Enoch Cheng (AAA): In Salt, a work produced as the result of the four months of research in the salt villages in Vietnam, you use salt as the medium. What led you to research salt villages? What did you learn?
Phuong Linh Nguyen (PLN): In the summer of 2008, my friends and I went to the sea in TinhGia, ThanhHoa, in north Vietnam. There I first saw a salt village. I talked to the salt workers and was inspired by Vietnamese salt, the landscape of salt fields, and by how salt is produced. Vietnamese salt is not as nice and clean as Japanese or American salt, nor is it like the cave salt of India or Poland; Vietnamese salt is found in big, dirty, humid, coarse crystals. The production is all done by hand, not by any industrial machine. In the north, most of the salt workers are women and children, while men often do other jobs such as sailing or construction or work at factories. In central and southern Vietnam the weather is more stable and pleasant, and the salt jobs are more comfortable.
Vietnam is rimmed by a long ocean coast, which makes for a long history of salt collection. Different geographies, weather, and religions lead to different ways of making salt in Vietnam. But in general, work collecting salt is very hard and Vietnamese salt workers struggle for life.
AAA: In opposition to your earlier works, which focus more on female identity and often include shocking imagery, such as Pink Dress and Allergy where you put nails and needles in female clothing, you describe your current work as 'simple'. What brought about this change? Can you give us some examples?
PLN: When I first learned to make art, my work focused on feminist identity and sexual issues. It was a natural instinct. There are very few female artists in Vietnam. Vietnamese society places a lot of pressure and barriers on female artists: censorship, cultural expectations of the role of a woman in the family… I think making strong feminist and sexual work is needed to express a woman’s identity in Vietnam. I wanted to be free and strong to break out of these barriers and judgments.
Now my concerns have changed. Feminist works, shocking imagery… are no longer interesting to me. To me, what I did before are sculptures or digital images that are built up as monuments; the audiences walking around the monuments and the ideas behind the works were quite easy, shallow… that became boring and too easy to me. I want to create something that is more exciting, more complex and meaningful. I want to be involved in communications that allow for the possibility of collaboration. I want to challenge myself to be patient with materials. The materials/objects/spaces have a meaning, and in my work, I just want the material to stand by itself originally, without the need to put any polish on it. I want to find simplicity and wisdom in visual language.
The Salt project changed me. I grew up while working and living with the salt people. It was not just my involvement in the environment and getting to know people that affected me, but also forming new concepts of how art can be made.
For example the Flower installation was a result of communicating with working people. I asked for used clothes from the salt people. These clothes were easily torn because of sweat, ocean water, the sun… Therefore I asked for the used clothes of farmers, workers, anyone… Then I collected 700 pieces of used, unwashed clothes that were stained and still remained dirty and sweaty… I folded them simply as a roll. They looked like a flower, then I named the work Flower.
AAA: You said, 'I feel extremely at ease with performance art because it is one of the most honest, direct, and fundamental art forms'. When and why did you get involved in performance?
PLN: I first joined a performance workshop by Seiji Shimoda from Japan at the Goethe Institute in 2003. Then I started experimenting with performance works. I started to do performance out of curiosity and excitement. It was a new, experimental, underground art form in Vietnam. I wanted to try many new mediums and ways of expression.
Then I got the chance to join some performance art festivals in Japan, Myanmar, and Vietnam. I met and networked with international performance artists. In 2010, with Bill Nguyen, an artist friend, we organised IN:ACT – international performance art event in Hanoi that brought 11 international artists from America, Holland, China, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Myanmar… to collaborate and give workshops with 9 Vietnamese local artists.
I think performance is very important to the Vietnamese contemporary art scene now. It is convenient, quick, free, and there is no need to get permission… an artist doesn't need many tools or materials, just himself and some other simple objects… to make a performance… anywhere, in a studio or public space… It is very interactive; facing the audience opens many ways of collaboration…
AAA: Can you tell us about your experiences chewing watermelon in the performance and sculpture Chewing? How did you feel before, during, and after making the work? How did the audience react?
PLN: It made my mouth so tired. Then I used my hands to squeeze watermelon as well. Chewing and then spiting out food is my old habit from childhood. In this piece, I chose watermelon to chew and spit because of its colour and smell. The transformation of the material was the main idea. I like the confusion.
For the first installation, people got a bit confused. They thought it was meat, candle wax, or tomato.
For the performance piece, I collected the juice in a plastic bag, then after I finished chewing, I picked up a needle from another artist who was performing next to me (he was poking needles into a pig’s heart), and then I punctured the bag, and the juice came out as if it was a shower.
