video and moving image works
Exhibition Essay by Gabby Quynh Anh Miller
22 June – 5 August, 2011
Skylines without Flying People | Những chân trời không có người bay
Contemporary Art from Hanoi, curated by Linh Phuong Nguyen
Rory Gill Fine Art Gallery, London
Nguyen Trinh Thi’s sound and video installation “Unsubtitled” offers a haunting and defiant
testament to the power and fragility of Hanoi’s experimental art scene. In the original installation at Nha
San Studio, luminous figures were projected onto life-size wooden cutouts in the dark. These are the digital
body-doubles of the individual artists who made up Nha San Studio’s social constellation in the Fall of
2010. The installation bends the dialogue surrounding an intense slew of negative media coverage and a
directive by the cultural police to “put on pause” all exhibitions at Nha San Studio. This particular
clampdown was in reaction to photos of artist La Thi Dieu Ha performing in the nude. The images
circulated like wildfire through the internet, making public evidence of the first instance of a female artist
performing naked within the country. “Unsubtitled” opened the studio back up when the period of laying
low ran its course.
Thi directed each artist to face the camera, eat an item of food, and then state their name followed
by the name of the food they had just consumed. Suggesting a kind of review stand, the pseudointerrogation
sessions do not result in self-criticisms. Instead we see and hear a chorus of overlapping
statements-of-the-obvious: the basic human act of eating was just committed. Examining the gap between
artists and the general public, and questioning long running methods of surveillance and intimidation
pervasive in Vietnam, Thi creates an ethereal portrait of this time in Hanoi, and of the artists who
NGUYEN TRINH THI “UNSUBTITLED” AT NHA SAN
Bradford Edwards Hanoi Vietnam April 2011
For Asian Art News
This video installation, “Unsubtitled”, was a significant event in Vietnam on a few levels. First, it might have been the most complicated, technologically speaking, art event yet in the country. With more than 20 apple laptops and numerous projectors utilizing specialized software the needed coordination was almost unimaginable for the local production team. On top of this fact was the most important feature of the project – the sophistication and intelligence of the concept behind the artwork. Nguyen Trinh Thi simply showed regular, typical “ordinary” Vietnamese people standing and eating – brilliant, disarming, funny, warm and powerful.
Of course, all is not as it appears in the art world, especially the Vietnamese one. The so-called ordinary people were not ordinary at all – art stars, cultural legends and “heavy locals” were the 20 people in the video. It was an endless loop of these people eating various local Vietnamese fair (like carrots, bread, cucumber, fruit, sweet cakes, etc.) and even smoking cigarettes. Thi used large life-sized cutouts sheets of MDF board to accommodate the projected figures. They had to be large enough to show normal movement of eating (or smoking) with the hands moving, etc.
The low ceiling of the large room helped contain the blacked out background that was necessary for the full effect of these “eating people”. Everyone wore “regular” clothes and appeared as if they had just been hustled in off the street and ushered into this live performance. Only it wasn’t live as live as it seemed, and it really did appear “live”. Golden kudos to Thi and the large supportive production team that pulled this off. An accomplished and multi-talented artist, Jamie Maxtone-Graham, was the cameraman behind the lens of all the projectors – all 10 of them (some of them multi-tasking with 2-3 people at once). It was a miracle that this all worked – to the audience it all seemed fine, no worries at all – looked good, smelled good, tasted good.
Because of the bright shiny lure of “new media” artwork in Vietnam (not new by the way at all in the rest of the world for some time now), it seems like everyone and their little brother is doing video and/or performance. Most of it poorly conceived and sloppily executed – yawn. And all it apppears self-indulgent, in love with itself and always, always going on for too long. Also this video/performance form seems to attract the less talented in the pool of potential talent. Not so this time with “Unsubtitled”. Nope.
