20160608-09 Newark | Hong Kong | Tân Sơn Nhất (HCMC)

The recycled air has a steady scent of human flatulence, which cloaks any odor my own person may exude. Diet, drinking habits and dynamic posture are a loss on these transnational journeys that I’ve come to sort of get used to by virtue of working internationally, so my mind is really on my sister’s trip, which is her graduation gift to herself after medical school, and my brother who has never flown off the North American continent. After two decades of exploring different parts of our own continent, living in different time zones and intersecting in fractions at family holidays that were suggested rather than mandatory, this trip is a “getting to know the person you’ve become” adventure, even though I pitched it to them as a “get to know the country of your origins” vacation.
In the supermarket just before my flight, I get that tingling anxiety of encountering a known temporal deadline. I’m nervous of missing my flight for the entire day before lift off and my stomach wrenching isn’t mitigated by waiting in the airport for 4–6 hours before boarding. It’s not just that I’ve missed flights before. There’s something about anticipating something you might miss, although even if you don’t it’s discomforting. It’s an ambivalent apprehension of the inconvenience of missing the gate or making it just to be crammed for hours in physical discomfort. It must what any terminal patient feels once his death date is announced. 

This Boeing 777–800 is a bus. Only on international flights does one see so many people in a plane. At what point in the world’s population did airline companies realize that they could find, sell and fly almost 400 people from North America to Saigon? I mean, I’m sure that the Vietnam War, refugees, and improved political relationships between the two countries played a large part in that, as it is playing also in the predicate of this trip for me, but the sheer number of incidental desires to travel there, to travel at all, to have the infrastructure of travel, must too be a function of reproduction and lowered child mortality. 

Clouds verge on tangibility seen from above. Where terrestrial remarks of a day’s cloud condition refers to the level of sunniness and hotness, from above it refers to the cloud objects, types of clouds seen. The shadows cast onto the earth correspond to the size and shape of the cloud, just as one would expect but rarely experiences from the ground. If blanketing the view, the clouds become a textured material creating the air space in which you sit. If passing through a cloud, its obscurant density isolates you from the world. But I don’t see this, really, just the tiny monitor playing a wide variety of bad movies. 

Flying over Hong Kong, I’m struck by how contained the city is from the hills and forests of each island. How much is Macao and where Hong Kong begins or ends is unclear to me, but the entire area looks will designed, ordered, and livable. While allegedly very dense, the towering buildings have the human space between then that recall planned neighborhoods of Bogotá, wide boulevards and parks that tempted even Le Courbousier’s notion of spacious urban design, although most of his plans weren’t laid.

Phúc meets me at the airport. The crowds that form in familiar enthusiasm for travelers is something we’ve lost in the individuated society of America. There’s something transcendental about wondering out of an airport, sweaty and disheveled, wearily peering through a scenery of people held at bay by a railing that is surely more symbolic than fortified, trying to find that face you barely remember and then suddenly being ‘alright’ when your fading memory is jolted by the smiling grace of that person who’s come to collect you. That’s an international flight in a developing country. It’s categorically the opposite of catching an Uber.

Aline calls me from HCMC and asks about our hotel. I realize I have fumbled the dates and our check-in for today’s hotel isn’t for 12 more hours, which makes us roomless for the evening. My date of departure has lapsed into the second day of the trip — my first day abroad and I haven’t even slept!  Booking something and sending her the directions is no issue, with smartphones and internet, i.e. the world in which we live today, but! I realize this will become the tip of a crutch that will wield our relationship for the next two weeks. A polevault of moments in which I’ll try to frame the phrase, “Can you google that?” politely. 

By 1 am, Phúc is at Tân Sơn Nhất and drives me to drop off my luggage before we have beers in District 4. The garbage is being collected across the street. Restaurants poor the organic waste in the gutter and a guy in a truck pulls up, sweeps it into a shovel and  mosies down the street. Pretty much the same manner as New York City, except with less black plastic bags. My stomach’s untwisted at the familiar. 

20160610 Sài Gòn or HCMC or TP HCMSai Gon or HCMC or TP HCM

The day began in layers of sound. First it was the rooster crowing, which technically started in the around 3 am, well before sunrise, and no one other than me and possibly other tourists, who were holed up next to this thing, heard it, because it doesn’t stop. Nothing came of the crowing. I wasn’t perturbed by this crowing, although if it were going on in my own neighborhood it would have been addressed in a litigious way long ago, but here I was wondering how the hell the myth of the rooster crowing at dawn holds any water? 3 am in the middle of the goddamn night, not dawn.

Around 6 am the purring of motorcycles echoed up from some narrow passageways that even Google maps had a difficulty locating, hence the sidetracking, literally sideways last night, to locate Hoang Yen Guesthouse. Phúc made four passes before seeing the little jetty away from the chaos (hỗn loạn) of bui vien  street (Dướng bui vien) and he lives in HCMC.

Then the honking. There’s an intersection somewhere. The horns are a higher pitched than back home, sort of sound whine.

Vietnam is a country that starts the day early. I remember that from my first trip here a few years ago, with my father. Rush hour began at 7 am and with a vengeance. He was sleeping late at the time, he was yet to be diagnosed with liver cancer, and there was no hurry in that trip. The preface had been very similar to this trip with my siblings: father, son bonding. Now sibling bonding. Equally a script for a bad indie film.

