Artist Talk The Last Ride

Artist Talk
© Goethe-Institut Hanoi

In January 2017, the artist Nguyễn Phương Linh exhibited an installation in Goethe-Institut Hanoi. We talked to her, the curator Trương Quế Chi and to Linhs father Nguyễn Mạnh Đức, co-founder of Nhà Sàn studio.

I think that you are a representative of the first generation of contemporary artists in Vietnam and at the same time a face of the traditional arts. Through my researches, I learned that you are also the one who created many spaces for artists to express themselves freely, as Nha San itself is a space where artists come together. Tonight, the artist is your daughter. So how do you feel now that you are here at this exhibition opening?
I’m quite touched that it could take place here at the Goethe-Institut. This has always been a good space for an artist to be exhibited. Generally speaking, the assessment as well as the approach of Germans towards the younger generation and the local art community are quite different. We could say that since very early on, the Germans have been hosting and organizing various programs and activities to foster the growth of the local emerging artists. Other funds and foundations tend to orient towards bringing in their cultures in combination with the culture here; their approach also leans toward cultural education, which, at times, could be rather imposing on the Vietnamese ways of thinking and aesthetics. Goethe-Institut, on the other hand, coexists with Vietnamese artists, encouraging the experiments, the growth, the development of their own artistic languages and independent thinking. In the past, we had Ms. Veronika with us, a German who had had much influence on the art scene during the time of the generation of artists preceding Phương Linh’s. She had trained a number of artists who are the faces of the progressiveness of Vietnamese art, whose names are known not only in Vietnam but also internationally. For those reasons, when I heard that Phương Linh would exhibit her show at the Goethe-Institute, I was glad. This place has a knack for assessment, and this occasion is a good challenge for someone like Phuong Linh.
I have seen the exhibition and I think she has done quite a good job. Actually, Phuong Linh and some other young practitioners used to be so uncertain regarding their mentality as well as their orientation. What to do? How to do it? Those questions. Confronted by the weight of the traditional arts which their generation weren’t necessarily raving about, they wanted to change the state of the traditional arts to reach out to the international art scene. It was and still is a challenging process. In the past, such challenges tempted them to lose track of reality while seeking fluency in Western aesthetics that are too detached from the day-to-day life of the Vietnamese people. However, in recent times, having become more mature, the younger generation starts to pay more attention to the Vietnamese society, more so than their seniors whose concerns lie only in their art and not in bridging art and the current state of affair of the country. It is the younger generation who are doing the latter, and just as I have told one of my friends a moment ago, it is a great blessing to the country. Not only my daughter, but the younger generation are striving for an honest and authentic assessment of the country’s situations, as well as of its culture, environment, attitude — of society at large. I have high hopes that they can achieve what they set out to achieve.
I ought to add that I created many spaces hoping that the artists could have as much freedom as possible, freedom as in freedom without neglecting one’s own responsibilities. The same is true for the younger generation, they strive to seek as much liberation and freedom as possible to create in contemporary Vietnam.
You chose an elephant and a story about the elephant in general. Could you elaborate on its meaning?
At first, I didn’t notice the elephant. When I first traveled to Jarai, my concerns were with the rubber plantation. Through the French colonization it traveled from the southern hemisphere to Vietnam. I made many trips to Jarai, to the central highlands. The first trips were all about the rubber plantation where I collected materials, you can see those rubbers on the floor. I filmed the landscape of the rubber forest, the factory, how people tap the milky fluid in the middle of the night.

However, in recent trips, I felt that I have missed a lot of other sceneries: the Jarai landscape. The color of the red ferrosol. The animals. Not just the elephants but other animals also. The Elephant was attractive for me because in former times, Jarai people had this ritual for their King of Fire. They used to consider elephants as holy animals. During the French colonization, they used elephants to explore and exploit the area. Now the elephants are only used for tourism. They still perform certain rituals, only for tourists to see, and they earn money from that.
I decided to approach an elephant, an elephant for tourists. She was half blind. So from all the footage I documented in Jarai, I edited a film and titled it “Memories of the Blind Elephant”. It’s as fragmented as history is and shows how ambiguous memories are. The elephant was blind, so how could one have a clear picture of history. It’s kind of uncertain and impossible.
It is in a dark room that you presented the story of the rubber and the story of the blind elephant. But before we come into this dark room there is this bright, very white room with objects that we see. What are these and why are they so important?
So when you enter the room, first you enter a kind of lobby. It’s like a waiting room at the cinema. You see the red wall that is already there since the Goethe built the hall. We were very interested in the color also, so we decided to create a very quiet walk in. When you enter the room, you will first see the drawing made from red ferrosol collected from this area depicting an elephant skull. Once you enter, there’s a lance (an elephant goad) that people used to train the elephant. We put it on the back of the ceiling so you can’t really see it in its entirety but only its shadow, almost like an illusion. Then you’ll see many metal structures. We decided to use aluminium to recreate the parts of a frame that the elephants wear to carry the tourists. We decided to deconstruct the frame into smaller pieces. I wanted to construct an architectural feel of something like a neo-archeological site from the future, or a structure made from elephant bones. The room is white and circular, as a circle has neither a starting point nor an end. We put all the futuristic materials under a very strong light as the audience can walk from future and then come back to a black box of memory.
Can you say something about the whole concept of the exhibition series?

Skylines with Flying People 3 is an interdisciplinary art project initiated by Nha San Collective. It starts off with the concepts of “voyage” and “boundary”; in this project, artists venture to different territories, different regions of Vietnam, where they conduct fieldworks, researches as well as aesthetics experiments. The result of this process is a cartograph of a Vietnamese geo-body, one that is drawn from fictions as well as the artists' imagination and sensibility.

This exhibition is about nature. The artist expresses certain feelings and observations towards nature. How would you describe what we see if we transfer the visual to the text of the language?

For the last two exhibitions within Skylines with Flying People 3, as they travelled, both artists collected — another way to put it: they were captivated by — the materials of the location they visited. In addition, they were intrigued by the devastating alterations of the landscapes, by the dire actuality of what was happening at their research location. The initial fascination prompted them to research, examine, scrutinize the local materials, from their forms to their characteristics, in order to create a new landscape in which contemporary issues could be addressed.

So what is the role then, of the art and of the artist, with respect to the public discussion about nature today?

In fact, with Skyline with Flying People 3, one of the goals the curator board wishes to achieve is to deconstruct the hierarchy of thematic issues in art. It means that here the artist’s journey to the periphery instead of the central or the urban, and hence, the topics and the issues of the marginal sectors come to be addressed, researched, and also represented, experienced via the practice of the artist. It is thanks to these aesthetic experiments that the local regional issues are voiced, and that the possibility for a radical, alternative geo-narrative to exist beside the mainstream narrative previously circulated could emerge.