Performance and installation are very different experiences. In the installation of this work, people didn’t actually see the process of chewing and spitting. They just saw the result, and got confused, and excited because of the nice smell, and the strange imagery. But in the performance piece, most of people said that they felt that it was violent. The juice looked like blood.
AAA: Some of your works are often creepy yet, to a certain extent, humorous like Kunst face. What led you to make this work?
PLN: When I was in Italy, I had the idea to make Kunst face as a reminder of Vietnamese language. In Hanoi, cunt-face is a common insult; everybody says it to each other. I think cunt-face is an international term, used in every country in the world. I wanted to make an illustration to see what a cunt-face would really look like. It was a joke to me. It turned out to be a disturbing visual, as if it was an orange dioxin victim.
AAA: I heard that you are developing some projects with the households who refuse to move though their land was requisitioned for a construction project in northern Hanoi city. What are some of the works that you do there?
PLN: In 2008 the government decided to destroy a part of Hoang HoaTham street to build a highway bridge. After 3 years, there is still no bridge because of bureaucratic corruption, however, the ruined area looks like a bombsite. Some families still remain in this area. They want to stay to fight until they get paid enough.
In Jan 2011, Bill Nguyen, Gabby, Tuan Mami, and I did a project in this area. We became friends with a husband and wife and asked to use their store as our studio for one month. Bill took photos, Gabby drew, and Mami did some performances.
I did 2 works there.
1: Travelling plants, in which I collected wild plants and plants left by the families that used to live there. Then I put these plants in a suitcase, which belonged to one of the neighbors who had been exported to East Germany (in the 80s, after the American War, thousands of Vietnamese were exported to post-communist countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and East Germany… to work as labourers). The suitcase was bought in Germany and used for more than 27 years. Now it was broken. He wanted to throw it away and I asked him to give it to me.
2: The city, in which I collected rubbish (such as ceramics, bricks, coal ash, cutting board…) to build up a small city on the 2nd floor of the studio.
AAA: Besides being an artist, you also write about contemporary art in Hanoi. What is your view on the writing scene in Vietnam? Do you consider yourself a professional art critic?
PLN: Well to be honest, Vietnamese contemporary art needs more critics and archives. We need some sharp and wise critics to give artists feedback, ideas… which I think would help artists in seeing things differently. Vietnamese artists are lavished with too much praise. Art critics need to learn and read to be wise and serious and really care about art, politics, social movements… But I don’t see many art critics like that in Vietnam yet. I think it is due to education; access to professional contemporary art is too narrow in Vietnam. Not only is the number of artists so small, but also there are few contemporary art writers.
I wrote some articles introducing international artists, as well as some local artists that I admired. But I don’t consider myself to be a professional art critic. To be a critic, I would need to learn so much more. I consider myself to be doing the job of archiving and sharing.
AAA: Tell us about your organisation Nhasan Studio.
PLN: I started to organise exhibitions and events at Nhasan Studio in 2009. In 2010, together with my artist friend Bill Nguyen, we hosted IN:ACT - international performance art event, which I mentioned above. I'm in charge of organising an ‘emerging artist programme’ of 6 solo exhibitions of 6 young artists in Hanoi.
I feel very comfortable working at Nhasan because Nhasan is different from other international culture offices in Vietnam. The other spaces such as Goethe Institute, British Council, Lespace… only choose the works of established artists. But Nhasan nurtures and supports artists to develop ideas, and then the artists are free to do whatever they need to to create, be it digging a hole, drilling a wall, even opening the roof of the house, cutting the poles, changing the colour of the space.... It is a working space, a meeting point. It is also a family so artists feel comfortable, at ease, and confident here. The artists that I work with are my friends, whom I grew up with. We have worked together… I understand their practices, motivations and personalities… So our relationship is not just that of organiser and artists, but more like that of close friends.
AAA: You will be going to Fukuoka for a residency. What do you hope to accomplish?
PLN: Japan is a unique and inspiring country to me. I’m so impressed by the geography of Japan… I’m even more impressed by Japanese people, and by how modest, honest, strong, and substantive they are. I hope to live well and enjoy every moment in daily life in Japan to get more inspiration for creating art. I had a project plan in Fukuoka, but I hope it will change during my stay.
I really like that the art in Japan is so varied: pop, design, conceptual… And in each medium, the artist is very detailed, careful, and thoughtful. They produce works that are perfect, sharp, clean, and often very conceptual. I want to learn from them, to exchange and network with them.
- Mon, 1 Aug 2011