New York

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba

Lehmann Maupin | New York, W 22 Street

Vietnamese/Japanese artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba first took to the global art stage at the 2001 Yokohama Triennale with Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Toward the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards, 2001, a video featuring images of an underwater rickshaw race performed off the coast of Vietnam. As audiences watched the ubiquitous symbol of the Southeast Asian urban economy, the bicycle-taxi, make its way across the languid yet inhibiting dreamworld of the ocean floor, they immediately recognized an ambiguous, lyrical commentary on Vietnam’s historical and economic turmoil. In his first solo show in New York, the American-trained artist presented two more video installations also dealing with issues of memorialization and national identity and also couched in poetic, sometimes opaque, underwater imagery.

The smaller of the two works was a roughly fifteen-minute video titled Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas: Battle of Easel Point—Memorial Project Okinawa, 2003. Opening with bombastic theme music and flying, synchronized, computer-generated stars, the video soon settles into underwater documentary footage of a team of easel-carrying scuba divers. The divers set up their easels on the ocean floor and, using paint capsules stored in what look like ammo belts, proceed to paint images of big-name actors who arguably helped glamorize the war in Vietnam. A vague corollary arises between the stars on Old Glory and the stars of Hollywood, and there is a sense of the futility of both nationalistic and artistic labor.

The larger installation, Memorial Project Minamata: Neither Either nor Neither—A Love Story, 2002–2003, is more cryptic. Scenes of children playing near smokestacks are projected onto four screens. These images segue into orangey smoke spreading like ink in water, and then into a team of scuba divers surrounding a plastic modular sphere encasing two seminude men. Also cut into the mix are a scene of a reclining woman seen through mosquito netting blown by a whirling fan (evocative of the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now) and shaky dance-floor footage accompanied by thumping techno music. The bulk of the four-channel projection details the slow movement of the divers through the water and the flexible armature of their plastic sphere.

These images begin to coalesce when one becomes aware of the event to which they make reference: the mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay in southern Kumamoto Prefecture in the 1950s and ’60s, which resulted in a thousand deaths and tens of thousands of cases of chronic blurred vision, slurred speech, and fetal deformity. At times, Nguyen-Hatsushiba seems like a submarine Joseph Beuys, performing rituals of sociohistorical healing and prophecy; at others, like a politically conscious Matthew Barney, staging acts of extreme artistic endurance. With Memorial Project Minamata, however, he to some extent relaxes his hold on the visual magical realism that has animated his best work to date (one earlier video, for example, featured the submersion of a writhing New Year’s dragon puppet) and as a result the work becomes somewhat dry and muddled. Lacking the strong metaphoric associations of bicycle-taxi drivers or New Year’s dragons, or the absurdity of painting en plein eau, the evocation of national memory and historical flux becomes brittlely allegorical and the slow, underwater lyricism less hypnotic than merely dawdling.

Jonathan Raymond