Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba

What is a memorial? Usually a monument or imposing statue commemorating events or heroes that belong to a nation’s history, it often stands isolated and distant from the very public whose memories it is supposed to crystallize. Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s 2003 “Memorial Project” on the Vietnam War—all videos shot underwater—offers a different perspective, literally plunging the audience deep into its personal as well as collective memory. Filming underwater is a sort of meditation. When shooting, Nguyen-Hatsushiba needs self-control and awareness of his own breathing, and he must position himself at the right depth, between surface and bottom. He does the same with his topic, finding an inner moral balance that neither reconciles nor condemns. Adopting a compassionate focus, he addresses the past while avoiding the trap of romanticizing it.

In this third installment of the ongoing series, the artist has chosen Hollywood war and action movies’ rhythms to explore the meaninglessness of fighting. The shooting location was Okinawa, a battlefield during World War II and subsequently a US military base. A strategic access point to Southeast Asia, it was used by American forces during the Vietnam War as a training site and ammunition-supply depot. In this work, Nguyen-Hatsushiba shows a troop of fifty military divers swimming in groups underwater, carrying gun belts filled with yellow tubes resembling bullets, and seeking the perfect site to set their weapons and prepare for attack. In a crescendo of music and a digitally created fiesta of stars, gyrating all around with water bubbles, the divers reach an open area, set with fifty easels in a circle. At the center a yellow star is suspended, much like the Vietnamese flag’s lonely star on a red field. The divers take their places at the easels and, like students in an art class, start painting the star. They struggle to capture their subject, but it keeps avoiding them, surfacing as something else. In fact, what appear on their red canvases are portraits of Hollywood movie stars who acted in Vietnam War films: Brando, Cruise, De Niro, and the like. The painters attack the canvases in exaggerated gestures as if fighting an enemy—brandishing brushes as knives in a struggle for survival. But there are no winners. The Battle of Easel Point (the subtitle of this “Memorial Project”) ends in disruption. Easels fall down and canvases float in midwater; a yellowish fog blurs the view. The mission cannot be accomplished—painting underwater is an impossible task! No happy ending. Music and images fade into static signals, indicating our loosening connections to what has really happened, our editing out painful memories.

All this narrative, both humorous and sad, is supported by a vivid sound track. Composed by Nguyen-Hatsushiba with Quoc Bao, a Vietnamese pop-music composer, the remix of James Bond movie themes suggests action and excitement, energy and danger, thus ironically commenting on the tradition of glorifying war heroes. Portraying the yellow star seems to indicate a search for national identity, a need for restoring a lost dignity. But what comes out of this unsettling painting session has the face of the old enemy. The “other” is America—not just in its military might but in its cultural hegemony, whether in movies or painting. The artist indicates that there is no way out of that embrace: The mirror image of the Vietnamese will be forever blurred with the faces of America.

Ida Panicelli