Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, MICA
Excerpted from “Trace Elements,”
Pipo Nguyen-Duy’s current work illustrates the psychological fallout experienced in the United States since September 2001, and it is to that end that he relies on the tradition of landscape painting to photographically imagine the fall of man in both East of Eden and The Garden. Pipo’s reliance on the natural world as a theatrical apparatus uncovers collisions between nature and culture, past and present, in carefully crystallized visions that inscribe themselves onto classical western visions of the (un)natural world. Mythological reference and choreographed staging serve structurally and thematically to infuse Pipo’s imagined landscape with an eerie sense of art-historical déjà vu.
East of Eden stages mysterious interactions between human figures cast into and out of bucolic paradise. A modern-day Narcissus clad in a raincoat and blue jeans with a foppish hairdo, East of Eden: Nomad (2003) stands completely enraptured by his own image faintly floating in the pool of water beneath his feet (fig. 1).2 But whereas standard mythological accounts of Narcissus poise the handsome youth at the edge of a pool riveted by his own likeness reflected before him, this figure upsets the viewer’s expectation of separate image and likeness, entering into and indeed merging with his syncopated image.3 Pipo’s revised Narcissus fulfills the fantasy of the classical hero, here permitted to join his object of desire. The discarded suitcase to the left suggests an abandonment of concerns, all secondary to the pursuit of the self, confronted here by the naturally formed mirror of the water whose murky surface absorbs not only the figure but the lush greenery all around. The anonymous traveler has cast away the valise in exchange for the potential plenitude of his own image. This man-made container floats on the surface as the nomad plots an escape from even his itinerant pursuits. Trees leaning to reach the mystical light, perhaps falling, confirm Pipo’s delivery of the spectator east of Eden to an idyllic setting weary from and wary of its own fragility.
East of Eden: Rapture (2003) casts together an unusual trio of figures: a middle-aged woman floats, while two young boys rest against a large stone at the edge of a stream (fig. 2). Forever painterly, Pipo arranges a triangular composition with the horizontally oriented floating figure at the bottom of a peak made complete by the angled bodies of the two children. Reminiscent of the classicism of Nicolas Poussin, this combination of pastoral perfection and the delicacy of youth perverts traditional images of Orpheus.4 The ambiguous state of the floating female body – her eyes open or perhaps frozen in a fresh state of death – complicates a reading of the two boys. As the boy to the left leans forward on the rock, we cannot be sure if the chin resting on his right arm implies his interest in the sound generated by the violin or if, instead, his considers the gravity of discovering a dead body. If dead, the woman’s body naturally evokes a funerary dirge, here delivered by the young musician, a sign of his either soon-to-be missing or indeed already absent wife abducted by Hades. This aged Eurydice floats on the water, magnetized by its depths, as the child Orpheus prematurely enacts his inevitable separation from his beloved, here already on in her years. Looking askance from the body, the two young boys further allude to this myth, where voyeurism is punished in the extreme, Eurydice forever doomed to the underworld as payment for Orpheus’ sin of retrospect. In translating his postlapsarian state of being into contemporary visual sites and terms, Pipo’s work bears affinities with that of Jeff Wall, whose appropriative strategy also relies on our art-historical memories, as in The Drain (1989), a landscape taken directly from Cézanne and implanted with two little girls (fig. 3).5
The six predatory young men who crouch ready to pounce in East of Eden: Fighting Twins (2004) provide us with symmetry as well as its betrayal (fig. 4). The central position of the twins suggests a point of origin (for the image, for representation, for life) that in its original status is already a failed copy as evidenced by their incongruent clothing and bodily stance. Self-consciously arranged, these figures’ violent act is staid, suspended in a pregnant pause before lurching forward at one another. This carefully chosen complex landscape juxtaposes the natural with the man-made as the natural foliage hovers around the corpse of an abandoned cement factory. An icon of fabrication of an un-natural substance, cement, it testifies to the mortality of even that inert substance, here seen in sharp contrast to the young trees that sprout to replenish the barren landscape created by man’s destructive industrial activity. In contrast, strategically set in a bare, wooded landscape, the suited fencers bearing elegant rapiers in East of Eden: Swordmen (2003) seem like aliens in a still less natural version of conflict (fig. 5). Whereas the Fighting Twins wear the simple costumes of blue jeans and khakis, sweatshirts, and baseball jackets – harkening back to contrived cinematic shots like those of the Jets and Sharks in Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s 1961 cinematic production of West Side Story – the futuristic Swordmen engage in a self-consciously formal exercise. Graceful and posed, the elegant fencers are caught in the act of choreographed fighting, a courtly sport anything but natural.
East of Eden: In the Garden (2002) transports the viewer to a more manicured landscape, suburbia, America’s ultimate fantasy of controllable nature (fig. 6). Shorn hedges, a meticulously mowed lawn, and carefully planted flowers adorn this private sanctuary. Shot from the back, the ambiguously gendered figure with a kimono stands just off-center, arms raised. This enigmatic protagonist wears a conspicuous hospital bracelet on her left hand, perhaps a sign of escape from an institution and remains curiously mesmerized by the (un)natural light caught by the water streams shooting from a sprinkler. Pipo’s subject eludes the logic of the gaze that once again attempts to resolve his uncanny shots.
In his most recent serial project, The Garden, Pipo further enriches the effects of his photographic imagination on a landscape that preserves the spectral relics of human presence in a site seemingly abandoned to nature (fig. 7). A discarded tractor, a driverless car, and an empty bed alert the viewer to what no longer occurs in these spaces while simultaneously standing as “modern” ruins that echo and update the longstanding Western tradition of painting ruins.6 These corpses of human activity and purpose, their activity lapsed, now function in the guise of readymade still lifes.
