Tuan Andrew Nguyen on Monuments and History

4:50 | Published on August 12, 2013 | 324 Views

Tuan Andrew Nguyen discusses Enemy’s Enemy: Monument to a Monument, his sculptural response to the official monument commemorating Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, who performed self-immolation in 1963 protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Nguyen describes how his work takes the form of a hand-carved Louisville Slugger, a classic American baseball bat, and explains how the monk’s image has attained an ongoing life as part of popular culture.

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June Yap: Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s Enemy’s Enemy: Monument to a Monument is a work that incorporates the memorial of the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963 into a classic American Louisville Slugger baseball bat—into the sweet spot of the bat, to be precise. The work references a historical moment in Vietnam when, under the government then, there was repression of the Buddhist community. The monk felt the need to protest against this, and he self-immolated in public. It’s an event that is very vividly remembered by not just the people of Vietnam, but around the world, too.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen: I decided to base myself in Vietnam after I graduated from CalArts for many different reasons. And while I was there, I saw a newspaper article in one of the government newspapers where they held a contest to find an artist to design the next monument commemorating this monk, Thich Quang Duc, who self-immolated in protest of the U.S. regime, or rather the regime of the Southern Vietnamese government, which was put there by the U.S.

I thought about this—this move, this political move, this move of protest by this monk, and the relationship of the current Vietnam to his political protest, and his relationship to the U.S.—and all these very strange, intangible relationships that were going on. You experience history through hearing about it, and through watching films, and through reading books. And then you experience it through being told. And then you experience it through living it. And all of these get merged into one very surreal experience.

I thought it would be really interesting to make a monument to a monument and incorporate what wasn’t left behind, which is American baseball. And I wanted this image of this, ’cause the newspaper posted the winning entry of the monument, and I wanted to take that design of this monument, and place it onto the bat, and have that redefine this object, this baseball bat, and take the strength of the baseball bat away, ’cause the baseball bat itself is a symbol of strength, power, American colonialism, and all these things.

June Yap: You have the baseball bat, which is an icon of American sport, of community. And that’s very much what Tuan is trying to bring into the work, the fact that religion and sport are both platforms for the creation of community, the sense of belonging to a people. And coupled with this memorial, with these flames licking off the Buddhist monk, it looks quite violent. But if you actually know what happened during the self-immolation—it was a very serene moment; the Buddhist monk set himself on fire, sat there, and did not utter a single word, until he fell over. It’s a very, very paradoxical work.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen: It seemed like a paradox to me, because Communism doesn’t support the idea of religion. It’s interesting, because even within the ideas and the philosophy of Buddhism, the act of suicide is not encouraged. Even for political protest. So the image of this burning monk put the whole world in shock. And then you fast-forward to maybe twenty, thirty years later, and it’s on the cover of a CD.

So, you start thinking about the life of an image, an image that you thought was set in stone, historically, and then it’s not anymore. All of a sudden, it becomes a part of popular culture in the U.S. So, all these things—how history is redefined by new generations of image-makers, and image-consumers—that’s really interesting to me.

June Yap: Tuan himself, and together when he’s working with the Propeller Group, are very much interested in how media works, in contemporary perception. Yeah.