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.

INTRODUCTION

A Vietnamese woman returns our gaze, wearing a face mask. Her visage fills the screen of UuDam Tran Nguyen's Serpents' Tails (2015), her eyes reaching out to us through glasses, with her nose and mouth shielded by a surgical mask featuring the stars and stripes of the United States flag and part of the word “Texas” or perhaps “Texaco,” the American oil subsidiary of Chevron. Her image is both iconic and commonplace today, signaling a turning point after the disastrous global spread of COVID-19. Face masks are a new norm. Yet the woman's pre-coronavirus covering signals another worldwide crisis on the horizon—climate change, and more specifically, air pollution. Similar to the unequal distribution of COVID-19 in many respects, it is harder to breathe in some places than others, where “concentrations of well- and unwell-being accumulate, sometimes quickly and, sometimes slowly.”1 The woman's “protective” mask conceals an entangled web of historically situated violence in Vietnam that marks her as more vulnerably positioned in a differentially distributed “socio-atmospherics of power,” to borrow a term from anthropologists Timothy Choy and Jerry Zee.2 In other words, a decolonial planetary politics must also arise from an attunement to the airscape. The gendered and veiled, static close-up of the woman in Serpents' Tails puts a new twist on Gayatri Spivak's classic text about the speakability of the subaltern subject.3 Gazing into the bespectacled eyes of this woman, the only close-up in this otherwise fast-paced video, it becomes apparent that speakability and breathability are increasingly, intimately bound.

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“The Knight with Facemask,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

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“The Knight with Facemask,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

Coverings over the mouth and nose have become a recent trope in video works from Vietnam. This includes the motorbike riders' masks in Serpents' Tails, signaling the issue of rampant exhaust fumes in Ho Chi Minh City (still popularly called Saigon); the science fiction–like, plastic helmeting in Nguyễn Trinh Thi's Letters From Panduranga (2015), referring to the government's proposed plan to build nuclear power plants in an indigenous Cham region; all-over hazmat suits in Traấn Minh Đức's more minimalist Pink and Black (2013), highlighting the noxious spread of radioactive materials; and the head coverings of fish factory workers in Phan Thảo Nguyên's Mekong Mechanical (2012), evoking destruction of the Mekong River's ecologies.4 Tuaấn Mami's video In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) also depicts three women in rural northern Vietnam who silently move through the landscape with cloth coverings on their faces, shielding themselves against a toxic powder that lingers in the air from limestone mining. In all of these works, the mask connects matters of ecology to restricted public discourse in Vietnam. Within a realm of contemporary art and criticism, it also attests to a much vaster attention paid to Euro-American artistic responses to climate disruption, despite growing calls for climate justice and more focus on those peoples and parts of the globe more inequitably affected by the crisis. It is no surprise that Serpents' Tails “speaks” not through spoken language, but rather through the artistic expressions of dance and music. This allows the piece both more ambiguity in the face of a censoring state apparatus as well as a means of communicating across borders to those who do not know Vietnamese. Artists in the region are faced with multiple obstacles toward publicity of their work, within and beyond their immediate cultural circles.5

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Still from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

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Still from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

How does one ethically broadcast local issues of slower, more invisible atmospheric violence—from air pollution caused by the regular use of motorbikes in Saigon to toxic dust cover from extractive industries outside of Hanoi—to larger regional and planetary audiences, who are more distantly but also still deeply imbricated in this net of devastation?6 For that matter, how does one represent these socioenvironmental issues to more proximate audiences in Vietnam, where a single-party state tightly controls the dissemination of information? Censorship is a significant concern in the country, deforming the potential for critical public discourse. Yet according to scholars, it is a recent environmentalist movement in the last decade, in fact, coupled with this greater digital connectivity, that has led to more serious protests against state authoritarianism.7 It is no surprise that a trend in artwork concerning environmental destruction in Vietnam, especially in digital form, has flourished in parallel in the last decade.

