Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba: From Japan to Vietnam and America, a heart-felt border-crossing negotiator

You may well still remember Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba for his contribution to the Yokohama Triennale in August 2011, ‘Breathing is Free: Japan, Hopes & Recovery, 1.789km’. 173 runners using GPS “drew” a cherry blossom tree in full bloom, taking on the challenge of what artists could do in the immediate wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Nguyen-Hatsushiba was born to a Vietnamese father and Japanese mother. He spent his childhood in both countries close to the end of the Vietnam War, after which he moved to America with his father. This experience of three different nations’ values, histories and cultures has proved an integral catalyst to his artwork, which looks lyrically and quietly at the past and the present, and motifs of the everyday.

This year he is taking part in the Setouchi Triennale 2013 and also welcomes twenty years of working as an artist.

‘A Proposal, Breathing is Free: 12,756.3 — Pangaea Ultima — 1,266km’ (2012) Digital c-type lambda print, 101.7 x 60cm. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery

After an artist residency in America you then moved to Vietnam to work as an artist. In what mindset did you start your career as an artist?

In a simplest way, I started my career because I wanted to fulfill the promise I made to my father. It was because I could see that he looked a little ashamed of hearing my future direction. I promised him that I would become an “international artist”, whatever that meant then and even now. Why could I not choose to be an engineer, a lawyer, or a doctor like other kids of his friends? My thoughts during my college days were “How can I avoid working as a waiter or any other manual job that would leave me less time to think about and to make art?” and “How can I make a smooth transition from art student to a working artist?”

Upon graduating with a MFA, I managed to build up three consecutive supporting factors within the arts: an art scholarship to travel to Vietnam, a grant for emerging artists, and the ArtPACE Residency in San Antonio. All these probably would not have been in my head to make sure they happen if it was not for the promise [I made] to my father. I just needed to make as many convincing results that my dream is going to happen, so he could begin to see.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba with his installation at the Campbelltown Arts Centre. Photo: Janie Barrett

You majored in oil painting in college and then gradually shifted into different methodologies, such as installations and video works. In 1998 your early work as introduced in the exhibition ‘Individuals-Collection’ (Mizuma Art Gallery). The materials that were used for the installations were deeply connected to everyday life, such as rice, cyclo [Vietnamese rickshaws], mosquito netting, business cards, ramen and so on. Could you tell us about your early work?

I think those early works are transitional works after settling in Vietnam, transitional in my own life and reflecting to the transitional society. I personally like the giant installation piece titled ‘Water in the Sky’, a huge piece made of white mosquito net stitched with blue patches of the same material. I think it was the first piece I made that one could enter into. It was minimal in material and color, just separating one’s experience between inside and outside through stitched labyrinth, a contemplative piece.

‘Water in the Sky’ (1998) Blue/white mosquito net fabric, 10 x 6 x 9m. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery

‘Survival-New History’ is basically a collection of many people’s business cards. Many places you go, people would give you their cards like flyers distributed on the street. It was the beginning of “marketing” in Vietnam [in the latter half of the Nineties]. It was also a statement to say, “I have a business”, “I have a job”, “I am with the times”… Some were printed on very funky heavy stock with decorative patterns and even scent of cinnamon, mint, or perfume-like fragrance. It definitely was a social statement to have it, to give it, to be seen with it.

Eventually, I found myself accumulating many cards every day. They kind of looked nice with different colors of rectangle shapes. It became my hobby to collect. Quickly, I was collecting fifty some cards a day. Collecting became fun. I asked my friends to start to collect for me. The momentum picked up to 100-plus a day. It was through this process I found myself asking, “Okay, what should I do with all these?” It then became obvious that it became a work of art to represent the new mode of survival.

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‘Survival-New History’ (1998) Business cards, fabric, 3 x 4m. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s exhibit at Art Fair Tokyo 2013. When first exhibited in Vietnam it was shown on the floor but was hung for its Japan debut.

Those early years led to ideas that had been brewing in parallel, ones that sparked the ‘Memorial Project’ series. The first video work of the series, ‘Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam – Towards the Complex – For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards’, was commissioned by the Yokohama Triennale in 2001. How did this work come to be exhibited as a video?

Even before moving to Vietnam, I was already thinking about refugees and the boat people in my school days. Originally, it was going to be an installation/performance where I was going to pedal the cyclo floating amid a large water tank, something like a six meter by ten meter water tank, a very expensive project just for making the tank and filling it with water. Then. The insurance talk just killed the idea. But the curator liked the idea enough to ask me to consider other ways to do it in the water. To make the story short, I ended up learning to dive and shooting my first video work underwater. The shift was about the need to show what was going to happen underwater, more than exploring a new media. I just did not have any option.