“The Wizard of Oz”, behind the velvet curtain pulling the levers and pushing all the buttons, Thi was there and not there. Irony was in abundance as the artist took the care to issue the following brief explanation/statement about the work, “Eating needs no explanation”. It was as if her intent was to “demystify” the conceptual basis for the artwork in the first place. After all, it was obviously intended as an “artwork” as the viewing context was pure art world; the people participating in the production were all artists themselves or somehow directly connected to “art practice” in some form (in fact, they were all from the tightly knit “Nha San” community).
All this background information proved much less important than the success of the actual viewing of the endless loop of the people eating. Nguyen Trinh Thi, whatever she is – filmmaker, artist, academic, teacher, mother, wife – hit the mark with this one. “Unsubtitled” was simple, direct, universal and humorous – soul food for the soulful, crumbs and all.
“Unsubtitled” Video Installation
Reviewed by Hanoi Grapevine
Posted: 22 Nov 2010. Filed under: Art, Opinion, Video.
KVT Review of UNSUBTITLED
A Munch Crunch success
Special thanks to Jamie Maxtone-Graham for his photos and video!
The subject of today’s opinion piece truly deserves a 3 star Michelin rating.
Way back in 2000 when the world was younger and video art was not as technologically advanced as it is today, I was at a video art biennale and I started to understand the power that this art medium can have by watching the feminist work of Iranian Shirin Neshat , and the great humor it can display by getting acquainted with Swiss Pipilotti Rist. I was captivated for a long time by some quietly emotional meditations of Bill Viola, and a hugely effective parody by Canadian Stan Douglas. Then I wandered into a dark gallery and was held spellbound by American Gary Hill’s video,‘Viewer’ . It was one of those works that, if I were a video artist I knew that I’d want to reference and then play around with ideas that spun out of it like sparks from a Catherine wheel. So imagine my delight when I walked towards the undercroft gallery at Nha San and found that Nguyen Trinh Thi was on my wave length with a really excellent video art installation. It’s a delight – amusing, thoughtful and very watchable. Like Hill, Trinh Thi has used modern technologies to create sculptures and environments that take the viewers on a ride through their minds.
Titled ‘Unsubtitled” and the statement is “Eating needs no explanation”, the installation has characters projected onto cut-out screens and each one, or pairs, are on individual loops. Each eats a different type of food as we observe and impossibly attempt to catch their eyes. At times, as they wipe away the residue of food, the eaters state who they are and what they’re eating and the voices add a human element that catches you by surprise. The sounds of their eating resonate around you. As yet the sounds are not all working but it is easy to imagine the cacophony of crunch, slurp, chew etc etc if you were enveloped in the middle of the installation. The lone smoker adds an unusual twist and at times I desperately wanted to give him a receptacle for his ash and butt.
On the night I visited, viewers were invited to wander into and around inside the seeming 3D installation and this added an intimate dimension as you came eyeball to eyeball with the eaters and had a stereophonic sound experience.
Although the installation is site specific to Nha San you can see it working fabulously successfully in a host of locations and sites. My fertile mind has already appropriated it and wants to put the characters in different blacked out rooms along a dark corridor and you’d be invited to open the doors and relate to the eaters, or it would be a great performance piece with the viewers given stuff to eat as they watched. But it definitely needs to be widely seen and I think it would, after its minor glitches have been worked on, find a place in a good museum of modern art.
Too often you come across video art that seems to be vapid, self-indulgent and tedious. Trinh Thi has jumped that hurdle and given us a very watchable and immersive piece of art that does what all good video art should do, as one pioneer of video and performance art, Joan Jonas, puts it: “explore the boundaries of the medium or rigorously attack the viewers expectations of video as shaped by conventional cinema”.
Congratulations to the chef of this wonderful concoction,Trinh Thi, and to all her technological savvy kitchen hands. I sincerely hope that the piece gets more airings and locations and that any developments of the concept (which could be many) are pushed in my viewing direction.
If I had a fairy godfather I’d have asked him to magic everyone else away for an hour or two so that I could have had the installation to myself for an hour or two just to savor it thoroughly and then my next wish would be that he’d wave his magic wand so that I’d stop being a technological luddite and be able to become a video artist of Trinh Thi’s calibre.