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Through Vietnam's Stories of Coffee and Rice, a Trio Finds Where Art and History Meet

Without notice, a gust of July rain swept through the museum of animals and plants' foyer, knocking down several paintings, strewing paper coffee cups and shattering the monitor that had been playing a short video.

While some might consider such an incident an unfortunate turn of events, being vulnerable to weather changes and courses of nature in outdoor spaces characterizes one of Art Labor’s artmaking approaches. Founded in 2012 by Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran, Truong Cong Tung and Phan Thao Nguyen, Art Labor is an artist collective, whose work incorporates visual arts, social sciences and life sciences, that fosters collaborations between people from a wide range of disciplines and communities including farmers, artists, archivists, social scientists, writers and filmmakers. Art Labor was formed when the trio moved back to Saigon after a period of time pursuing different endeavors in different parts of the world.

“At that time [2012] we found that there was a lack of information sharing and interdisciplinary approaches to art-making,” said multimedia artist Phan Thao Nguyen. She added that a desire to satisfy that need for collaboration brings them together. 

The Art Labor trio: Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran (left), Truong Cong Tung (middle) and Phan Thao Nguyen (right). Photo by Ta Minh Duc and Art Labor.

The group's body of work is better described as a series of long-term projects rather than standalone pieces, with each project having a theme under which exploration and art-making takes place. The projects are often an extension of deep examination of a thought, idea, or reality they came across during a previous project. Via artistic and cultural activities that place a heavy emphasis on research and collaboration with local communities and artists, the group explores corners of knowledge that are often subjected to a peripheral position in public and academic discourses.

Art Labor's first project, 'Unconditional Belief,' delves into the concept of belief, with each member examining different smaller aspects of the larger theme. Tung examined spiritual beliefs and practices and their relationships with suffering, Nguyen used religious beliefs as a vantage point from which she traced and questioned the history of chữ quốc ngữ (romanized Vietnamese script). Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran, as a curator, facilitated workshops and exhibitions that connect the visual art with anthropology and modern ophthalmology practices. The trio's collective labor resulted in poetic ruminations from revelatory perspectives and artworks installed in unconventional spaces, such as the Ho Chi Minh City Eye Hospital.

Held for a single day at the end of July in front of the Museum of Animals and Plants inside the Saigon Botanical Garden and Zoo, the JUA exhibition documented Art Labor’s latest endeavor, one that binds two of Vietnam's most popular modern commodities: coffee and rice.

Photo by Ta Minh Duc and Art Labor.

JUA began with research questions the group had gathered during their previous project, Jrai Dew, which took inspiration from a belief about the relationship between humans and the cycle of nature held by the Jrai, an ethnic minority group in the Central Highlands. Tung, whose family is Kinh but lives in Gia Lai Province among the Jrai community, witnessed the precariousness of coffee farmers, including his own family. Despite being heralded as a great national export, the lives of coffee growers, according to his observations, are at odds with common perceptions surrounding the market success of the coffee beans themselves.

“Vietnam is very proud of the country’s coffee export, which is ranked second in the world; there are many big coffee corporations here and cà phê sữa đá is considered a national staple. So why is the fate of many coffee farmers constantly entangled in a debt cycle of growing one type of plant and then having to discard it after just a couple of years?” Arlette asked.

Pulping coffee in northern Vietnam under French rule. Photo via Archives nationales d'outre-mer.

With this question, the group then started looking into the historical pathways that robusta coffee beans, the most popular type produced in Vietnam and consumed globally, took to reach Vietnam by traveling to Pittsburgh’s Natural History Museum, Paris’s Natural History Museum and, later, France’s Research Institute of Colonial Agriculture. Learning about robusta coffee led Arlette, Tung and Thao Nguyen to a lesser-known part of Vietnam's colonial agriculture history: Camargue rice cultivation. The JUA exhibition, which the group referred to as a one-day happening, featured works and activities informed by this journey and Jrai Dew, authored by Art Labor and the community of artists and writers they worked with.

