TRONG NGUYEN – PRECIPICE PERCHING

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Artist Trong Nguyen creates artworks that both hilarify and stupefy, intrigue and bewilder. His extensive career has seen him in solo and group shows the world over, guest lecturing at different universities, partaking in thrilling artist residencies, and making a great deal of art that perches on the precipice of something dangerous, confrontational, powerful, and yet often with an element of playfulness and tongue-in-cheek whimsy. A huge, long list of galleries and museums around the world have played host to a collection of his artworks; some include: Coleman Burke Gallery (New York), Kingston on Thames (UK), Galerie ZK (Berlin), Galerie Quynh (Ho Chi Miinh City) and Fruit & Flower Deli (New York).  As a curator, Trong has organized numerous  shows, including Room without a View (Freies Museum Berlin), By Invitation Only (Kinz, Tillou, + Feigen),  The Guy Debord Show (New General Catalog), andWho? Me? (Zabriskie Gallery).  He has received grants from LegalArt Miami, Artist in Residence in the Everglades, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Harvestworks Digital Media Center, Bronx Museum of the Arts, and Puffin Foundation. Currently, the artist resides in Vietnam where he is working on a number of paintings and other artworks. Some were exhibited a few months ago at Galerie Quynh, in Saigon. We caught up with the artist at the turning of a sweltering summer in Berlin.


Hello Trong, how is Vietnam treating you? What are your favourite things about being there? Are you working on anything in particular over there?


I’m in Saigon, and it’s great. I’ve actually relocated here, for probably at least one year. I guess I can claim to be bi-continent at the moment. It’s HOT right now in Vietnam, but having grown up in Florida, it’s not that big a deal. I was born in Saigon, so it’s a distant homecoming of sorts. Favorite things so far - food food food, and everywhere you go, it’s really a non-stop, cinematic city - every turned corner in the day and evening feels like stepping in and out of a Gregory Crewdson photograph or a David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai film. The small art scene is pretty cool, too. And in general, I’m loving it because it feels so detached from the New York City-centricity. I have a love/hate relationship with the apple, like the rest of us, so I have to raise the occasional freedom tower finger to the ‘hood. I was here in Saigon three months ago in February for a solo exhibition at Galerie Quynh. At that time I had hoped to finish one or two more projects, but didn’t get very far. So now I have more time to tackle those works, which are related to a documentary film project I’m working on called DONG. I just rented a small house in the city that I will also use as a studio, and I’m looking forward to developing new work from whatever is available here materially. No Amazon. No Pearl Paint. Lots of humidity, so that could be my new medium. It’s the first time I’ve seen one of my canvases start to mold, so that’s exciting. The house is typically gaudy and cheaply built, in the classic Vietnamese style. 4 small floors, 3 bedrooms. Reminds me of being in an ugly hotel, so now all I have to do is make the art to go with it, and maybe plant a neon sign outside. In the meantime, I am figuring out how to ride a motorcycle and do as the locals do. Traffic is crazy and lawless here. After two days at it, I’ve counted one bruised shoulder courtesy of crashing into a wall, and two broken sideview mirrors. 


In New York, what consumes most of your days? Any studio projects and/or happenings that you care to share?


Right before coming to Vietnam, I was mainly working on a series of ceiling cakes and sketching ideas for projects that I want to jump into in the near future….For the Vietnam show, I produced a series of paintings that resembled bastardized coloring books. In between New York and Vietnam, I had also spent a bit of time in Asheville, North Carolina working on the film project, with my collaborator David Raymond. Gotta get to the woods now and then. So now I need to do quite a lot of editing for that. I’m also working on the soundtrack for the film, which is an art project in its own right. For this, I’m asking non-Vietnamese speaking bands to cover war-era songs from the motherland in their best Vietnamese. It’s the reversal of what you see so regularly with foreign singers who belt out songs in perfect English without understanding a lick of it. Vietnamese is a different animal of course. So far we’ve gotten one track in, a Carol Kim cover by the Detroit band Saturday Looks Good to Me. It’s great! Other bands that will be covering songs also include Jamaican Queens and the Dusseldorf duo Bar.

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Aw HELL Naw: 2015, acrylic paint, styrofoam, wire, doily, plastic cake stand. 10-1/4 x 12 x 12 inches.

Text + Interview: Yasmin Martinelli | Photos: Courtesy of Trong Nguyen

‘Win Win’ is genius! How much fun have you and friends had playing?


I think one of my best friends actually titled that work for me - a play on my last name, which is also pronounced “win.” I had the work at an art fair, and after full days of people coming up and playing, taking portraits, etc, I think I need a holiday from the incessant sound of a plastic ball ricocheting off glass. But yes, it’s a relatively light and playful piece, with the occasional selfie existential moment thrown in and multiplied. Moving forward, it’d be more fun to set up a tennis court version at Versailles and put powdered wigs and terrycloth headbands on everyone. To be called “You Cannot Be Serious! You Cannot Be Serious!” 