My first trip to Vietnam was when I was 30. My father had returned almost annually since the 90s, but we weren’t on speaking terms during that period, nor most the period after that period, nor even much of the period during which we did converse. The trip with my father had came about in a rather hurried way: I was giving a lecture about my artwork at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle and he was in the audience. Literally, I had not spoken with him on principle for more than seven years and had broken that silence with a simple note, sent via post during the holidays, saying I would be present in Seattle for an exhibition and if he were interested we could have dinner during my visit. After the reception he mentioned he was traveling to Vietnam in a few weeks and wanted to know if I had any interest in joining him. It wasn’t clear whether he was saying that as a sincere invitation or in passing, or whether he framed it as ambiguous out of fear of being sincerely rejected or whether the plans really were only tentative, but I accepted without much hesitation. The invitation was formally extended to my brother and sister, but Ethan was devoted to the cynicism of his divorce proceedings and my sister was wrought with the principle of her own vow of silence toward our father, she being always the last of us to give up. So my estranged father and I, or the prodigal son, as he liked to think of it, spent a month without hurry in a country that wakes up to crowing roosters. After his funeral, my siblings had decided to make this trip together.

The sounds existed in layers and the voice of men came to try to dominate the noises. A loud speaker. The message repeated. It was either a traffic signal or a flash sale.

A few liberated song birds fluttered between the soundtracks. I saw them cooped up on a balcony. A freed partner danced on the exterior of the cage. I watched across the archipelago of balconies as a young man undressed the cages of his birds. Each one he methodically took down, placed on the balcony and then unwrap the fabric. His army of birds. And on both sides of the caged birds’ perch, those free, wild birds fluttered to the next cage before finally ejecting the scene. 

Phúc, the son of my aunt’s child, met up with us in the afternoon. Last night he told me about his life in Ho Chi Minh city. He lives in District 4 and is a DJ of live music karaoke. He studied computer programming and wants to make online applications. In a direct question to me he asked if I thought that the Vietnamese hated the Americans. I answered ’no,’ it was the past, right?, basing my answer on the impression I had got from Hương, my Vietnamese language tutor, who had told me about the burgeoning U.S./Vietnamese relations. He said that I was right and actually the Vietnamese now hate the Chinese, or more precisely, the Chinese government. According to the New York Time’s article about Obama’s visit, Phúc’s information is reliable and his situation wasn’t unique. About 50% of the country is under 30 years old and increasingly ambitious to have a global experience and inclusion. 

The welcomed American support and collaboration reignited the post-World War II reality of global superpowers. Russia and the U.S. and now China. Vietnam was befriending the U.S. as a call not only for economic development but a hope that the tensions over the Spratley Islands and South Asian Sea can be quelled, as China has laid claim to them recently. 

Thành Phố Hồ Chị Mình (Ho Chi Minh City) was Sài Gòn until the Communist revolt against the French and later U.S. As the biggest city and economic engine of the country, its southern location makes its namesake sensitive. The city was the seat of southern resistance to the northern communist powers. The conquest of Saigon by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) makes the renaming a symbolic gesture. Both Phúc who’s a resident and Hương say that the city is still Sài Gòn.

The dynastic tradition of renaming or relocating the administrative capital, such as from Huế, the Nguyễn capital, being moved to Hà Nội gives the whole country notion a nomadic slant. The capital is not just a city, it’s a tool, like a sculptor’s blade, that can excise or recess a characteristic to emphasize one plane to overshadow another. But a rose by any other name still has thorns.

20160611 Thành Phố Ho Chị Minh

There is a belief that is too prevalent that progress must occur in a linear and sequential manner. And while it suffices to say that, in fact, it’s doesn’t happen in linear nor sequential sequence, it’s more interesting to me to think about how these trajectories we collectively set out to achieve end up swaying in their torque, bowing and breaking and thinking about what it’s like to be out on that limb when that happens. 

Physically exhausted from jet lag and strolling in the heat, I retreated to exploring the Internet in my hotel room. I came across two primary events of interest in the media: the recent development project funded by the World Bank and the toxic waste spill that has resulted in over 70 tonnes of dead fish washing ashore. Both pertaining to governmental responsibilities, both which Foucault would categorize as part of the biopolitical, were relevant to the project that I planned to develop after this family indie film wrapped up. 

The development project consisted of converting a canal, which had previously functioned as an open sewer, into a submarine sewage system with an open body of water on top. The concrete tunnels would move waste water from the neighborhood to the connecting sewer system for treatment. The project had begun in 2002 and had finished in 2014.

These canals are not unique in HCMC and made me wonder when this part of the country, which receives so much precipitation had been canalized and made into a concrete jungle, literally. The answer: blame the French. Or give them credit. 

The toxic waste scandal centered on a subsidiary of Formosa, a polymer manufacturer that also produces steel. In the coastal region of Ha Tinh, Quảng Banh, Quảng Tri and Thua Thien - Huế something got fishy. The scandal broke in late April when dead fish started washing ashore. The local fisherman were horrified. Outraged is a better word. But that was just the beginning: even more scandalous was spokesman for Formosa, who made a statement essentially saying that the Vietnamese had to choose between industrializing or being a fishing country. What avarice! He later apologized for his words, which in my mind seemed to be indirectly admitting and validating the environmental destruction in question. In the weeks since the ichthyology death event, many protests had been held to motivate the government to investigate. A diver also died near Đà Nẵn;, government officials had to wade out into the water to prove to the tourist-based economy that no one (else) would die. I had seen a protest the yesterday but I didn’t have a clue as to what it was about. When I asked a local he seemed in different.

As the media scrutiny grew, two explanations were given: first, a natural occurrence like an algae bloom suffocated the fish. Second, that it was indeed pollution. In my own research in my hotel room, I found that Formosa had been the center of a scandal in Cambodia in 1998. The New York Times article  details how locals were abandoning the town after they discovered that officials had been paid to receive the toxic waste.[1] Again, a question of the citizens’ trust in their governing body. 

