For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s 2001 underwater film Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam is a haunting poetic meditation on Vietnam’s journey into an unknown future.

poster for Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba "Vietnam: A Memorial Work"

at Asia Society and Museum
in the Upper East Side area
This event has ended - (2008-05-23 - 2008-08-03)

In Reviews by Kristen Hewitt 2008-07-02 print

'Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards' (2001). Single-channel video projection. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo.

Filmed underwater, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s 13-minute video installation at the Asia Society portrays the simultaneously mundane but epic struggle of six Vietnamese fishermen pulling cyclos (rickshaws) along the sea floor. Filmed in 2001 off the coast of Southeast Vietnam, Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards submerges the viewer in the silence and bizarre urgency of the task.

Meant to signify the harsh, challenging conditions of everyday life for many Vietnamese people, the arduous job of dragging the cyclos through the ocean speaks to the difficult burden of the past in the face of modernization. Memorial Project Nha Trang does not employ actors, using actual fishermen instead, for the grueling task. The film’s sense of absurdity is heightened by the fact that the physical struggles are real; from the splashing and stumbling trek from beach to sea-floor, to the maneuvering around boulders and beds of coral. Each time a man seeks traction in the sand with his toes or pushes to the surface to breathe, he does so out of the necessity to overcome the tangible barriers he faces.

Progress is slow, due to the weight of the cyclos and the sheer volume of water impeding the fishermen. Often the men and carts alike bob and hover, suspended mid-stride like moon walkers. The cyclos bounce to the floor in eerie silence, the only sounds being that of bubbles from scuba-diving Nguyen-Hatsushiba, and the mix of ambient electronica, flute and bell sounds that put the viewer into a submarine trance. The calm does eventually break, however, and the music, composed by the artist himself, becomes darker, the sense of urgency stronger, and the pedaling and pulling faster and more desperate.

The need to breathe impedes the fishermen whose faces remain calm until the moment they must abandon their cyclos and kick to the surface for air. Changes in music reflect these dramatic moments of surrender when several men will swim up at once, while one pair shoots ahead. The consequences of the dire circumstances are clear: For some, getting ahead is only achieved by denying or transcending even the most vital human needs and physical limitations.

'Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards' (2001). Single-channel video projection. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York and Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo.

Yet eventually, the empty cyclos must be left for good. The men come across a portion of sea-floor, adorned in tents of mosquito netting, too rocky for the carts. They abandon their loads and swim together towards the surface in a tentative kind of victory or failure, which isn’t necessarily clear, and emerge into a new, unknown future.

Local cultural traditions and coastal villages’ relationships to water are themes that Nguyen-Hatsushiba has continued to explore in his recent works. In a film installation in 2005, entitled Memorial Project: Minamata: Neither Either nor Neither—A Love Story, he responds to the Chisso factory pollution disaster and the devastating effects of mercury poisoning on the village of Minamata, Japan. Like Memorial Project Nha Trang, this project creates a dreamlike world, suspending time and movement with an underwater lens.

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Kristen Hewitt

Kristen Hewitt. Kristen is from Chicago, is one year away from getting a bachelors degree in English/creative writing at Bates College in Maine, and is living in New York for the summer. She loves traveling and attempting to learn languages and reading lots and hiking and playing the fiddle. And grapefruit. » See other writings

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