Encounters: the curated sector at Art Basel Hong Kong presents 14 large-scale projects
by Rahul KumarMar 22, 2023
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by Sukanya DebPublished on : May 01, 2023
Vietnamese artist Ngoc Nau presented two bodies of work with Vin Gallery as part of her exhibition titled Oral Stories from A Small Village In Northern Vietnam at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023. These works were also shown at Documenta 15 in 2022. The focus of her investigations into land, migration, and industrial exploitation lends new framing to her hometown Thai Nguyen. In its current state, Thai Nguyen province can be seen as a place that is at the brink of economic 'boom,' where the markers of industrial progress are judged by the number and variety of jobs that the new Samsung factories have generated, and the abandonment of agricultural land and knowledge. Nau shed light on the history of the province and the Goddess from the local folklore that protects her hometown.
In a conversation with STIR, she talked about how her interest in addressing the realities of her hometown developed, “As a kid I used to come to my grandparents’ place (next to which factories have now developed) where I would hang out and play in the garden. At the same time, I wanted to know how my family felt about this change and they said they were very happy about the factory coming up in the area, as it would provide a lot of money for them. To me, the money was at the surface of the benefit we got and I was concerned about the future, since the landscape, air, water, soil are all affected with waste from the factory. The traditional house and the rice fields we had are no more, replaced by concrete and temporary housing for workers at the factory. [...] My town is replaced by factories, but at the same time there is a temple that cannot be removed. I try to combine this essence in my work. This can happen anywhere, not just my hometown. That’s why I combine these two realms, to signify modern life."
With the video work and mixed media installation, Ritual Objects I, Nau looks at melding of cultures, between the accelerated modern and traditional shamanistic culture, into Thai Nguyen’s present day, that is presented as a potent space foregrounding technology as an imagined site of mystical intervention. While the reality of the Samsung factories has taken over the land, the goddess' temple still exists and the local people mark it with reverence and spiritual intent. Caught in the polarised notion of what is logical and what is illogical, Nau reframes the experience of her hometown as a mixed reality that is able to contain the culturally distinct realms of technology and spiritualism, and collapse them into one. In a conversation with the artist, it is clear that she is questioning the supposed clarity that objectivism presents as a worldview, which privileges extractivist mechanisms within a capitalistic hold.
In Ritual Objects I, we are led through a collage of this mixed reality, with a traditional Đạo Mẫu ritual taking place with the artist taking part in the ceremony that honours the goddess of the land, who we see as a powerful and riotous force, 3D-modelled and in gold. We see her performing a dance across planes of existence, occurring somewhere between the temple space, the VR goggles that Nau is later shown to adorn, and on the mountainous land of the factory setup in Thai Nguyen. We see a warehouse burning and the commotion of people, as the Goddess, now duplicated into many, pelts what eventually turns to fire on hitting the surface of the building. Somewhat gleeful in its imagined retaliation towards those who seek to exploit the land, we can see the video work as directly in conversation with folklore and spiritual realisms that the artist finds critical understanding through.
The artist tells STIR, “I feel like there is a connection I see between technology and mysticism. I have been very interested in theories like quantum physics that try to explain the universe, so I see a connection between cosmology and Buddhism as well. When there is something logical, straightforward or very scientific but something is always about the feeling, appearance, and somehow I see these going together, while they are often separated. But now after the development of quantum physics theory, we can see the connection between the two. This inspires me to look deeper into the rituals in my hometown alongside the factory, which builds phones essentially, which we see as segmented because of this idea of technology. And nowadays, with technology, everything is based on the signal. Even the remote control for televisions is based on the signal. I am interested in video game capture through devices like Xbox or Kinect which place the player inside the video game through this signal."
By the time Nau's family had resettled in the countryside, the temple had already been there. Nau is aware of her family history, of how they arrived in Thai Nguyen from Hanoi city in 1964, to escape American bombing in north Vietnam. Many families including hers escaped to go to the countryside and adapted to the natural terrain that included forestland and wild animals at the time. Eventually they became involved with agriculture as a source of life and livelihood. The artist speaks about her interest in this process of adapting, and changing living conditions for oneself, and speculates on what the future of her hometown looks like, if they were to adapt once again back to an agricultural land. Nau's mother would speak with her about the past, and particularly she recalls a story about her grandfather who had desperately caught a snake due to hunger, at the time that they had escaped to Thai Nguyen. Her grandfather is said to have briefly gone 'crazy,' and the explanation was seen in the fact that he had caught a snake, a symbol for the land in indigenous Vietnamese culture. One is expected to let the snake go. Nau says she was interested in the mystical and how people adapt to nature, and the hunger that led to this story.
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