The assumption by the polluter that, in order to modernize, a developing country such as Vietnam is required to live through the problematic mistakes that developed countries experienced 150 years ago is built into the notion of linear, sequential progression. If anything, learning from the mistakes of another country should be a strength, not a rite of passage, for these countries. Furthermore, the absence of these mistakes’ physical infrastructure should attribute to agility to these non OECD countries. Rather than mimicking the past for a future, hybrid models that draw from strengths that have sustained throughout time should be the goal of these countries.  

[1] “Tons of Waste Stir Panic in a Cambodian Town,” Associated Press/New York Times, December 22, 1998

20160612 Canals of Sài Gòn

Traffic is something of an extrasensory experience.

After breakfast, shaking with caffeine and lacking a good, continuous night of sleep, I rented a motorcycle to venture out to the kênh Nghieu lộc Thị Nghề and see how much this World Bank money was changing the management of solid waste and the surrounding neighborhood. Motorcycles are the dominant form of existing in Sài Gòn and being in this flow of moving humans is an incredible experience for an American.

I had read that a loan of $450 million was lent in 2002 and repaid by 2015 and, after I downloaded the financials and itemized the fees and interest, which risked about $16 million, I wanted to see to what extent capping waste could revitalize a neighborhood. What I found was essentially what I had seen online: a tree-lined canal bordered with traffic and then neighborhood. I didn’t notice any distinctly unsafe or shabby looking divide between this area and the rest of District 1, 3, 4, or 5. In the water were occasional water lilies and at the end of the canal I saw the expected accumulation of floating debris, bottles, bags, etc. It looked like water and probably was. A few fisherman were at one end and there was space where one could easily imagine people promenading.

These canals, I’ve learned, were the original mode of moving goods throughout Sài Gòn. One could not only move around the bordering bodies of water but traverse well into the city center. Some of the canals were natural creeks, some had been created. The canalization preceded the French colonization that began in 1859 and many were filled as early as 1868 in order to make boulevards on top. The canals were deemed unhealthy, as disease and stench emanated from them. [1] [2]

The canal served an estimated 1.6 million Saigoneers and previously had been abject and filled with refuse. I find it amusing that the same reason the French capped the earlier canals were the same reasons that prevailed in compartmentalizing the wastewater, 150 years later. This canal, Thị Nghé, was one of the original borders of the city of Sài Gòn, the river being the other. Thị Nghé is a creek, which may have been the reason that it was not capped earlier.   

I drove down the canal until I got to a main road and headed away from the center. Back into the stream of motorcycles.

I drove aimlessly, thinking more of how this urban landscape might change and when than being concerned for direction or destination. There were still frequent informal structures or structures that appeared to only vaguely approach a notion of permanence. In this climate—and I’ve seen this in countries nearing the equator—often just a roof is enough to accrete humans attempting to escape the heat. Walls become a hinderance for airflow. In the city a roof may mean corrugated metal, which, inspire of its durability, cost effectiveness and practicality, really lacks the charm of palm leaf and bamboo that one may still find in the outskirts of the town.  

But traffic moved. It may seem strange to ask this question, as it had never occurred to me in any other country: but where are all these people going? It’s not rush hour, but the road was packed. It was 10 am and workers have been at their stations for a good three hours or more. Few are carrying anything in tow. Traffic in HCMC comprises one of the three most predominant activities I’ve seen here; sitting in a cafe restaurant or drinking beer comprise the other two. This isn’t to say people don’t work. Quite the contrary. But architecturally, if one is mostly on street level as a tourist is, this is what one sees. Almost every building has a ground floor establishment, which testifies the entrepreneurial attitude of the Vietnamese. But still, the question as to where all of these people are going—always—staid in my mind. 

It’s appropriate that swarm theory arose in the early 1990s when AI research sought news ways of making sense of our decision-making processes. It came at a time when groups were making new decisions like the canal, in the form of financializing cities and states through the world trade organization. I’m reminded of how those same group decisions were often accompanied by riots, another example of swarm theory. Not only are both of these actions exemplary, they fittingly occur within the primary funding and allocation of xSO research: military.   

I bring up swarm theory because it seems to be the dominant logic of the streets here, rather than say, traffic signals. Other than in the upscale (non-backpacker) tourist center where occasionally one sees traffic police, there is little regard for the force of law in a traffic light in the rest of Sài Gòn. The force of law here, doesn’t apply in traffic situations. In fact, the legitimacy of law is actually further undermined by police one most frequently finds in the streets, those who stop you for a bribe. If the inverse were the case and simply legitimate traffic tickets where given, at least the obligatory honking at each intersection to announce yourself whether you have a right away or not, would cease and reduce the urban cacophony to a rumble.   

By 10 am the sun was hot on my arms. I was cruising west on Phạm văn Dồng and being scoped out by a guy wearing a jean jacket. I caught him eyeing my pocket with my phone and was reminded how much I stand out in this city. Maybe the designer sunglasses don’t help. My size and body don’t help. The average body shape lacks noticeable muscle mass of the Saigoneers I’ve come across on District 1, 3, 4, and 5. Phúc told me that a gym membership here is very expensive. 

Lanna connected me with her contact, Amy Hong, a fellow international human rights worker who was interviewing her family during 6 months. We met in a Klassik cafe near the Bitexico tower and Nguyến Huế. She had grown up in the well-established San Jose Vietnamese community and had traced her family diaspora to France, Canada, Australia and the U.S. She spoke Vietnamese. She knew the culture. She knew the history. If I wasn’t impressed, I may have been jealous. We met near the upscale tourist area and she was just beginning her interview process. 

Her interviews inadvertently traced the Vietnamese diaspora in a personal attempt to bridge the in-law dispute that had arisen from the questionable handling of money. To make matters worse her North American relatives were pretty well of; her Vietnamese relatives were destitute. She had been living in Sài Gòn for six months preparing and improving her language skills and was filled with the enthusiasm of someone who is living her dream. 