Blending together parcels of agriculture history, community and artistic ruminations, the project shed light on lesser-traveled corners of history, posing questions and offering critiques of knowledge and knowledge production related to taxonomy and natural sciences. These fields are often informed by nature-culture dualism — the notion that humans are separated from nature according to certain inherent qualities — a concept often found in western philosophy, the legacies of which manifest themselves in modern-day industrial practices. With art, the trio could create a space where different imaginations and relationships between people and nature can be dreamed of and negotiated, outside and in the aftermath of conventional concepts such as nature-culture dualism as well as capital and modernity.

Legacies of the Empire

Unlike a conventional gallery space, the Museum of Animals and Plants' front yard doesn't offer enclosed walls on which artwork can hang. Instead, the group used metal sheets as dividers. When entering what was understood to be an art exhibition, 'Lai (Crossbred)' attracted many people's attention first. The artwork featured a series of lenticular photos, each merging two images from two different time periods together. The subject of the photos centered on rice and coffee cultivation in Vietnam and France spanning from the late 18th century until now, suggesting that, similar to crossbreeding, the current reality is a hybridized condition shaped by a multitude of historical, social and cultural forces — and vice versa — as history can contain projections of contemporary concerns.

Photo by Thi Nguyen (left) and photo by Ta Minh Duc and Art Labor (right).

The location where JUA took place also gained meaning from the interplay of history and modernity. Founded in 1865, the Saigon Botanical Gardens and Zoo first served as an "experimental garden" for the Jardin des plants, the famous botanical garden in Paris that also doubled as the Muséum National D'histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History). The Paris-based venue had an Indochina collection that the zoo helped build, according to the writings of Auguste Chevalier, a French botanist who worked for the colonial empire. At the time, historians Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery pointed out that the establishment of the zoo and other "scientific" institutions in Indochina provided the platforms for a "technical and rational form of colonial exploitation of nature," and that French colonization was a "scientific" enterprise wherein knowledge and scientific possession facilitated the exploitation of the colony's populations.

Jean Baptiste Louis Pierre, the agronomist credited with directing most of the zoo's activities, belonged to this cohort of botanists and built his career and academic authority on the inventory at the facility, which resulted in his most famous work, Flore forestière de la Cochinchine (Fauna and Flora of Indochina). Pierre also first brought arabica coffee beans to Vietnam. Today, a bust dedicated to Louis Pierre is displayed at the zoo's front gate.

Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens in the 1960s, "Phòng Thảo Mộc" means plants room. Photo via nhacxua.

“The animal and plant museum, in a way, is the epitome of human’s ambitions to retain things that have been dead and should return to nature. We also make art upon this section of the past and engage with this history,” Arlette told Saigoneer.

During Art Labor’s research, the group found out that while the French introduced four types of coffee beans, including robusta, to Vietnam, most of their projects failed to compete with other imperial powers. The mass commodification and commercialization of coffee mostly came after đổi mới, when the Vietnamese government reorganized economic zones and appointed the Central Highlands region for coffee plantations. 

A coffee plantation in Tonkin. Photo via Archives nationales d'outre-mer (left). Art Labor talks about their journey at The Factory. Photo by Thi Nguyen (right).

The search for robusta also led the group to the rice fields of Camargue, where they discovered an episode of history that rarely gets mentioned in popular discourses. During World War II, over 20,000 young Vietnamese males living in rural areas had to immigrate to France to work in military factories. Most of these people arrived because France forced households with more than three young boys to send at least one to Europe, otherwise they would be imprisoned. In 1941, due to food shortages, a number of these workers, called lính thợ or lính công binh, were sent to Camargue to help French farmers with rice cultivation, which had disappeared in the region by 1939. They helped revive rice growing and laid the foundation for one of the biggest rice industries in modern-day France. Despite the market success of Camargue rice, the workers were horribly underpaid, treated like subordinate humans and erased from official history until French journalist Pierre Daum investigated the story and wrote a book about it in 2004. 

Bỏng (Crack) touches upon this part of history. The artwork involves a plowing machine constantly churning out bỏng gạo (puffed rice). The popular snack is made by a reappropriated industrial machine: rice grains are put inside and puffed by a diesel engine. The process draws a parallel to the lính thợ being shipped to France to serve in the war and then becoming the backbone of the Camargue rice industry. Tung mentioned that the plowing machine is also part of communal life in the highlands, where people gather around it to make this snack and converse. Thus the seemingly simple snack is bundled up in an inextricable network of destruction and construction, suggesting that the relationship between the two is less antagonistic than one often imagines.