Could you ever imagine yourself living in Berlin? Do you have another visit to our fine Haupstadt on the horizon?


I heart Berlin! I could see myself comfortably living there, and I have a lot of friends in the city, so it would not require much adapting. But I prefer the marginality of Saigon slightly more I would say. I have no immediate shows planned for your terrific city, but I may try to swing a visit later in the summer - I’ve been there every season but.  And I heard there’s a lot of sunshine then, naturally radiating from non-brooding Germans of course!

'Portable Confessionals'. Does everyone have an inherent need to confess, divulge? Share their secrets or the secrets of others?


Portable Confessionals is a more subtle version of a megaphone, and considers the rampant confessional culture reflected in social media, celebritydom, and also the spiritual sphere. Viewers can interact with the piece by sliding their heads up the bags. They can whisper sweet nothings or shout out sinful somethings. Of course references to the less-than-pure priesthood is also evident. Originally I was going to title the work “Give Me Three Hail Marys and a Blowjob."

The last solo exhibition you had in Berlin was in 2010, Neo-Theo at Galerie ZK. How did that show come together? 


Moritz Gaede, who runs ZK, is a curator/provocateur friend I met years ago in Toronto, and he had developed this great online project in 2001 called DriveDrive.com, that showcased a series of works by conceptual artists. I was doing my web-based Ebay project at that time, and Moritz’s site was the satellite portal to that durational work. He moved to Berlin and opened ZK in 2010, which was an extension of the online space, but with more of a political bite. I had originally produced the Neo-Theo project for an exhibition on Governors Island, curated by No Longer empty. Governors Island is this tiny island just a stone’s throw from Manhattan, and it was a former military base complete with forts and perfectly preserved colonial homes that were previously used by officers. It had served its purposes and went unused for something like the last 40 years, and thus was this big patch of green waiting for developers to ruin. I showed Moritz images of my installation in one of the colonial houses, and he wanted to bring it to ZK. It’s a dark piece about the fine line straddled by both fascism and nationalism, and the blind historian inside all of us.


You also participated in a group exhibition called From Our Living Room to Yours at Goff + Rosenthal and exhibited special works at Superbien Greenhouse. What were these shows like and what did you take out of these experiences?


Goff + Rosenthal was a fun group show curated by Daria Brit-Shapiro, and it was my first time in Berlin. Some friends were also in the exhibition and all I remember from that was a snowball fight after the opening and eating chili at 4 in the morning at Rodeo. Something like that…The Superbien space hosted a solo exhibition that I divided into 4 parts - essentially four shows over four weeks. It was a lot of work, but a great experience with happy results. The exhibition venue is a real greenhouse with transparent walls, so one absolutely had to contend with the space in ways that required some ingenuity and twist of convention. I couldn’t hang anything on the walls, so opted for a few diverse projects. For two of them, I covered the walls with one-way mirror paper and controlled whether viewers were able to see into the space or not. One was a fictitious concert called “Sonic Berlin,” where bands played inside the greenhouse yet no one was allowed to enter or see. The rock experience was truncated as they could only hear. The other one was a collaborative performance with several dancers and musician friends, called “Ready Set Sail.” It was our way of exploring the city and encapsulating that experience in a narrative that also asked of the viewers to be explorative. We would lead them inside the greenhouse to watch the movement outside and vice-versa, creating open and claustrophobic vantage points to the movable performance.


What are your impressions of the art scene in Berlin? Differences or comparisons to NYC?


Places like Superbien definitely allow for more of the experimentation Berlin is known for, and I think it’s a city that artists can live cheaply and easily make work without pressures of crazy rent. Though, from speaking to a few Berliner friends in New York, they claim it’s easier finding random day jobs to stay afloat while also having more potential to sell some work.  The collectors base in Berlin is practically nonexistent, I guess. The gallery scene is broad and Berlin is comparable to New York culturally in many ways. Have you ever seen those t-shirts that read “Detroit Hustles Harder”? Well, I think New York hustles hardest, and that might be the biggest contrast. New Yorkers pride themselves on working like maniacs. Our east-coast style is definitely different from the easy-going lifestyle of east Berlin. Don’t get me wrong, I love having breakfast at 3 in the afternoon like anyone else. I also like the co-op model that exists in Berlin, where a group of artists will rent a space and do a regular program of gallery exhibitions of each artist’s work, and enlist or hire a curator to run it.  It’s a very smart, alternative model that works well in big cities where there is always more talent than available commercial galleries. That sort of thing is impossible with the sky-high rents in New York, and thus, so many talented people are left with little room to create significant exhibitions. 