It started raining and I had to go catch my flight. I met the siblings at the hotel and hopped into a cab when my phone rang. I’d forgotten my camera at the hotel. There wasn’t time to go back and get it so I first told them to hold onto it and I’d pick it up at the end of my tour. But then we found that the airport was so delayed that I asked them to deliver it to the airport for đ200,000. It came on time. The flight was officially 30 minutes late but we didn’t get off the ground for another 75 minutes.

Hà Nội.  

20160613 Six Elephants in an Expanding World

Linh works in urban development sector of the World Bank managing projects primarily in HCMC, Sa Đec, and rural regions. He described his job as bringing a package of improvement methods—fixing streets, improving homes of the poor, building bridges or other infrastructure to cities and they prioritize what they want and need. To me it sounded like playing the role of an angel in a country that desperately needs anything it can get.

I had been connected to him via Amy, who rightly described their group of international development agents as ‘interesting people with a broad view.’ Linh is amazing. Coincidentally he had finished up the canal project in HCMC where I was engaging the solid waste management question. Not only did he finish that project, but he is working on the completion of the outstanding canal. As a city, HCMC suffers from water problems related to the high tide season and rainy flood season. As a result, waste management is a huge issue. The other points covered in their development grant is connecting urban planning projects, such as streets and transportation, and managing how the small portion of the 22% of the GDP of Vietnam that HCMC produces will go back into the investment of the city.

I was curious to know what the time frame for Vietnam to move from the lower middle class socioeconomic level to the upper middle class level. He didn’t have an exact time estimate, but he did fear that, as a country, they might get stuck in the middle class level, which would disqualify them for the concessional grants with very low interest rates.

Linh was very concerned about the holes in the socially oriented market economy of Vietnam because, as he said, it was like building a wall with holes in it. Because of the inefficiency of the publicly controlled consumer economy the full loop of financializing profits falls short. This may become the plateau of the middle level for Vietnam. The current big investors who are complementing the work that the WB is doing in Vietnam are South Korea, Japan and German  as well as private venture by Chinese and other foreign companies. There is so much room for development and the government has been pretty consistent which assures investors, that the WB is happy to have other investors competing for projects.

We escaped the rain by going into the museum of fine arts. I recalled the building as soon as we paid the tickets. Placed inside of a yellow colonial, three-story building, Vietnam’s visual, cultural history makes a bit of a jump from the chronologically placed first floor who showed the archeological and anthropological relics from prehistory to a collection of Buddhist artifacts and then skipped to rural proletariats yearning for revolution, the arrival of Uncle Ho, the war against America, and finally the triumph and eternal happiness of all Vietnamese people. Stylistically, almost every major European movement of the 19th and 20th century were represented in the collection. The last floor had some folk art that I expect was more representative of the art produced throughout the art history of Vietnam but fell outside of the communist narrative.

20160614 Annam | Van Lang

Hà Nội is the administrative center of Việt Nam. According to A Brief Chronology of Vietnamese History, by Hà Văn Thư and Trần Hồng Đức the region that was originally Vietnam was the northern part and referred to asAnnam. The book recounts the many invasions by the “northerners”—various dynasties from China, as well as the dynastic chronology in and around Hà Nội. Wikipedia, the corroborating source, mentions the region was called Van Lang, likely from the Sino perspective. Hà Văn Thư’s book would more accurately be titled “A Brief Chronology of Vietnam’s Dynastic History.“ 

Now, it should be noted that today, the administrative center is Hà Nội and the publishing center as well. Together, it’s no wonder that the narrative centers the origins of the Việt state (Đại Việt) there. Throughout the history of dynastic struggle, the regions referred to stretch down to modern day Hội An, which is about half way down the country. 

According to a recent archeological find in northern Laos, the oldest human remains found in Southeast Asia date to around 60,000 years and mysteriously have sub-Saharan features. The remains were found in a cave called Tam Pa Ling (Monkey cave), not far from the border of Vietnam and Hanoi. Yet the fact that this person was a mountain dweller (the cave being located at the top of a mountain) is prescient since many ethnic minorities in Vietnam today continue to live in the mountains. 

The largest ethnic group in Vietnam are the Viet or Kinh, who originated in southern China and northern Vietnam, making them a mixture between East Asians and Southeast Asians. But the Kinh were not the first nor most predominant throughout the region’s history. Today, they certainly are the majority but most importantly they dominate the historical narrative in the form of publishing and educational dissemination. Yet even reading a more neutral history of Vietnam in Wikipedia an anthropological rather than political story is told. 

Hà Văn Thư’s book is told from the perspective of the Hà Nội-based Kinh, who defended themselves and their culture from invading Chinese, Mongols, French and Americans but excludes any of the expansion, domination and subjugation of the 50+ethnicities of the rest of the country, or the Champa and Khmer Empire. Through this blindspot, the “War of American Aggression,” becomes something of a civil war. 

Hà Văn Thư’s book is very useful to make sense and give life to the street signs around cities in Vietnam. Yet continuing the previous point about the overall bias of the perspective, it also frames even the street names as part of a larger, totaling propaganda environment through which one history is aggressively told while others are completely ignored. 

In the context of dynastic warfare, the prevailing history is written by the Kinh and even the side stories of conquered dynasties which are mentioned only to further legitimize the ruling ethnicity are left out. For example, the Champa kingdom that occupied Central Vietnam is mentioned only in relation to their ultimate loss to the northern Kinh. The Montagnards of the mountains who sided with the Americans position the War of American Aggression into a larger ethnic struggle that has divided and unionized, ultimately recomposing the very definition of Việt Nam. 