‘Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam – Towards the Complex – For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards’ (2001) Single channel digital video, 13 min. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery, Lehmann Maupin Gallery New York, the artist. Commissioned by Yokohama Triennale 2001

This work features scenes of Vietnamese rickshaws, known as “cyclos” and who are amongst the poorest members of society, pulling their heavy vehicles underwater. The footage is hallucinatory with the sounds of sirens and traffic still incongruously “floating” into the viewers’ ears. The drivers (divers?) swim to the surface in order to breathe, while also pulling their loads through the mud and stones on the seabed, symbols of the harsh and unrelenting environment in which they live and work every day.

‘Memorial Project’ was mainly filmed on locations in Vietnam’s South China Sea, Okinawa and Minamata. Due to your background, it seems Vietnam’s history and its identity has been often compared or referred to as the connection between your own identity and the themes of your work. In a previous interview you’ve mentioned that there’s no need to place your identity to a specific location or country. Could you elaborate on this?

In the beginning, many of the works referred to something Vietnam, but now, my view is quite open to any place I maybe and could be. But wherever the project maybe situated, I would research to discover something about the place and the people, and see how I can interpret or rewrite the story. I guess to do that, we have to sometimes become transparent in national identity.

‘Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas: Battle of Easel Point — Memorial Project Okinawa’ (2003) Single channel digital video, 15 min. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery, Lehmann Maupin Gallery New York, the artist. Produced by Mizuma Art Gallery, with the assistance of MACRO, Roma and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Special thanks: Michael and Joan Salke, The Salke Family Trust, Allison Salke, Diego Cortez and Jun Koike

Part of the series that was exhibited at the Yokohama Triennale 2011 and dedicated to the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, ‘Breathing is Free: Japan, Hopes & Recovery’, was then exhibited in March at Nikkei Space NIO as a spin-off project from Art Fair Tokyo 2013′s ‘Discover Asia’ section. The start date of the exhibition was, miraculously, March 11th. How do you feel about this work being seen again by Japanese people?

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‘Breathing is Free: Japan, Hopes & Recovery’ (2011) 176 runners, 33 navigators, video installation with binoculars. Commissioned by Yokohama Triennale 2011, Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery

The ‘Breathing is Free: 12,756.3′ series started in 2007 in Geneva as a project to share the hardships of refugees by incrementally running 12,756.3 kilometers, the diameter of the earth, and then using GPS to draw the route on the maps of the land as an artwork (a “running drawing”). Nguyen-Hatsushiba has explained that the project also symbolizes the wish of refugees to change their lives completely.

The work is a tree with many blossoming sakura [cherry blossom] flowers, all of them “grown” one by one by humans. I think that is the part I love about this piece. It is made for people, by people. If the opening date just so happened to be March 11th, maybe it was meant to be? I like to thank again the many who took part in the running with the single goal of growing many flowers on this tree for many to see.

‘Breathing is Free: 12,756.3-Geneva, 31.4 km’ (2007) 18min 24sec, Single channel digital video, Courtesy: the artist, Mizuma Art Gallery

In many ways, I have to decide [how to create the work] as I run. I have to first maintain my body functions in good order. Different terrains, atmosphere, climate… bring different challenges. As I run, I face these situations physically. I cannot be performing. Like what we see on the TV news, people in the news are not performing. They are in circumstances that they have to figure out. So with my project, it is the same. Although many aspects of the project such as the streets to run and the image to create can be mapped out through research before the actual run, once I am physically there, in most cases, it is the very first experience stepping onto that ground. Things we don’t see on the map like traffic, people, private properties, constructions, and new buildings and streets bring different challenges.

In this project, the running is like the movement of a brush making marks onto a canvas. So, maybe I am still a painter. (Laughs)

‘Breathing is Free: Japan, Hopes & Recovery’ (2011) 176 runnners, 33 navigators, video installation with binoculars. Commissioned by Yokohama Triennale 2011, Mizuma Art Gallery

There is a photo of me under the sakura tree [in the artwork]. I included this to remind myself that I had that privilege in my life, though I was quite young. Actually, I experienced it for the second time just recently right after the Art Fair Tokyo 2013. The real tree cannot be replaced for its magnificence, but it is our expression for the victims who would not have had the chance to see the real one that year.