I would like to discuss some of your various artworks... let's start with your recent ceiling cakes. Traditionally, cakes say 'Happy Birthday/Anniversary/Graduation' or something like this. They commemorate an important life event. 'Happy Ending' is rather tongue in cheek, 'C U Next Time' implies this is not some one off celebratory gig, as we so often associate with a cake.... Aw Hell Naw is genius and somehow reminds me of the humorous 'Nigga Preez', 2010-11. A playful nature is something thats embedded in your work. Because I think you do this well, how do you communicate important/serious ideas, whilst being playful and funny? 


I use humor as an entry point to whatever else I want to “discuss” in the work. With the ceiling cakes, one immediately finds them absurd and initially funny, but even the texts on them take on an ulterior meaning, alluding to the present, physical danger that is inherent in the way they are installed above the viewer.  It’s a precarious setting.  People don’t tend to think of artworks as being “dangerous,” but that is an element I try to utilize as much as possible into my works, whenever I can. I want there to be a power struggle between the viewer and artwork, and I want the viewer to know they’re going to be on the short end of it. Appropriating popular black culture phrases, “Aw Hell Naw” and “Nigga Preez” intentionally disrupt the discourse on race issues in the U.S. If one paid sole attention to media, you would think the country was just made up of colorless black and white folk, with both sides claiming empathy and dominion over the color they see in the mirror. It’s a stale possessiveness that hinders any real resolution.  Having experienced racism from black, white, brown, pink, and green people, I’d like to think the rest of us in the color spectrum also have some useful points on moving the topic ahead. I guess what I am getting at - in a very tangential way - with these works is that while it’s important to look in that mirror, it might also be useful to put in some color light bulbs. That’s a stretch in translation, but at least you get the point of how my thought process goes from point A to Z.

Nigga Preez: 2011, acrylic mirror, glass, electroluminescent wire, wood frame. 30 inches diameter.

Cake is meant to be colourful, delicious, edible. Yours are plastic, styrofoam, with unusual messages written upon them. Quite the juxtaposition. Also the 'Last Supper' with its inedible spaghetti. Any deeper commentary on our food chain? The majority of food on supermarket shelves that look eerily artificially manmade and creepily coloured? Our life in plastic? (Hats off as well to your Guantanamo installation in Florida with all of the plastic and glass bottles!)


Mine are pretty creepy colorful too, though definitely not edible. I think of them equally sculptural as painting, since I use oil and acrylic paint for the frosting and texts. Therefore they are an extension of “trompe l’oeil” painting. Though acrylic is a form of industrial plastic, I suppose. Beyond that, they’re really meant to simply celebrate wrong and inappropriate things. References to the last supper and such are very specific to the idea of a shared meal amongst friends or strangers, to the conversations that unfold, to the exclusionary nature of some of these gatherings. The food pieces dole out what people sometimes want to say but are too afraid to, for fear of being politically incorrect and so on. Likewise, the “Messages from Guantanamo” work gave voice to all the identity-less prisoners who were being held at Gitmo. At the time of the piece, the U.S. government had not disclosed anyone’s identities, save for their nationalities, which ranged greatly  from Afghanistan to Holland, to Australia.  Therefore, how can we simply label as “enemy" a faceless and nameless group, especially in a country where due process is fundamental? Importantly, I arranged for the bottles to be collected off the streets of Cuba. A friend of a friend illegally Fedexed 200 of them to another friend in Montreal, who then Fedexed them back to me in Miami. They went on a circuitous journey only to end up 90 miles from where they originated, which is indicative of American bureaucracy and foreign policy. 

The Once and Future references a Messiah complex and the mythologizing of the "chosen one," from King Arthur to Sir John Dee... to our very own significant others. Your artworks love to shatter commonly accepted perceptions. They beg one to question or look deeper. I find that your paintings also do this. How does your artistic process differ when working with various mediums? Be it painting or sculpture, etc.


Not much difference. I generally let the idea determine the medium, then it is  just a matter of deciding whether it is executable or not. More often than not, I choose a convoluted, long-winded route, but that is partially out of my desire to always make the viewer labor. And vice versa, if they’re going to work, so should I. One cannot understand depths if one has never gone off the deep end.

Portable Confessionals: 2012, handcut paper grocery bags. Each bag 17 x 12 x 7 inches.

Win Win: 2013, acrylic paint, wood, mirror, vinyl. 84 x 60 x 54 inches.

Last Supper at CERN: 2009, Raw canvas, wood table, turntables, vintage gospel records, acrylic paint.

38 x 300 x 36 inches.

Neo-Theo (Possessed American Flag): 2010, Creased cotton flag, audio loop, framed photographs. Varying dimensions.

The Once and Future... : 2008, Acrylic paint, styrofoam, foil, wood, and custom designed sword (etched steel, leather, bronze). 42 x 42 x 42 inches.

 

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C U Next Time: 2015, acrylic paint, styrofoam, wire, doily, aluminum cake stand. 8-1/2 x 13 x 13 inches.