As opposed to East of Eden and its reliance on the discomforting interaction of nature and man, The Garden references the artificiality of human order applied to nature through cycles of growth and decay literally and structurally framed by architecture. In this instance, the reference is not mythology or old paintings, but their structure: one-point perspective of renaissance painting.7 The ultimate fabricator of realism, photography, like one-point perspective, frames what we see. In symmetrically composed shots of the greenhouses’ exposed metal skeletons, Pipo commands structure from nature, a compositional reminder of both photography and painting’s deceptive superimpositions of perspective – the translation of binocular into monocular vision. As such, Pipo trumps renaissance painting’s achievements, asserting the supremacy of the eye/mechanical lens dyad over the alliance eye/paintbrush insofar as he renders painting’s purpose superfluous. Pipo’s archaeological vision has recovered the grid sent underground by modern painting in a mechanically executed gesture that resurrects one of the medium’s greatest historical moments. The greenhouse’s invisible skin of glass and metallic support brid make makes perspective transparent, an observation further underscored by the grid-like installation of these works.8
Pipo’s repetitious act of photographing the greenhouses – the shots now number more than 200 – is a manic return to this site that belies a melancholic orientation toward the failed dream. Like German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and American photographer William Christenberry, Pipo has created his own archive of vernacular architecture though his sustained interest in a particular type of structure. But whereas the Bechers and Christenberry seek out particular building types across different landscapes, Pipo remains dedicated to the ongoing scientific documentation of the evolution of this site in Northeast Ohio. The Garden returns to a lush world no longer contaminated by human domination, marking the U.S. post-2001 as a postlapsarian state as well. Discarded bales of hay, spreading groundcover, and even young trees all commingle through the seasons in a space of man’s overruled precision. Nature will dictate which new seeds will grow and where. The emphasis on seriality through the repetitive visits to these sites aligns the works with painterly precedents found in Monet’s infamous Haystacks and in Cézanne’s innumerable visions of Mont Sainte-Victoire. As Rosalind Krauss famously reminded us, the originality (of each image) is necessarily linked to repetition, a notion confirmed by the individual visions found in these repetitious compositions, which allude to a second type of perspective, one which is more abstractly grounded through the digestion of a body of work.9
Pipo Nguyen-duy at Sam Lee Gallery
December 2008/January 2009
Volume 39, Issue 10
In The Garden, Pipo Nguyen-duy seems to have discovered the temperate zone at the end of the world. His subject is the environment within thirty abandoned greenhouses located in Ohio, an important industrial center now considered part of the country’s Rust Belt. Nguyen-duy’s large format C-prints document the stillness that arises after dreams of progress grind to a halt; in many images, a mechanism—a type of hoist with gears and a broken chain—is seen slowly decaying overhead. The machine parts remind one of “analog” and “clockwork”—metaphors referencing past centuries’ labors that can now be applied to the fate of humanity outpaced by its own growth. A junked car echoes the dwindling auto industry while oversized hay bales suggest a repurposing of agribusiness architecture and a return to small farms. In Nguyen-duy’s garden, collapse is palpable.
A look at Nguyen-duy’s past works will help viewers to access the ideas behind the disturbingly quiet works in this series. For several years the artist has been examining the apocalyptic through photography, an effort that could be compared to an attempt to gaze at the naked sun. The light that blinds—as well as illuminates—can shatter the eye and Nguyen-duy’s central figures disappear the more we look at them, their environments swelling around the unknown. In an earlier series, East of Eden, Nguyen-duy often composed scenes with a solitary subject set in a gray, fallow, or dying landscape; a person, a rocking horse or La-Z-Boy was isolated in the foreground while in the distant hills, fires burned or pumpkins lay rotting. The scene in Mountain Fire (2002) has just one witness, a small shirtless boy with his back to the viewer, grazed by the sweet light of evening.
Poetic images are not to be trusted, Nguyen-duy seems to suggest, they reveal both our efforts to see and our longing, but no the subject of our gaze. There is a sorrow in his photographs that cannot be fully understood, for it appears to be uniquely his own. As a young boy in Vietnam who lost members of his family in the American War, Nguyen-duy survived a time period marked by some of the most iconic and traumatic photographs in history: The execution of a Viet Cong prisoner during the Tet Offensive, massacred bodies at My Lai, the effects of Napalm on Vietnamese civilians. His work returns to these sites of trauma, bringing viewers as far as their imagination and empathy allow, whether through the memory of historic images of American shame and defeat or reflection on more recent events—the aftermath of a terrorist attack, wildfires that cannot be contained or the devastation of a hurricane.
In earlier works, Nguyen-duy put considerable effort into crafting a narrative, misplacing objects in the field and directing actors on the shoot to demonstrate dismay. Images have included young Asian women hiking in hospital masks reminiscent of SARS, teenagers waiting on abandoned train tracks with only a battery-powered radio and an old man watering a dying lawn. The feeling is equally uncanny in The Garden, and just as carefully composed. An old bed with a fading mattress verges on the prophetic, placed just enough in the middle ground to be both disturbing and evocative of dreaming.
Environment disaster and the abandonment of place bring Nguyen-duy’s work into the present times and within reach of the anxieties that plague us. The images of The Garden are nevertheless safe places at this point in history, when we still have the opportunity to turn the tide. However uninhabitable a photograph may be, it can serve as a prophetic cloak, a way of looking into the future to see what might come to pass.