RỒNG RẮN LÊN
SERPENTs' TAILs I TALEs
Rồng Rắn Lên's teaster: https://vimeo.com/317650107
ARTICLE by David Willis (click)
Rồng Rắn Lên (Serpent’s Tail) at Galerie Quynh
Despite being a regular name on the asian Biennale circuit, vietnamese artist UuDam Tran Nguyen had never had a solo show in his home country, and so it felt long overdue when he staged an exhibition last month at Galerie Quynh, one of the leading art spaces in Ho Chi Minh City. Titled Rồng Rắn Lên (Serpents Tail), the show featured video, installation, lightboxes, drawings and performances; the culmination of Nguyen’s long-running engagement with the themes of air pollution, plastic waste, and the uniquely scooter-centric culture that defines Saigon (the old name for Ho Chi Minh City, still used by local “Saigonese,” in spite of the enforced name change at the end of the war).
Born in Kontum, central Vietnam in 1971, UuDam moved to the states in 1994, where he earned a BFA from UCLA and an MFA from SVA, before returning to Vietnam and settling in Saigon in 2007. During his youth the streets were filled with bicycles and xyclos (three-wheeled pedicabs), so it was a shock for him to move back after living abroad to find the city teeming with scooters—a mode of transport that became widely affordable after the economic liberalization of the 80s and 90s, which opened Vietnam to foreign investment and sparked the precipitous growth that continues to this day.
Fascinated and disturbed by this massive technological shift which had reshaped the city in his absence, UuDam first started working with motorbikes in 2012, producing a video titled The Waltz of the Motorbike Equestrians (a work which appeared in this exhibition, displayed in a stairwell landing). The video features dozens of motorcyclists driving slowly together in choreographed unison, set to the tune of a classical waltz. The drivers are garbed in brightly colored plastic raincoats, which are bound together with strings—forcing the volunteer “equestrians” to drive with the utmost care—until the end of the video when they split ranks, snapping the strings and evoking the chaos of Saigon traffic, where drivers swarm together like schools of fish, only to splinter apart moments later.
This video later served as inspiration for UuDam’s ongoing Serpent’s Tail (Rong Ran Len) project, which he first exhibited in 2017 at the Yokohama Art Museum, followed by the Singapore Biennial, and then the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial in Australia, before finally showing it here in Saigon, where the work was made.
The exhibition began outside on the street, with an installation of multi-colored plastic tubes snaking down the facade of the building: the putative ‘serpent’s tails” of the project title. Yet more tubes filled the first floor gallery, entangling a group of motorbikes like an overgrowth of artificial vines. The tubes were affixed to the exhaust pipes of motorbike engines, causing it to appear as if they were inflated with exhaust—although that would of course induce carbon monoxide poisoning in an enclosed space, so there were hidden air pumps doing the work.
The tone shifted from playful to apocalyptic from one moment to the next, mirroring the oscillation between resigned complacency and abject despair experienced whenever one remembers that we are in the midst of a huge and multifaceted ecological crisis, in which we are all somehow complicit. An installation on the second floor featured a giant inflatable elephant and it’s miniature child version lying prone on the floor, as if recently shot by poachers. The “elephant in the room” schtick feels painfully obvious, but I suppose that was the point, since it turns out that we humans are remarkably adept at ignoring the obvious environmental warning signs that stare us in the face everyday.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was undoubtedly the eponymous video, Serpent’s Tail (Rong Ran Len) (2017), which was projected on a loop in a darkened gallery on the third floor. The video features UuDam’s by-now-distinctive plastic tubes being inflated with actual motorbike exhaust, and lots of dancers dancing with said tubes (there was also a dance performance at the opening reception, in which they tangled with the tubes, of course). In a particularly spectacular dance scene from the video, a large group of people on motorbikes surround a single dancer, illuminating him with headlights while he jumps and twirls with a serpent’s tail in his arms. In another whimsical episode, an extra long tube is threaded up through one house, out the window, across the alley, and down through another building; a journey which we experience from inside the tunnel, shot with a go-pro mounted to a remote control car. The final scene takes place at a half-constructed building on the outskirts of town, to which the artist affixed a number of tubes, only to film them being torn down by the wind of an impending storm.
These vignettes all possess symbolic reference points, as UuDam explained in an artist talk and slide-show presentation: for instance, the motorcyclists recall the vietnamese folk myth of Thanh Giong, who rode into battle on an iron horse; the dancers wrestling with the tubes might be compared to the famous sculpture of Laocoon and his sons being strangled by serpents; and the scene with the abandoned building could stand for the tower of babel: a cautionary tale of technological hubris and downfall.
During the Q/A, an audience member asked UuDam whether it was ethical to use so much plastic in the production of his artworks, and the artist responded by admitting that there was some waste involved in his art process, but that he considered it acceptable in the service of art and environmentalism. While the argument that one needs to waste plastic to talk about plastic waste may feel slightly dubious, therein lies the crux of the problem: we know exactly what we are doing to the environment, and yet we can’t seem to break our dependence on fossil fuel and petroleum products—which is why it is useful for art to hold up a mirror to society, and point out the elephant in the room.
-Location: Galerie Quynh - 118 Nguyễn Văn Thủ, Đa Kao, District 1, HCMC, 70000
-Date: April 19 to June 1, 2019
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