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’ Tails),” 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 Vietnam War).
Born in Kontum, central Vietnam in 1971, UuDam moved to the United States in 1994, where he earned a BFA from the University of California Los Angeles and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, before returning to Vietnam and settling in Saigon in 2007. During his youth the streets of Saigon 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 1980s and 1990s, opening Vietnam to foreign investment and sparking the precipitous growth that continues to this day.
Fascinated by this massive technological shift which had reshaped the city in his thirteen year absence, UuDam first started working with motorbikes in 2012, producing a video dated that year titled The Waltz of the Motorbike Equestrians (a work which appeared in this exhibition, albeit awkwardly 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 “Rồng Rắn Lên (Serpents’ Tails)” 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 Brisbane, 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 “serpents’ 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 hidden air pumps actually did the work).
The tone shifted from playful to apocalyptic from one moment to the next as one proceeded through the gallery, 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 its miniature child version lying prone on the floor, as if recently shot by poachers. The “elephant in the room” schtick felt painfully obvious, but I suppose that was the point, since it turns out that we humans are remarkably adept at ignoring the obvious warning signs of impending environmental catastrophe that stare us in the face everyday.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was undoubtedly the eponymous 3-channel video, Rồng Rắn Lên (Serpents’ Tails) (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 a troupe of dancers performing with said tubes (there was also a live dance performance at the opening reception, in which the performers tangled with the tubes, of course). In a particularly spectacular scene from the video, a crowd of motorbikers 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 GoPro camera 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 at the gallery one evening. For instance, the motorcyclists recall the Vietnamese folk myth of Thanh Giong, who rode into battle on an iron horse, while the dancers wrestling with the tubes might be compared to the famous sculpture Laocoön and His Sons (c. 42-20 BC) depicting the man and his children being strangled by serpents. The scene of the abandoned building could stand for the Tower of Babel, a cautionary tale of technological hubris and downfall.
During the question and answer period, an audience member asked UuDam whether he felt it was ethical to use so much plastic in the production of his artworks. 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 proposition that one needs to waste plastic to talk about plastic waste feels somewhat dubious, therein lies the crux of the problem: we know 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.
Rồng Rắn Lên (Serpents’ Tails) was on view from April 19-June 1, 2019 at Galerie Quynh, 118 Nguyen Van Thu, Dakao Ward District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In the U.S. his exhibition UuDam Tran Nguyen: TIME BOOMERANG California Edition—From S.E.A. Sea Atolls to the Next Dead Stars remains on view through September 1, 2019 at the Ocean County Museum of Art, South Coast Plaza Village, 1661 West Sunflower Avenue, Santa Ana, California.
David Willis lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. David is a critic, curator, and art advisor, and alum of the MFA Art Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts. He has been based in Vietnam and Thailand since 2015, developing a specialization in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia.