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September 2022

Field Notes: Nguyễn Trinh Thi and ikkibawiKrrr, Documenta 15

Inji Kim

Nguyễn Trinh Thi, And They Die a Natural Death, 2022. Installation view, Rondell, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

ikkibawiKrrr, Tropical Story, 2022. Installation view, Natural History Museum Ottoneum, Kassel. Photo: Inji Kim.

Nguyễn Trinh Thi, And They Die a Natural Death, 2022. Installation view, Rondell, Kassel. Photo: Inji Kim.

ikkibawiKrrr, Monument, 2022. Installation view, Natural History Museum Ottoneum, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

ikkibawiKrrr, Tropical Traces, 2022. Installation view, Natural History Museum Ottoneum, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

ikkibawiKrrr, Building a Fire, 2022. Installation view, Natural History Museum Ottoneum, Kassel, June 15, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

Eavesdropping on some conversations at ruruHaus, lumbung, meydan, nongkrong, sobat were a few of the words I heard people fumbling. [1]1
Lumbung, nongkrong, and sobat are Indonesian terms for a communal rice bard, “hanging out,” and “friend”; meydan refers to a public square in Urdu, Ukrainian, Fārsi, and Arabic. The Documenta 15 website hosts a Glossary that contextualizes these and other terms relevant to ruangrupa’s curatorial framework. See .
These are key terms of ruangrupa’s programming for Documenta 15 and are regularly used among the participating collectives to describe their activities. Language holds the power to shape how we think, and interspersing words from non-Western languages in the everyday operations of Documenta shows how the organizers considered various strategies to shift the dynamics of the exhibition toward globality by employing terms that champion polyphony. By altering Kassel’s soundscape, ruangrupa has cut through the various ways in which Western states, institutions, corporations, customs, and ideologies assert their dominance in exhibitions of contemporary art on the scale of Documenta. English, French, and German have a strong dominance in the art world, and I was undeniably pleased to hear a crowd of visitors to Documenta pronounce words unfamiliar to them. It was the sound of tables turning.

ruangrupa’s decision to feature artists and collectives from historically dominated groups further demonstrates its intention to contend with the conventions of exhibition-making. Documenta 15’s reconfiguration of linear capitalist time into a spiraling temporal existence and extension of curatorial autonomy to collectives to invite other collectives and artists still underlines a belief in amorphous multiplicity over direct singularity. As Vietnamese filmmaker, writer, and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha notes, artists from marginalized backgrounds have been “socialized to see always more than their own point of view. In the complex reality of postcoloniality it is therefore vital to assume one’s radical ‘impurity’ and to recognize the necessity of speaking from a hybrid place, hence of saying at least two, three things at a time.” [2]2
Trinh T. Minh-ha, interview with Judith Mayne, originally published as “Feminism, Filmmaking, and Postcolonialism: An Interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha,” in Feminisms (September–October (part I), November–December (part II) 1990); Afterimage 18, no. 5 (December 1990); and in Trinh T. Minh-ha, Framer Framed : Film Scripts and Interviews (Milton Park, UK: Taylor & Francis Group, 1992).
“Speech” from a hybrid perspective is clearly audible in Documenta, expressing how the specific experiences of the artists and collectives that comprise Documenta 15 are tangled up with broader social and political circumstances. Histories reside in various places—languages, archives, landscapes, stories, bodies, memories—and ruangrupa’s choice to disrupt the dominance of Western languages in an international art event is an opportunity to think about the reality that surrounds many of the non-Western participants. Many of the artists and collectives are reacting to circumstances that they cannot fully articulate: memory is mediated by various factors and fades as linear time progresses. Trauma, however, continuously punctures the present, requiring significant resources, information, and labor to process and digest. Specificities of perspectives, gulfs of experiences, and the permeability of the past that arise in the works in Documenta 15 reveal the various ways historical traumas make themselves known. [3]3
I developed this approach after reading film historian Priya Jaiukumar’s discussion of the filmed space in Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009) and Fariha Róisín’s discussion of postcolonial healing in Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind? (New York: HarperCollins, 2022).
South Korean collective ikkibawiKrrr and Hanoi-based artist Nguyễn Trinh Thi contemplate how elements of the natural environment can gradually hide and suddenly reveal traumatic memories. These artists use plant life as a proxy to contemplate how time, place, space, and stories can come together in artistic practices and to think about how cinematic techniques can reveal fractured and layered stories.

Nguyễn Trinh Thi, And They Die a Natural Death, 2022. Installation view, Rondell, Kassel. Photo: Inji Kim.

Various pitches of sáo ôi flute, a musical instrument indigenous to peoples from the Northern mountainous regions of Vietnam, echo through the dark interior of the Rondell, a tower built in the sixteenth century to protect Kassel. Here, Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s installation And They Die a Natural Death engages the military and intellectual histories of Vietnam, with the Rondell, which once housed prisoners and was sometimes used as a torture chamber, conscripted as a mise en scène for Nguyễn’s shadow play of chili plants. [4]4
See .
Inspired by Tale Told in the Year 2000, an autobiographical novel by Bùi Ngọc Tấn that is banned in Vietnam, Nguyễn’s installation poeticizes the conditions of detention camps in the Tam Đảo forest of northern Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Near the entrance of the Rondell is a bookshelf with excerpts from the novel in Vietnamese, English, and German in which prisoners return home after a long day of manual labor and encounter a chili forest, the taste of which reminds them of home. Driven by hunger and homesickness, the prisoners are overcome with an inexplicable craze that is quickly quelled when a guard kills one of the prisoners.

Nguyễn’s has made use of real-time wind data from sensors installed in the Tam Đảo Forest in Vietnam to control the flutes, light systems, and fans installed inside the Rondell, and shadows of chili plants dance on the former defense tower’s ten-meter-thick walls, simulating for viewers of a violent episode from somewhere geographically and temporally distant. Considering the histories of both Tấn’s novel and the Rondell, Nguyễn’s installation suggests that barriers and bans can be broken in discursive ways. Tale Told in the Year 2000 has been banned in Vietnam since it was published in 2000, but this segment of it has been found by Nguyễn and brought to life elsewhere in the world. This ban, in an unexpected way, disseminates the novel even further, and paves the way for it to reach a wider audience. Similarly, the Rondell, which was constructed to keep foreigners out of the city, has been reimagined as a site that welcomes visitors in to encounter the stories of people elsewhere.

Nguyễn Trinh Thi, And They Die a Natural Death, 2022. Installation view, Rondell, Kassel. Photo: Inji Kim.

Nguyễn’s practice explores the power of sound and listening and the interrelations of image, sound, and space. [5]5
See .
The synchronization of the two locations through sound and the dramatic play of light evoke a theatrical experience without the need for live actors. While the context of the novel and the history of the Rondell necessarily inform any understanding of Nguyễn’s work, the installation independently articulates how trauma acts as a shadow in re-living memory. The site compels visitors to walk through a floating footbridge in the dark and rely on others to find a seat in order to observe the moving shadows and piercing sounds, and the installation itself becomes a new space in which embedded memories, histories, and viewpoints created in violent contexts are polyphonically synchronized.

The visceral reaction that the prisoners had upon encountering the chili field and the significance of the chili plant in the composition of Nguyễn’s work affirm the strong interconnection between humans and our natural surroundings. Plants and landscape can be integral devices in constructing and triggering experience and memory, and this concept drives the South Korean research band ikkibawiKrrr’s work at the Museum of Natural History, Ottoneum, which was originally one of Germany’s first theaters. [6]6
The collective’s name derives from ikkibawi, the Korean word for moss-rock. Mosses subsist by adapting to the environments that surround them, and exemplify a mode of survival that is in close response to nature. Krrr is an onomatopoeic sound that sharpens and elongates the word. See .
In addition to featuring works for Documenta on the ground floor, the Ottoneum also has its own exhibitions that contemplate the natural world’s long timeline through monumentalizing dinosaurs and mammoths through displays on the second floor. The narration of the ancient world that centers around nature inside the museum parallels how ikkibawiKrrr inquires the relationship between documenting nature and memorializing divisive events. Tropical Story is a two-channel video work that documents the contemporary landscapes of sites invaded by Japan in the twentieth century in Micronesia, Indonesia, and South Korea, acts of colonial aggression that are still seldom recognized as such on an international level. Most footage shows old military infrastructure now covered with flora and is occasionally accompanied by subtitles in Korean and English. These words do not correspond with any of the content that is being shown on the screens but narrates the history behind the footage, of violence, forced labor, and death, as well as of the farms, factories, cathedrals that stood on these sites. Tunnels and cannons are overgrown with tropical plants and defunct airstrips silently occupy the landscape. Compared to the Rondell, which was preserved to be a monument and remain in public memory, these structures are disregarded and forgotten. War memorials for those who fought against Japan and religious imagery from a Buddhist shrine are also featured in the videos; through these elements, the history of colonization is maintained by locals. And though these narratives and geographies rarely feature in Western histories, the West asserts its dominance in the region, overtaking Buddhism with its religions and philosophies. ikkibawiKrrr also uses auditory elements to augment their contemplation of how history and memory hide and reveal each other. Noises that sound like sirens and timbres of wooden percussion instruments overlap, interrupt, and emphasize footage of places that retain war infrastructure built by and against multiple empires.

ikkibawiKrrr, Tropical Story, 2022. Installation view, Natural History Museum Ottoneum, Kassel. Photo: Inji Kim.

Sound occupies and defines space while being materially invisible. It can carry meaning, and is an important signifier. Artists exhibited in Documenta 15 bring attention to power dynamics and the effects on individuals and communities through personal accounts that expand outward. They are voicing issues, identities, and experiences that have been silenced. The non-Western words that are used in the operation of the Documenta demonstrate the importance of shifting power dynamics beyond visible surfaces and to carry them over to other means of being and contemplations. Nguyễn breaks silences induced by dominant narratives in their work by depicting landscapes that are hiding layers of history. ikkibawiKrrr’s work holds an important place because it acts as a reminder that (post-)colonialism is not a dynamic exclusive to the West and Global North’s extractions of East and Global South. The reason why some issues go unnoticed is not only due to deliberate silencing but also because they are conceived with the convergence of multiple complex operations and interests. Finding the right voice to bring attention to these issues takes time, effort, and the clearing of dominant voices and narratives. Understanding time as non-linear and nature as discursive reveals the concealed layers of colonial histories and how they affect those who are living now.

Inji Kim’s research explores how knowledge circulation shapes scholarly outlooks in art history. She earned her MA in art and museum studies from Georgetown University and worked at art institutions in New York, London, Seoul, and Istanbul. This past year, she published on Nairy Baghramian’s work for the Nasher Graduate Symposium Compendium in Dallas, Texas. Over the summer, she co-led the Art History in the Netherlands Study Abroad Program for the University of Washington, Seattle, where she is pursuing her PhD in art history and a certificate in cinema and media studies.

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