20160615 Styles | Aesthetics

We were aware that Hà Nội would be considerably warmer that HCMC. In the Old Quarter, tourist quarter, where we stayed, everyone congregates around the lake at night to enjoy the cool breezes. And while it’s hotter, there’s noticeably less air pollution here that HCMC. Stylistically, people are more formal. Women are mostly wearing black pencil mini skirts and a formal shirt. Less high heels than HCMC. The men sport polos instead of T shirts. That city feels wealthier. 

After breakfast we go to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum. For presumed logistical reasons of a body rotting in the heat, we aren’t allowed to see the corpse because the mausoleum is open only from 8-10 am. It’s alright because the museum is better. It’s a brutalist-scale building and exemplary of this country’s obsession with concrete. So much is made of concrete. Even in the pagodas there are concrete walls painted to look like bricks; there are concrete fences in the form of wood; concrete plaques made to look like, well, concrete. Brutalist architecture is appropriate for Ho Chi Minh because its bulk demands authority and presence. 

Walking in feels like entering the lobby of a modernist hotel; the vaulted ceiling is traded here for an ascending stairway that frames a huge statue to the man. At the top a rotunda orientates one to begin the historic tour of the man, the myth and the revolution. It’s an immersive experience that imports the zeitgeist in which he lived. A wall of pop icons—Charlie Chaplin, Lenin, Marx and Engels (yes, I know: are these actually pop icons? Here they’re presented as such). French slogans of Liberté and égalité straddle a post. Images of the technology of the time are shown amidst advertisements of the day, all on glass panels not unlike an installation of one I saw in MoMA in 2014. 

So there’s the personal and political narrative of Ho Chi Minh. But really what’s most notable is the manner and style of this presentation. It’s immersive. The German’s called it gesamkunstwerk or the total artwork. There’s something stylistically out of the chronology here. And it reverberates in the Museum of Fine Arts. There one finds anthropological relics on the first floor, some buddhist sculptures then on the second a full on Marxist, proletariat, everyday man laboring Viet-style in the rice fields and woods just before Uncle Ho shows up and liberates everyone from their fucking misery. What’s interesting about the proletariate paintings is not the content but the appropriated styles from artistic movements that were happening or had happened in other countries. It’s actually not unlike most countries’ art; given that most countries experience the current of art either outside of whatever art center there is: Roma, Paris, New York, etc.; or after the movement has disseminated itself outside of the site of origin. I recall the National Museum of Cataluña where I first realized this phenomena: most of the artworks portrayed stylistic copies of impressionism, cubism, pointillism, or even AbEx, but by Catalan artists who were never included in the canon. 

What’s notable about the immersive, installation approach to Ho Chi Minh is that the style is inherently Soviet. At least in the context. Meaning, the free world (aka United States of America) also has installation art, but it arrived much later, around the 1980s. Still, there’s a distinction that should and must be made between installation art and an art installation. Installation art is not just something that can be entered. Usually and to my chagrin people call any collection of works that is hung in such a way that a person can walk around between two or more walls an “installation.” They’re actually quite specific criteria for what is an installation and that criteria changes depending on where you are. For example, the artists of the Bay area in the 1970s and 80s were focused on a sensorial approach to art, coming out of the expanded cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s. Given that LSD was in research just across the Bay, and the hippie, New Age and yoga movement (cults also) were also questioning how perception, sight, feeling and sound were experienced, installation art was framed anthropocentrically and, more specifically, with the human audience’s body in mind. This can be distinguished from what East Coast, mostly New York, refers to as “installation,” which is more about an exhibition style that is both dependent on and resentful toward the fact that exhibition sites are comprised of walls. So you have hundreds of photographs, some books, a video, and plants that all sort of go together. They’re a project. You put them up on the wall—maybe the photos don’t have frames, maybe the video is projected not an entire wall, maybe the plant is placed in the center. This is the East Coast “installation.” It’s often project-based. In the example, everything revolves around this plant that his historically important. 

Then you have the Soviets. This installation is an environment that purports. It’s making a truth statement, which makes it especially useful for propaganda. Russian Constructivism had five principals: No color but rather tone is it’s pictorial reality; no line as a description of a thing, such as an illustration, but only a direction of the static force in the object; no volume but rather depth; no mass; and nothing static but the kinetic. Each tenant is argued based on “real world” or sciences. The principals are published in the “Realistic Manifesto.” As a movement, Constructivism is an affront to Italy’s Futurism and France’s analytic cubism. Both were political movements: Futurism was supported by Fascists whose ideology aligned with the need for speed. 

“Art is not a sanctuary for the idol.” Art should be everywhere, in all parts of life. This is the installation form. Art everywhere. Be in it. Liberate art from the elite spaces and give it to the everyone in their everywhere. This is the prototype of installation art. Or even a more ambitious version of installation art; one that is outside of the elite white boxes of the galleries and museums and in the world. The Ho Chi Minh museum took the life story, the world of the man and made it into a spatial experience. 

Art of meaningless abstraction was, according to the Constructivists, “busy doing nothing.“ 

The rejection of color in favor for tone seemed to default into three hues in the Socialist Reality: Black, White, and Red. The mausoleum largely follows this pattern. Outside of the museum walls another color is predominant: yellow ochre. Painted walls, buildings and even the Communist star set in socialist red are subdued yellow. I asked a tour guide why it was so common and he explained it help soften the brightness of the sun. I noted that many of the structures that were painted this yellow ochre were plaster walls of French colonial buildings and barriers. Those structures—schools, hospitals, offices—left is disrepair in Sài Gòn are almost exclusively this color. 

