Tuan Andrew Nguyen
November 30, 2012
The multimedia artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen has spent his life navigating the gulf between his home culture and his adopted culture. Born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1976, Nguyen left Vietnam when he was only two years old. In a story familiar to many, Nguyen and his parents escaped the country on a boat before staying in a refugee camp for six months. His family eventually found sponsors in the United States, and they moved physically and culturally across the planet, spending time in both Oklahoma and Texas. Nguyen did not return to Vietnam until 2004. But as many immigrants can attest, the decades spent away did not diminish Nguyen's connection to his home culture.
Utilizing American hip-hop and rap, Nguyen's 2008 Hip-hop History Sampling Hip-hop History: The Red Remix looks closely at an unexpected connection between the two cultures he inhabits. The approximately nine-minute sound piece is a remix of more than sixty American rap songs and their varied lyrical mentions of Vietnam. The piece is neither homage nor critique. The samples are a motley crew, offering no easy narrative: rapper Bizarre makes light of the war that killed millions ("I drop bombs like I was in Vietnam"); Immortal Technique and Jedi Mind Tricks do the opposite ("Like government officials trying to justify Vietnam" and "They sent me here to Vietnam to kill innocent people"). The volume of references clearly illustrates the lasting impact of the United States's foray into Vietnam on America's collective psyche.
The influence, however, is not one-sided. In the original project, the remix was played through a custom speaker mounted to the back of a bicycle. According to the artist, such bicycles are used commonly in Vietnam to advertise goods for sale or to spread government propaganda. When installed in a gallery, the piece includes photographs of the Vietnamese rapper Wowy pushing the bike through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.
Wowy himself is the subject of Nguyen's Letters from Saigon to Saigon, also from 2008. This photographic project documents a letter Wowy wrote to Saigon, an American rapper he discovered through the Internet. Saigon (née Brian Carenard) conceived of his stage name in prison after reading the journalist Wallace Terry's Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1985), drawing inspiration from black American soldiers in Vietnam. This historical inspiration, along with a rap-battle defeat by a fellow inmate-rapper who spat positive messages, encouraged Saigon to seek redemption through political and socially conscious hip-hop.1
Wowy's letter is the material manifestation of a tragic yet multivalent relationship between two nations. Neither Wowy nor Saigon could exist as hip-hop artists without what the other represents: their worlds are forever connected by war and hip-hop. Wowy is mindful of the fact that he is simultaneously inspired by and very different from Saigon, writing, "You R black ... and ... I'm yellow you living at a hip hop country. I'm living at a country have a 50% population never know what's a Fucking HipHop."
In 2006, Nguyen and fellow Vietnamese artist Phu Nam Thuc Ha joined together to form the Propeller Group to further explore contemporary Vietnamese culture within the country. Soon thereafter, Matt Lucero, Nguyen's peer from the California Institute of the Arts, moved to Ho Chi Minh City and joined the Propeller Group. The trio, often in collaboration with other local and international artists, produces a variety of projects ranging from video art to documentary film to mock commercials.
Following on the heels of other work on Vietnamese graffiti and street art, the group created the 2010 Temporary Public Gallery as both an attempt to skirt the censorship of public art and to take over commercial spaces. As the nominally communist country races toward becoming a major player in global capitalism, the nation's relationship with visual culture has been radically altered. Public art is regularly sterilized by the censorship bodies that regulate it, limiting what is seen to "marble sculptures in the park and some old propaganda signage attached to various walls."2
But not surprisingly, the proliferation of commercial imagery in Vietnam has been less restrained. In order to circumvent artistic censorship, the Propeller Group rented a billboard for three months beginning in June 2010, with the intent of displaying non-commercial imagery submitted by the public. Through Temporary Public Gallery, the Propeller Group didn't just try to appropriate a physical space reserved for commercial imagery, they tried to appropriate an entire legal system and use it against itself. Unfortunately for the Propeller Group, permission is still required for commercial billboards, and even if that process is less stringent than for public art, the group still failed to garner the governmental support to realize the project.
In 2011, the group turned a mocking eye towards modern communist-cum-capitalist governments like Vietnam with Television Commercial for Communism. They hired TBWA Worldwide, the advertising firm that created Apple's "Think Different" campaign, to help create a campaign to rebrand the world's five remaining communist countries. The resulting ad, despite its advocacy for one of history's most controversial ideologies, could almost be an inspiring ad for any pharmaceutical or oil company. The sickeningly effervescent platitudes—"we make the most together," "for a better today and a brighter tomorrow," and "live as one and speak the language of smiles"—highlight both consumerism's exploitation of utopianism and utopianism's exploitation of whimsical promises and branding. Though the satire is blatant, it almost makes too much sense: If advertisers can brand Apple, a multinational corporation responsible for condemnable treatment of human beings, as individualistic and revolutionary, they should be able to do the same with the communism of China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam.3 It's merely a matter of scale.
It is fitting that, as an artist who teases out hidden and complex connections in everyday life, Nguyen often works collaboratively and with appropriated materials. This has been an important component not only of his individual work but also of his work with the Propeller Group and Sàn Art, a Ho Chi Minh City–based gallery founded with Phu Nam Thuc Ha, Dinh Q. Le, and Tiffany Chung. Even for someone whose identity lies in two countries, the vast sea between the two can't be traversed by a single soul. Nguyen is a truly global artist but in neither a cynical nor a nihilistic way. His work pokes and prods at the world, curious to see what it will find.
1. Phillip Mlynar, "The Seven-Year War of Saigon," The Village Voice, February 23, 2011, http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-02-23/music/the-seven-year-war-of-saigon/
2. The Propeller Group, Temporary Public Gallery, 2010, http://www.the-propeller-group.com/temporarypublicgallery
3. Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad," The New York Times, January 25, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html