This essay offers a comparative analysis of two moving-image artworks, UuDam Tran Nguyen's Serpents' Tails (2015) and Tuaấn Mami's In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018), in order to address questions of contemporary artmaking, ecological devastation, and the public sphere in Vietnam. Set in Ho Chi Minh City, Serpents' Tails hails a question of air pollution, depicting a thrilling dance between humans and “serpents' tails” created from plastic, throwaway bags, and the exhaust fumes of motorbikes. In contrast, the slower-paced In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still critiques extractive limestone mining in rural northern Vietnam, a process that smothers the land in a kind of white, powdery haze and slow death grip. Both works highlight a question of inequitable breathability in relation to the airscape.
In comparing these two artworks, this essay aims to parse out intertwined ecological concerns in urban and rural Vietnam, represented by expressions of breathability, in relation to sociopolitical questions of speakability and animacy. Matters of more-than-human animacy cannot be divorced from pressing issues of coloniality, indigeneity, gender, sex, race, and climate justice. When “voice” and “agency” are structurally oppressed in linguistic form, eliminating a grammar of animacy (Robin Wall Kimmerer) that would convey the vitality of “nonliving” beings, then I argue that one may recuperate a feeling of animacy through the visual realm. With emotional charge, Serpents' Tails and In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still engender a sense of nonhumans' mutual animacy, attempting to re-instill a feeling of respect for, and reciprocity with, the living land.