French influence is seen throughout the larger built structures that predate the socialist brutalist style, which itself predates a global steel and glass aesthetic of high rises in the urban cores of Sài Gòn, Hà Nội or Đà Nằng. In each structure and style I read a different economic model, which may not be that different and may even be strongly related or codependent. In the flat French, two or three story administrative buildings the extractive economy of colonies. Parts of these buildings just don’t make sense in this climate. The walls and prohibit movement of air that is absolutely necessary during much of the year, especially in Hà Nội. These have ceramic tile roofs, plaster walls. Some have porches or balconies. The roof, as I assume most of the structure, supported by wood. 

In the brutalist style, it’s mostly concrete. Whether this is a good idea, or has or will pass the test of time, especially without the support of a ruling government, that is, should the communist government be supplanted as it almost invariably will as foreign investors demand more from their money, will the architecture and method of construction hold up? My suspicion is predicated on the questionable construction skills of the Vietnamese. On one hand, with the absence of a winter that freezes and expands water in concrete, it might last. On the other hand, a climate so warm and humid leads to the growth of moss and plants that breakdown even granite and limestone. But the buildings are massive. Their very size presupposes an economic model of land acquisition. Deaccessioning of private property into the hands of the (ruling) government. The economic model of the country from 1975 to about 2005 was, how can I put this? backward. I wouldn’t call it communist because when only a fraction (less than 20%) of the society participates in governance and/or receives social welfare or any sort of fiduciary responsibility, that’s not communism. It’s more feudalist. And in trajectory of the dynastic battles of the country, the 1975 economic model was disenfranchisement of the many for few. It wasn’t even capitalist. There wasn’t a real circulation of capital. The disenfranchisement can be seen not only in the commandeering of property from Vietnamese of Chinese descent in the 1980s, but also land acquisition of the Montagnards people for the growth of coffee. 

But even with wealth accretion for 40 years, the wealthy Vietnamese have not reached global wealth level. No Vietnamese are in the top 100 wealthiest people in the world, according to Forbes. The bar is set at 10 billion and led mostly be American business men. So the model of exploiting 90 million people for pennies can’t compare with gently exploiting 340 million people for dollars on the dollar. 

So the transition to, or mimicking of China, in pursuing a socially-oriented market economy (SOME) is a fancy way of Vietnam saying, “Hey, we want in also.” This is where the high rises come in. Chronologically, these buildings may have existed before, but statistically its negligible compared to the rapid develop that is currently going on through Sài Gòn and aiming to change not only the city’s skyline, but the economic ranking of the country. There are high hopes: “The new Singapore.” “Silicon Valley of Asia.” I don’t think either of those two dreams are possible without a functional private market, which is hindered by the current government. But buildings are going up, just the same. 

Some tweaking to the model include allowing foreigners to buy private apartments. A three-bedroom, 135 square meter apartment in a luxury high rise recently sold for $438,000 in Sài Gón. There are also the changing relation with the 3.1 million Việt Kiều, i.e. Vietnamese living overseas. Since most live in countries that tout around ten times the Gross National Income of Việt Nam, the hope is that some of those Australian, French, Canadian and U.S. monies will trickle back in a sort of, “Alright, I’m willing to overlook the historic political issues that broke up my genealogy for the possibility of getting brick rich.” On side of the Communist government, this is sort of a flaccid, “We apologize. (Can we borrow some money?)” 

SOME follows the Chinese in a strange stylistic return. The metal gates. The metal window guards. The buddhist lions. The dragons. The spiraling lines of hair clumps; spiraling eyes, the fish scales made of a smily face with vertical lines for eyes; the parallel lines running in fish fins. The Chinese influenced the Vietnamese (Kinh) culture to the extent that it’s questionable as to whether the latter is anything more but a scion of the Song Dynasty. 

The writing system and literature of Vietnam was Chinese until Portuguese, Spanish and Basque missionaries arrived and made the transliterations in order to ease the printing by European publishers. The Vietnamese scholars had been previously trained exclusively in Mandarin, and even through French colonization, a mastery of Mandarin pictograms was a requirement for the highly educated. Vietnamese and Mandarin share linguistic structure and cognates, as well as religious mythology, iconography, metal work and architecture, particularly in the pagodas. 

The Realistic Manifesto,”Naum Gabo, 1920,http://ubumexico.centro.org.mx/sound/aspen/mp3/gabo.mp3
Vietnamese Coffee and the Plight of the Montagnards People,” Mark Pendergrast,http://www.teaandcoffee.net/0603/special.htm
Australian Couple first to buy property under Vietnam’s new laws,” Jimmy Thomson, http://www.domain.com.au/news/australian-couple-first-to-buy-property-under-vietnams-new-laws-20150704-gi4tva/
GNI per capita, PPP,” http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.PP.CD
“Origins of the peculiarities of the Vietnamese alphabet,” Andre-George Haudricourt, 2013, https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/file/index/docid/920064/filename/Haudricourt1949_Peculiarities_MonKhmerStudies2010.pdf

20160616 Equation of the Sun, Declination, Latitude, Altitude

As the setting sun came earlier than in New York I realized that the earth’s till must be to blame. 

The sun is setting at 6:45 pm throughout this trip and coming up around 5:15 am. In New York it’s coming up about ten minutes later but staying up almost two hours later. Because of declination, the further north one goes in the northern hemisphere, the longer the days get in the summer time while the inverse is true in the south. But here’s what’s confusing in Vietnam: the seasons. It is not the simple reverse of north-lying New York. It’s June and summer in New York and in Hoi An they tell me it’s summer here also. What? Not only is it not the reverse here, it varies by the region. Except Hanoi, the northern lowlands, there isn’t even summer or winter, meaning hot and cold, but rather wet and dry or at best cool and hot. 