Crack. Photo by Ta Minh Duc and Art Labor.

The plowing machine at JUA. Photo by Ta Minh Duc and Art Labor.

Collective Imaginations

The artistic materials that Art Labor and the artists and communities they worked with — an industrial plowing machine, agriculture tools, soil packages, finely ground coffee and discarded coffee trees — are objects that came into being during industrialization; some now sit as leftovers existing on the fringes of the capitalist system. In their book Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery also pointed out that French colonization ushered in the modern capitalist era accompanied by a significant shift "into the era of submission of nature, the railroad, the car, the airplane" in the colonies, including Vietnam. "The vast majority of the colonized hardly benefited and were only distant spectators to this shift, basically a shift in the relationship between mankind and nature."

This distinction between human versus the natural world, with emphasis on the superiority of the former, is hardly universal, yet serves as the dominant ideology for most of the world's economies, resulting in lands, trees, animals and communities being increasingly threatened and exploited for the sake of economic growth and accumulation of wealth. Are there places for imaginations of the future and ecology not governed by the domains of the official and the affluent?

A kite made out of soil bags at JUA. Photo by Ta Minh Duc and Art Labor.

A sculpture made from coffee tree roots in Jrai Dew. Photo by Art Labor.

The name JUA, taken from the Jrai language, refers to a condition that constantly oscillates between water and air. "Minutely it can describe how the leaves breath [sic]. Allegorically it can imply the vaporization of things: land, forest, human, capital, labor," reads the exhibition text. Jrai Dew's theme draws from a Jrai belief that human beings are part of the metamorphic cycle of nature; when one dies, they are transformed into a drop of dew, returning to nature.

For Jrai Dew, the group worked with several Jrai sculpture artists, using grave sculptures found in the Central Highlands as inspiration, though in recent years this practice has waned due to heavy deforestation and a section of the Jrai community adopting Christianity. Using discarded coffee tree roots, the Jrai artists created beautiful sculptures and displayed them in villages with the majority of their audiences and participators representing local communities. The first Jrai Dew exhibition was held in Papet Village in July 2016 and highlighted the works of Rchâm Jeh and Kpuih Gloh. The second took place in Blut Grieng Village with collaborations between Rchâm Jeh, Kpuih Gloh, Puih Hăn, Siu Lơn, Rơmah Hyet and Rahlan Lơh. The third exhibition was held at Amo Village, Rchâm Jeh's hometown.

Photo by Ta Minh Duc.

“When we bring art outside of the gallery space, for example when we held an exhibition in my hometown, the exhibition occurred outdoors, and there are many things that come unexpected such as rain...So for example on that day [at the zoo], it rained and knocked down everything, but [to me] it’s a transition to a different state of being, besides interactions between humans there is another interaction with context and space that comes into play. The natural world, clouds, rains, bugs, create this symbiotic relationship that goes beyond just communications between individuals or communities, but it’s something broader than that,” said Tung.

Both Jrai Dew and JUA epitomize the power of communities and collaborations that communicate through a shared language of art. None of the trio actually speaks Jrai, for example, but it didn't hinder their work together. Tung shared that it was hard to communicate at first, but after a couple of years working together they can understand each other's verbal cues. The projects not only involve artists, but also writers. For example, renowned writer Nguyen Ngoc, who has an intimate relationship with the Central Highlands, wrote material for the exhibition-accompanying book that was published in English, Vietnamese and Jrai. He also helped serve as the group's mentor throughout their journey.

Jrai philosophies and Art Labor's approach to art poses an interesting oppositional force to modernity and global capitalism's attitude towards ecology. How much did extraction and commodification of nature contribute to the progress that it claims, and how much did it simply serve as an imperialistic fantasy of moving forward? Projects such as Jrai Dew and JUA might not have all the answers to the world's problems, but they provide a space for artistic ruminations, conversations and open hearts. 

Photo by Nhat Q. Vo.

Check out the website and artbook for Jrai Dew here and other Art Labor projects here.

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