the funeral of Le Dat, a Vietnamese poet who was part of a 1950s literary and intellectual movement in Northern Việt Nam called ‘Nhan Van-Giai Pham (Humanism and Works of Beauty)’, which criticized life under communism. He was later banned from publishing for three decades, and it was not until 2007 that the Vietnamese government decided to grant him a prestigious national award in an effort to reconcile the grievances of the past. Nguyễn states ‘As the avant-garde artists like this poet were forced to be silent, Vietnamese art and literature suffered decades of decay’. In this short documentary film,the eye of her camera focuses on the grief of those in attendance of the funeral of this celebrated poet, many of whom are Việt Nam’s contemporary established writers and intellectuals, Thi’s camera however rolls time in reverse, the procession of people reverentially moving around Le Dat’s coffin depicted in rewind. This reversal of time could refer to Thi’s many interviews with Le Dat before he died where he once said that it was a common feeling among many of his generation that his youth was completely lost and wasted away. By reversing time in ‘Spring comes Winter after’, Thi wishes his youth to be returned to him.
Memories by Nguyễn Như Huy | 5:22 min | 2007
Across the diverse Asian continent, the struggle for its contemporary society to reconcile its traditions with the pace of modern life is an every day dilemma. In Vietnam, many artists attempt to engage this tug-o-war with the past. How to innovate tradition so that it’s meaning and value is transferred to contemporary ways of living? For Huy, art is both a visual and a textual way of re-engaging a community’s historical memory. In ‘Memories’, 4 people each play a different Vietnamese traditional instrument. They are performing ‘Ca Tru’, an ancient form of song in Vietnam. According to custom, each instrument performs like a character in a play, never ‘singing’ at the same time. However in Huy’s version, each musician plays their own melody as if oblivious to the presence of others in the room, thus altering the form of this traditional composition. These 4 people are part of the same family, each struggling to maintain full-time work whilst continuing their studies of this national art form. Through this work, Huy asks how can the memories of our past and desire for a future coalesce in a present with equal voice?
Uh… by Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn and Phù Nam Thúc Hà / The Propeller Group | 6:17mins | 2007
The Propeller Group seeks to demonstrate how the culture of Vietnam is changing due to influences from other countries and the impact of the nation’s youth. Graffiti is used as a metaphor to show how the youth culture is trying to adapt to these transformations in Ho Chi Minh City. The word “Uh” is tagged on different walls and surfaces throughout the city. As people pass by on foot or on motorized bikes behind the painted graffiti, we realize that the “Uh” is set on top of the film rather than on the walls. It becomes clear that this is not an actual tag, but exists in an invented space created by the artists. This makes the viewer question whether the cultural and physical change occurring in Vietnam is also real or simply perceived.
The use of graffiti and English words exemplifies the loss of cultural identity and native traditions in Vietnam, especially in Ho Chi Minh City. Graffiti is spontaneous and uninvited, the antithesis of what the socialist Vietnamese government allowed. It is unscripted, loose, and in sharp contrast to the orderliness that was imposed on the Vietnamese. The inclusion of non-traditional elements such as graffiti illustrates how individuality is currently manifested in a country where personal expression was barred by the government. Looking at the idiosyncratic interruption of graffiti, the viewer can extrapolate how individual personalities are impacting the visual and cultural landscape of the country.
Red Etude (Khúc Luyện Đỏ) by Nguyễn Minh Phước | 5 min | 2009
The human condition has been of central focus to much of Nguyễn Minh Phước’s conceptual work, which embraces installation, sculpture and video. Compelled to make art that addresses the social gap between rich and poor, between social elite and social downtrodden, between those who are considered intellectuals, military men or humble laborers, much of Phước’s work questions governance and control. Critical of the way in which his country’s progress lacks an awareness of its own past, a kind of endemic attitude of complacency, ‘Red Etude’ 2009 draws on several cultural narratives of Vietnam. A woman, dressed in military uniform and waving a red flag, dances the forms of ‘tai chi’, a Chinese form of meditation that believes body movement moves inner spiritual energies. In the background, black and white footage of Hanoi weaves yet another story of this military clad, traditional dance. People are shown protesting, giving alms, staring blankly in desolation, moving busily with ambiguous purpose – all of these juxtapositions are deliberate visual ploys by Phước who asks us to think harder about the contemporary identity of Vietnam.
‘A Twist of the Past for the Present’ is presented by Green Papaya Art Projects and San Art in cooperation with UPFI Film Center, DIA/PROJECTS and Visual Pond.