Roughly there are four regions with varying calendared seasons: the mountains of the far north, that are dry from October to March then wet from April to September and get very cold in December and January at night. Down the mountains in the north, like in Hanoi the cool and dry winter is from November to April with the coldest months being January-March. But even then temperatures are still 17-22 C in the “winter.“ 

Central Vietnam like Hoi An and Da Nang is hot and dry from January to August, the heat getting up to the mid 30s. During winter the rain comes and there are typhoons. This is between October and November. Yes, two months. So mostly hot and mostly dry. 

The south, like Sai Gon, have a constant weather year round but split between wet and dry season, which begins in November and ends by May. So those afternoon torrential downpours I’m experiencing on this trip are their wet season. 

Vietnam runs from 8-23 degrees north latitude and sea level to 3,143 meters to the peak of Fanispan, the highest mountain in the norther region. There are other climatic factors, such as ocean currents, direction of winds and mountain ranges. That subtle suggestion that weather is really a boring last resort as a common topic of conversation is a little more nuanced here. I don’t mean that I’ve heard locals discussing the weather (I can’t understand them that well), and the little conversation about the weather has been in terms of the heat, but rather that these weather trends reflect largely on tourism, the largest industry in Vietnam. First of all there’s tourism year round and the reason and timeframe for anyone visiting is more about his personal calendar than following weather trends. For example, most Europeans and North Americans vacation in the months between May and September. June-August being the least comfortable is heavy American tourist time. 

In further regards to tourism, the amount of the economy that tourism comprises an area’s economy reflects on the level and expertise of the hospitality there. In Sai Gon 22% of the GNI, tourism is less important and the hotels, were the worst, at least at the bottom price point. Inversely, in Hoi An, where basically the entire economy is tourism, the hotels were the best and least expensive, although almost everything else was overpriced in most parts of the city. This makes sense because the reason to visit Hoi An is Hoi An. The city is the attraction. The Old Quarter are what I would assume to be the “authentic” Vietnam, meaning not influenced by 20th century construction. There’s a lot of porticos, French-influenced buildings of the 19th Century but also a decent number of Chinese-influenced Buddhist temples from the 12-century and on. The tourism is temporally driven; escaping the most recent. 

But also one easily gets lost in Hoi An and sees what isn’t even concerned about maintaining its authenticity, meaning the local homes. In a strange reproach to tourism the city lacks identifiable and reliable street signs. The local map shows about 25 streets, which is a fraction of them and the eager entrepreneurs who will help you with directions just before offering you their goods or services give you directions like “turn right and then turn left,” but exclude specifics. The absence of reliable street signs may be due to the aim of keeping street signs “authentic” meaning those that are up from before 1950 are those that will continue to direct us and the rest…too bad. 

So it’s easy to get lost here even with GPS. There are many spaces—like between rice fields—that one wouldn’t presume is a “street” or “road” as part of the infrastructure, but they are. On trying to locate “the good beach” —An Bang—we got severely lost even though it was  a straight shot down the main road. Just locating the road was tedious. 

An Bang was filled with what felt to be a slight jellyfish venom. I spotted a few and even without direct contact they made the water not really desirable to be in, although people were wading and swimming there when we arrived. I spent most of the day sitting in the shade of a circular boat made of a lattice of bamboo bent upward, forming a sort of tea cup shape, that had then been sealed with tar. I saw a man using one, fully standing. They seemed designed for near-shore fishing as it had only one paddle and moving the boat forward was achieved by sort of stirring the water vigorously…I expect a small USB-powered motor would work equally well. 

Behind me on the beach were the crowds of tourists who were renting chairs and umbrellas for 40,000 dong, or $2 USD. Behind them were a row of roofed dining areas that were twice the price of anything else we’d seen in Vietnam. Around 4 pm locals came with their own food and drink as well as tables and chairs and set up long dining areas perpendicular to the water. The intensity of the sun had diminished but still locals were crouching in the incidental shade of objects placed on the beach, like pyramids of inner tubes and boats. 

The night market in old town is a testament to the wonder of the work of Tesla and Edison. It’s basically the same tourist junk as during the day—knick knacks, textiles and souvenirs—but with lighted sculptures of dragons and fish made of paper and placed along the bridge and promenade. We ate banh mi sandwiches for $1 and had drinks for 20 cents each in the child-size seating of the promenade. 

20160618 Global | Art World

Kurtz reigned supreme in his jungle hideaway. 
When Joseph Conrad invented the character of Kurtz, set in the colonial ivory trade, he aptly critiqued the economic mechanism of tradeploitation. The poignant ending in which Marlow returns to England to deliver the final message to Kurtz’s wife finds him struck by the pettiness of urban life, which he reduces to the simplistic advances stilted on meager cheating of fellow men. It’s exploitation’s homecoming. 

Francis Ford Coppola rehashes the character of Kurtz set a century later within the police action of Vietnam. The making of the film was as epic as the story it recounts. Filmed in the Philippines, beset to disaster both natural and financial and nearly unmade by superstar Marlon Brando’s prima donna attitude and price tag. But somehow it worked and we get a glimpse into a geospatial treaty of the same exchange, on a different continent and different agents, but are are still asymmetrical. The military commander in another context, far from home, far from the average origins of a man in uniform, he became a cult figure. The story, like the 19th century version from which it was adapted, contests a “flat world” argument. And here, in Ho Chi Minh City, Zoe Butt’s SanArt, reminds me of Kurtz, in a good way. [1]

I was connected with her via Facebook and, after a few exchanges and time arrangements, she wrote to me just before I arrived asking, “What is it that you want? I can’t remember whether I need to prepare something or not.” I didn’t take this as an offense, but rather a hastily written plea to abide by some sense of professionalism. That was her intention, in the context of the message chats, and this clarification, now, shows both how context is necessary for understanding as well as blinding. So after telling her I was just interested in learning about San Art and the cultural landscape here, I started to ask myself what it was that I wanted. And I concluded that I naively (and I felt naive) just wanted to information. I was curious. I felt naive because I wouldn’t have had such a loose introduction in another context; the purpose would be more concrete. The imperatives would be obvious. But perhaps that’s the attraction of Vietnam: the open space of the unknown and unrealized. And how introductions here, made in passing online, leave doors open. 