‘Picnic under the Sugar Palm and the Bodhi Tree’ (2010) 300 x 450 x 7 cm. Photo: Kei Miyajima. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery

I’ve heard that ‘Breathing is Free: 12,756.3 Chicago Microscope (self-portrait) 88.5km’ was shown soon after your father died and fulfilled the promise you made to him as an artist.

Yes, Chicago was the start of my promise beginning to manifest into reality between my father and myself. I got into art school and made each day a journey to give him his pride that he deserved as father. In the later years of his life, I could see that he was no longer worried about what I chose to do. And he would be the one to start conversations with his friends about his son. So, maybe I made the promise come true in his eyes. But sometimes I wonder, maybe I still need to keep that promise moving, because my life is not over yet.

‘Breathing is Free: 12,756.3 Chicago Micorscope (self-portrait) 88.5km’ (2010) Single channel digital video, 14 min. Photo by Nguyen Ton Hung Truong. Supported by a gift from Howard and Donna Stone and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery

“Memory”, it seems to me, is one of the main themes in contemporary art today. What does it mean to you?

I think we all live with memory. Our experiences help to decide our future. The present is culmination of the past. Of course, we can also consider what kind of memory we want to create by thinking of the present and the future. So, it is quite important thing to be thinking about. So that is maybe why it is one of the main themes of contemporary art today? Shouldn’t more people be listening to what artists are concerned with?

‘Breathing is Free: 12,756.3 Chicago Micorscope (self-portrait) 88.5kim’ (2010) Single channel digital video, 6 min. Supported by a gift from Howard and Donna Stone and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Courtesy: Mizuma Art Gallery

You are participating in the Setouchi Triennale this year. The setting is Inujima and its ‘Art House Project’ designed by Kazuyo Sejima and curated by Yuko Hasegawa. Your five-meter long video work ‘The Master and the Slave: Inujima Monogatari’ is being shown there. Could you explain how this came about and the background to your creative process?

Yuko Hasegawa contacted me one day about possibly creating a new video piece for the island project she is curating. I immediately felt interested in this proposal due to the fact that it was an island project and that there would be water all around.

At the beginning, I thought I would be doing the next underwater film. The studio team began to develop research and was making some progress to pursue such a direction. However, after my second research trip to the Inujima, I realized that I needed a shift from the underwater direction, mainly because the story was too “settled”. It did not bring me any refreshing experience. So, upon returning to the studio I tossed out the original concept and replaced it with something that crossed my mind during the flight back to Vietnam, which was the national sport of baseball. The new short film is all shot on the ground of Inujima except for some CG work made at my studio.

‘The Master and the Slave: Inujima Monogatari’ (2013) Single channel video installation, 9 min. Courtesy: the artist, Mizuma Art Gallery

The film attempts to discuss the dying trade of stone cutting and Inujima history in general told through a tale of stone spirits attempting to become animate entities into the physical world.

Notable scenes are miokuri (a farewell scene), creatures appearing from stones at the quarry, a pitcher and a batter throwing and hitting stones with a baseball bat, and the constellation as you look up into the night sky of Inujima.

With many large stones scattered around the quarry, resembling a refugee camp where many await for the day to be released to the desired destination, the pitcher and the batter endure a seemingly perpetual endeavor to be heard, to be remembered, and to coexist with the rest of world.

‘The Master and the Slave: Inujima Monogatari’ (2013) Single channel video installation, 9 min. Courtesy: the artist, Mizuma Art Gallery

Thank you, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba!

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s work on Inujima is attuned to the people on the island while, as with his previous projects, shines through the filter of his own personality and life, interweaving sincerely with the final results.

His work will be exhibited at Inujima as part of the Setouchi Triennale 2013 until November 4th. He is also featured in the ‘Welcome to the Jungle: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia from the Collection of Singapore Art Museum’ at the Yokohama Museum of Art.

Setouchi Triennale 2013
An Art and Island Journey through the Seasons on the Seto Inland Sea
Spring: March 20th to April 21st
Summer July 20th to September 1st
Autumn: October 5th to November 4th
Open: 10:00-17:00 (varies per venue)
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s artwork is featured on Inujima’s Art House Project

‘Welcome to the Jungle: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia from the Collection of Singapore Art Museum’
April 13th to June 16th
Venue: Yokohama Museum of Art
Opening Hours: 10:00-18:00 (last entry: 17:30)