Review of ‘The Breathing Tube’ (Ống Thở)
Curated by Nguyễn Thế Sơn at VUUV, Hanoi
By Vy Dan Tran
Group shows with a wide range of artworks have become the norm in Hanoi. Last year, Manzi opened its independent art gallery with a six-artist exhibition, which was pedestrian with its sombre and subdued paintings. Before the pandemic, Vincom Center for Contemporary Art, a grand white-walled space ideal for blockbusters, introduced eight local and foreign young talents in ‘The Foliage 3’. It attracted mainly young adults, and some seemed to be more affected by the exhibition’s eerie mood than the art itself as evinced in the guestbooks. Recently, more than 50 artworks by 29 artists were showcased at the ‘Young Vietnamese Artists’ exhibition in the gallery owned by The Vietnam Fine Arts Association. Such group shows, especially the last one, often aim to present a diversity of art to a large audience at the expense of having a sharp focus and deep insights.
Compared to the above-mentioned shows, ‘The Breathing Tube’ (Ống Thở) curated by Nguyễn Thế Sơn is refreshing and dynamic. More than 20 works including installations and video art by 16 artists spread across the third and fourth floors of a privately owned tube house called VUUV. They are Nguyễn Thế Sơn, Lê Đăng Ninh, Phạm Khắc Quang, Cấn Văn Ân, Nguyễn Oanh Phi Phi, Triệu Minh Hải, Ngô Thu Hương, Vũ Kim Thư, Nguyễn Thị Hoài Giang, Vương Văn Thạo, Nguyễn Trần Ưu Đàm, Vũ Xuân Đông, Sơn X (Nguyễn Xuân Sơn), Trần Tuấn, Trần Hậu Yên Thế, Trịnh Minh Tiến.The brothers Vũ Hoàng Sơn and Vũ Hoàng Hà, who designed the eight-story multifunctional building, initiated the idea of organising a spontaneous art exhibition to interact with their architecture. It is a rare chance for the public to observe VUUV’s interior and acquire a positive perspective on nhà ống, the iconic tall and narrow tube houses in Vietnam.
A special feature of VUUV is the set of colourful glass windows scattered on the sidewall which corresponds to the playground of the nursery next to the site. The glass shapes resembling the tetrominoes in the video game Tetris intend to amuse the nursery’s children and boost their imagination. Inspired by both the glass windows and Tetris, Nguyễn Thị Hoài Giang’s series of sketches ‘Make Yourself At Home’ done on the technical drawings of the house is set out in tetrominoes. The series documents the artist’s growing familiarity with the space, encouraging the visitors to likewise take some time to get used to the architecture and then have fun with it. Hoài Giang changed the arrangement of the sketches occasionally and even designed a strategy game on papers for the visitors to play directly at the site.
Employing the translucent coloured glass directly, Phạm Khắc Quang’s ‘Glowing Hole’ presents a mild surprise upon close examination. Printed glass tiles, which are square and monochrome, are mounted on the building’s glass as if they are part of the building’s decoration. Depicting tranquil landscapes in the countryside, the subtle installation is aesthetically pleasing and engenders sentimental feelings. On the opposite wall is a set of large transparent glass windows overlooking the family garden, as the wind blows inside the room, it is easy to forget that one is in the middle of a crowded city.
On the same floor, the main works of Nguyễn Oanh Phi Phi and Lê Đăng Ninh on the sidewall resonate with the triangular arches of the beam structure and decorative scheme. In contrast to the bare concrete arches, Oanh Phi Phi’s polished quadriptych ‘The Great Wall’ is opulently hazel and ocher. She uses natural lacquer to represent orderly brick stacks as a monumental sign of continuing construction. This luxurious idealization of an everyday material may prompt the viewers to think about the dramatic urbanisation. Made of plain corrugated sheet metal, Đăng Ninh’s ‘The Dark House’ refers to the ‘floating houses’ and ‘black water villages’, where disadvantaged communities suffer harsh living conditions on the water. In addition to LEDs, the natural lighting coming through the glass windows illuminates the work from behind and generates a cozy ambience.
Downstairs, the vibrant visuals in Nguyễn Trần Ưu Đàm’s videos projected on the wall harmonise with the glass tetrominoes, a light-hearted way to comment on pollution. ‘Serpents’ Tails’, a three-channel video, shows serpentine tubes and floppy shapes made out of disposable plastic bags. Inflated with exhaust gas from motorbikes’ tailpipes, the tubes symbolize toxic “serpents” against which humans have to fight. Despite being kitschy and not site-specific, the floaty serpents’ tails unexpectedly suit the theme of “The Breathing Tube” as the house constitutes an oasis to escape from the stuffiness of congestion.
Next to Ưu Đàm’s installation are two noticeable heads of nghê, a Vietnamese mythical animal, by Trần Hậu Yên Thế. A nghê dance performance took place on the exhibition’s opening day as a touch of tradition in a contemporary setting. The almost identical pair may allude to the brothers Vũ and the nghê relief decorating their ancestors’ altar. VUUV’s façade is reproduced in Thế Sơn’s 3D layered photo project, emphasising the unique minimalist architecture. VUUV appears to be airier than the common tube houses covered by advertising panels, hence a ‘breathable’ transform untouched by consumerism.
The prevalence of group shows in Hanoi reflects the traditional mindset as indicated in this proverb: “Một cây làm chẳng nên non, ba cây chụm lại nên hòn núi cao” or “one tree cannot make a mountain, three trees together make a high one”. Yet, the non-linear presentation of assorted artworks in most group exhibitions tend to cause distraction, confusion and even boredom. ‘The Breathing Tube’ is an exception enlivened by architectural insights. In turn, engaging artworks enhance the building VUUV, a hidden gem serving as a possible long-term solution for future tube houses. The works by both emerging and high-profile artists are contemplated in an improvised alternative space that is friendly to even the art world’s novices. Exploring the synergy between contemporary art and architecture, ‘The Breathing Tube’ stimulates unpretentious dialogues on dwelling history, urban development, living conditions, and environmental issues.
‘The Breathing Tube’ (Ống Thở) was open at VUUV (Hanoi, Vietnam) from 7 June to 7 July 2020.