Across the bridge from District 1, where commerce and tourism make flags with shining new high rises, just beyond Golden River Towers, a luxury complex development that is underway, into a tiny side street, SanArt is on a mission. And Zoe Butt is a believer. I sat down with her on a Tuesday, just before the next big install. 

Painting by Nguyen Quoc Dung, part of Non-Finito exhibition, SanArt

Zoe says there are basically no commercial galleries (save Galerie Quynh) in Saigon; basically no 501c.3 model non profits. Barely alternative spaces, which they more nearly resemble, as there isn’t much from which to alternate. Still, the hours of operation conform to having Monday’s off, and opening at 10:30-6:30 pm (about 3 hours after the rest of the city gets going for business). She’s Australian and refers to the Viet Kieu as if she’s not included, since she lives here. This pertains specifically as to why and how San Art got started. As she put it, a group of well educated Viet Kieu wanted to return to Viet Nam in order to establish a place that could act as a bridge with the locals. Those individuals were Lê Quang Đỉnh (Dinh Q Le), members of Propeller Group and a few others. So they’re part of this international art world, participating in the Venice Biennial and being the token Vietnamese artist representatives for the country and heritage. They were educated in U.S. MFA programs. 

And while she’s deep in her canned response of the history, mission, and recent developments (Vietnam politics) and shows, that tone of being on autopilot makes me wonder just how much this is an expected move in the cultural colonization that is going on in the world. She lapses into international artspeak occasionally and even mentions how the absence of ‘contemporary’ plays into the communist hands of local traditions and craftwork. Meaning there isn’t contemporary art here and only craftwork and non-contemporary art is made. She brings up the canonical MFA artspeak theorists: Foucault, et al. and mentions how she’s working on a catalog that places key texts next to Vietnamese theorists who haven’t got international attention. It’s in English and Vietnamese and she hands me a proof. It’s a tome. I feel by its weight that should the political bonds be overcome in this country, this text will be for a generation the reader that brings everyone “up to speed.” I rifle through and for some reason can’t recall any of the authors or essays there. I want to say there’s something by Jameson but I could be wrong. 

She mentioned the educational program of the schools here being craft-based. There is some collection of that work by the social elite here. That’s almost reassuring. At least they are buying some artworks…how many degrees is it to get them to buy something that may increase in value? 

"Accepting One's Self," Nguyễn Quốc Dũng

At the same time I’m happy that there is some cultural producers returning here, and they’re not making identity politics work. Vietnam, like many middle-income level countries, suffer from the brain drain. They send their elite off to study in the U.S. or Europe, in the most elite schools, and then have trouble employing them here, so the educated go where the economic infrastructure supports them. Cultural producers, in a way, have an advantage, as their base of production isn’t tied to the markets of exchange, both cultural and financial, in which they operate. (Or at least I want to believe) And as Singapore (Freeport?) and Hong Kong (Basel), as well as Shanghai gain cultural esteem and sway, Saigon may become an potential center for cultural production. (The contenders, globally, include Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Bombay, Istanbul, et al.) With the exception of political speech, the absence of safety regulations, inexpensive materials, space and labor make it an attractive location. And the food’s great. 

Zoe continues talking about how the space is under shrinkage due to funding being cut and new laws rolling out in regard to foreign cultural producers and audience members. Surveillance. She states the recent landslide re-election of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. I don’t quite understand why it’s a political crisis, as it seems to be forging forward on a staid course, but the cut of two of her three spaces equates to crisis and so I don’t interrupt her familiar art world negativity. Don’t get me wrong: she’s a pleasant person to be around; I just expected a more optimistic and positive outlook without all of the too-cool for school, Williamsburg, LES, Chelsea, designer fashion wearing, VIP list-ism of North America and Western Europe. She’s accessibly brilliant and I’m compelled to sort of offer a note of encouragement about the battles she’s fighting: I mention, would be and are seen as assets in the New York context. 

Introducing Euroamerican cultural thought (really Frankfurt & Birmingham schools) and practices by returning refugees and their children is not unlike Ho Chi Minh bringing Russian Socialism back to Vietnam. I’m not propounding a nativist viewpoint or contending this is ethically wrong; this is how diaspora and cultural pollination have worked for 2,000 years. Viz. Chinese mythology, French architecture, American smartphones (made in China).  What’s curious about this is that the actions are set within a developed post-colonial critique. (One on hand I’d be happy to toss out the failing framework of post-coloniality, as it’s been shown to be either 1) pseudoscience in terms of how its “theories” are not falsifiable and 2) contextually inaccurate depending on the geopolitics. I’m thinking particularly of Indonesia (killings of communists highlighted in The Act of Killing, which was completely misinterpreted by Western audience who weren’t familiar to the Southeast Asian perspective of communism that’s shared throughout Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia) as well as Colombia’s FARC and relations to Spain, and even the expelled Jews settling in Medellín. But yeah, doesn’t really hold water in this country.)

Walking out and past the security guard at the door, I wonder if my suspicion is itself one of these international artworld reflexes. It’s the gag reflex that we learn to fight while on panel discussions, openings, group critiques, reading reviews. Pure acrimony. Genetically unfounded but environmentally cultivated. 

As I get on the uberMoto that will whisk me back over the bridge, I realize that SanArt, as a mission, will be an integral part of connecting the people of this (artworld) remote location with that global network…regardless of contradiction. And that even my presence and motivation meeting her isn’t any less contradictory to these points than her mission. Complicity.