THE BROKEN CHAPTERS
January 26, 2014
January 5, 2014
Nguyễn Trần Nam
The exhibition space, bare and colorless. A video of a bullet ripping through the air, looped and muted. Texts describing the very moment before, during and after one is executed, detailed and handwritten. A home video of a father and son bonding moment, found and slowed down. A group photograph of young men, smiling and almost washed out. A conversations between a father and his son, absurd and mounted on the walls.
These are part of THE BROKEN CHAPTHERS, a showcase of new artworks by Nguyen Tran Nam taking place at manzi art space from 06 to 26 January 2014. Rooted in the stories of his own, but reaching out to tell the stories of others, Nam’s work is personal yet universal, dealing with themes such as violence, death and the father and son relationship. Using the notion of war as a backdrop, Nam offers a perspective on how ideologies and beliefs could shape a generation’s identity and perception, whilst demonstrating the gaps, the missing pieces and the powerful bonds between one generation and another, regardless of how isolated or far-removed they are – or desire to be – from each other. With a recurring interest in war novels and film, and inspired by his father’s experiences as a military engineer during the Vietnam-America war and later as a propaganda painter, the artist took on the role of both a memory excavator and a fiction storyteller, weaving real-life details with made-up stories to form an imaginary realm unbound by truth, place or time.
This exhibition is supported by the Prince Claus Fund
An exhibition review by curator Bill Nguyen
A collection of writings, videos and discovered objects, Nguyen Tran Nam’s new body of work – THE BROKEN CHAPTERS is personal yet universal, rooted in the stories of his own, but reaching out to tell the stories of others, dealing with themes such as violence, death and the father and son relationship. Using the notion of war as a backdrop, Nam offers a perspective on how ideologies and beliefs shape a generation’s identity and perception, whilst demonstrating the gaps, the missing pieces and the powerful bonds between one generation and another, regardless of how isolated or far-removed they are – or desire to be – from each other. With a recurring interest in war novels and film, and inspired by his father’s experiences as a military engineer during the Vietnam-American war and later as a propaganda painter, the artist took on the role of both a memory excavator and a fiction writer, weaving real-life details with made-up stories to form an imaginary realm unbound by truth, place or time.
Arranged sporadically on the two floors of the exhibition space like chapters from a distorted novel, each separate work is part of a larger narrative that asks the viewer to avoid leisurely contemplation, and invites them to go out of their usual way in order to figure their own story and relationship with the works. Dry to the point of challenging, the visual elements seem to have been intentionally watered down in order to amplify the work’s content and context. The show-opener is a pixilated home video, which looks as if it has been downloaded off one’s personal account on Youtube or Facebook, slowed down and played continuously on a monitor placed on the floor. Depicting a shooting lesson between a father and his little son, the video shows an odd male and father/son bonding moment - deeply affectionate, yet at the same time, violently dysfunctional. The importance of fathers spending time with their sons is immense; and the relationship a boy has with his father greatly shapes the man he will become in the future. What will become of this boy? A killing-machine? Or a future provider of protection and safety? Could this act of learning how to fire a gun be considered a fundamental rite of passage from boyhood to manhood? Or a form of child abuse?What does this tell us about our values and our cultures? Should gun shooting, or to be more exact - violence, be accepted as a solution during this politically unstable time? Or could too much freedom and democracy prove to be a problem?
Spanning the main walls and resembling official documents or awards certificates, the second work consists of thirteen handwritten texts and an old photograph, all pristinely framed and neatly hung in a straight line. On closer inspection, a chill runs down our spines as we realize what our eyes are reading. All of the thirteen extracts of texts recount the very moment before, during and after one is executed – those fleeting seconds between life and the end of it. Adopting multiple styles of writings - sometimes descriptive and poetic, others incomplete and long-winded, the texts are both haunted and haunting, telling tales of thirteen deaths, thirteen possible killing methods, and thirteen different viewpoints. From those who perform the ultimate act, those who partake in the process, to those who lie at the receiving end of death; from wet tropical forests with muddy ponds, to desolate landscape where nothing survives but the ranging sun, we get the sense that the characters are involved a battle, a war. And it could be any battle, any war, at any place and any time; it could be happening right now, or was it hundreds of years ago, or it may occur at some point in the future. Whether it is a war of loss or victory, a battle of gore or glory, it ultimately all ends with fatality. Someone must die– be they a hero or a villain, be they one of “us” or one of “them”. All of these deaths go back to the starting point, where the small washed out black and white photograph of a group of young men is hung. Who are they? Friends? Colleagues? Comrades? Or is it more accurate to ask, who were they? There is more confusion: there are only eleven men in the photograph; where are the other two? Why are they missing?
Could one of them be the protagonist in the painting beside it? The only painting in the show, this is the single artwork and material that can be considered traditional, and probably the closet thing to Nam’s training as a painter. Modest in size and minimal in its use of colors, the painting is oddly composited and coldly toned. With the empty center painted in black, the scene is divided into two parts: at the top a cloud is floating by, or maybe frozen still; down at the bottom a man, or maybe a woman, is lying, half of the face buried in green water, the other half looking straight at us, unemotional, or maybe contented. As we are absorbed in the painting’s strangeness and gloom, the same character and scenery - or maybe their doppelgangers – appear in perhaps the second part of the work, a video located upstairs. Slowly, the immobile moves; quietly, the dead breathes; peculiarly, silence is replaced by the last sounds of a living human being. As the painting comes alive and drips of blood fall out of the character’s mouth, an all-encompassing uncanny sensation begins to resonate inside our body and throughout the space. We feel horrified and disoriented, but also energized and compelled by the disturbance and mystery of what we are witnessing: a person approaching death. How did he die? Was he murdered? Or did he commit suicide? How did his story unfold?
These questions continue to linger in our minds, only to be confronted by the emptiness apparent in the last room. On one wall is a looped video projection of a bullet ripping through the air. Dark and sinister, echoing the show’s subject matters, these two instruments of death – the gun and the bullet – are referenced all the way through: each bullet fired in the opening video is filled with pride and joy; technical drawings of gun parts faintly decorate the paper onto which the thirteen deaths are written; a gunshot probably killed the protagonist in the painting-video duo piece; a bullet wound is debated between a father and his son in the text-based wall piece as part of the last work in this room. Written in an instinctive and stream-of-consciousness manner, the conversation surrounds the notions of victory, reason and value; and alludes to the differences and struggles between the father and the son, the old and the new, the emotionally imbalanced and the cold-heartedly rational. Will these two opposing worlds ever meet? Could their relationship, one connected by blood, ever help resolve the disharmony?
With THE BROKEN CHAPTERS, Nguyen Tran Nam attempts to walk away from the parameters of the visual to explore a territory entirely different to what he knows: the practice of writing. Why the change? It maybe that writing is the more powerful way to convey a cause, spread an idea and inspire hope; or that it better achives the social and political functions we normally expect of art; or that artists simply wish to expand the scope of their practice. Either way, Nam needs to go through this experimentation, to dive into the darkness in order to see the light. Some may say the final outcome is questionable and doubtful, others naive and unfinished. But there is one thing we can’t deny of Nam: that anything he has written and created, flows from that place - from the heart of an artist; from the heart of a son; from the heart of someone broken, wounded and lost. It is at this very instant that we connect with him, because at one point or another, we have all been broken, wounded and lost. And all we ever wanted was the impossible: to be whole again.