This essay compares two such video works, Serpents' Tails and In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still, in order to parse out ecological concerns in Vietnam, represented by expressions of breathability, in relation to sociopolitical questions of speakability. The fifteen-minute, three-screen Serpents' Tails garners its name from stitched-together tubes, made from cheap plastic bags, that channel exhaust fumes from motorcycles, the most popular form of transit among urban residents in Vietnam. Often surrounded by these colorful, air-filled tubes in physical installations, the video work depicts a thrilling dance between humans and nonhuman “serpents' tails” throughout the rapidly changing built environment of Saigon. In contrast, the thirty-minute, single-screen In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still assumes a much more lethargic pace for viewers. It documents limestone mining in rural northern Vietnam, an ongoing problem since 2000, whereby stone extraction has covered everything in the environment with a white blanket of dust, smothering the land in a slow death grip. There has been no environmental accountability by the mining corporations or government, and every living being in the area has suffered from the toxic haze. Mami's video is one fragment (the artist's term) of a much larger installation, ongoing since 2014, with sculptural, photographic, textual, and participatory elements. Yet as with UuDam's artwork, which may often include the blown-up serpents' tails and motorbike engines in spatialized installation settings, I wish to focus on the moving-image aspect of these two pieces and how it emotively stirs affinities among, and attunement for, peoples and nonhumans that have been historically subject in tandem to colonial and neocolonial slow violence.8 This essay explores the screen as a type of porous barrier and animating conduit for viewers, one that may transmit a feeling of animacy to local, regional, and planetary audiences when traditional structures of language are inaccessible and avenues for official public expression curtailed.

Indeed, this essay also aims to situate breathability and speakability in relation to more-than-human matters of animacy. In order to move in this analytical direction, I draw from indigenous, feminist, queer, and affect studies. I take seriously cultural theorist and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha's charge to listen to silence as a form of communication itself, in all its “complexities and subtleties,” and to understand how it may be shared artistically.9 And this attunement should be extended to the world of our “nonhuman” kin. Against an apparent impasse of unspeakability, for instance, indigenous activist and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer argues that humans should strive to recover a grammar of animacy in a world whose dominant languages do not allow for the possibility of recognizing being-ness in “nonliving” things. Grammar is the foundation for charting relationships, the bedrock for constructing one's worldview. Kimmerer claims that a grammar of animacy is something we already know and must remember: “the language of animacy teeters on extinction—not just for Native peoples, but for everyone. Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion—until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget.”10 This places an artificial barrier between humans and nonhumans and opens the door to unethical practices and exploitation, where the living land is understood as one of the “natural resources.”11 Yet what happens when such a formal grammar seems irrecuperable? Unfortunately, there are only nine extant speakers of Potawatomi today because of brutal, state-led “reeducation” programs in the United States, tearing families apart and sending Native youth like Kimmerer's grandfather to boarding schools in order to indoctrinate “American” values and enforce linguistic and cultural hegemony. Unspeakability for Natives was the aim, and a type of unspeakability for nonhumans in a human, political-public realm has coextensively resulted. The oppression and minoritization of indigenous groups is a familiar story around the world, and with the loss of old-growth cultures such as the Potawatomi or the Mường in northern Vietnam with its many dialects, a language for relating to the living land also verges on extinction. What would it mean to speak with the polluted air in Ho Chi Minh City or the drilled limestone in rural Vietnam? The very idea seems unviable within the structure of languages that circulate and grow in strength today—in not only English, for example, but also Vietnamese and French and Chinese.

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The Long Serpents (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

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The Long Serpents (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

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Still from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

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Still from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

In such a case, I suggest that we should seriously consider the feelings of more-than-humans in the political-public sphere, as a more intuitive, imaginative, or spiritual type of attention, which Euro-American intellectual analysis would disregard, to borrow the words of affect/queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich, with “taboo-like force.”12 Serpents' Tails, for example, offers a reworked, more-than-humanist creation story, attempting to incorporate the breathing, vibrant bodies—and thus “voices” or emotions—of nonhuman matter into a contemporary public sphere. The socioenvironmental slow violence depicted in Tuaấn Mami's video, in turn, assumes no legendary carapace like that of the dragon. Instead, it conveys feelings of despair and confusion, comingled and shared by both animate and inanimate bodies, from humans and animals to foliage and rock. Its particulate matter flows nebulously throughout the half hour of the piece, pervasively inhabiting the screen as a kind of white haze, white noise, and affective standstill. Ecological salvation feels blocked in the artwork, and instead of nonhuman “voice” or activity, amorphous feelings of depression and anxiety prevail. As Cvetkovich argues, investigating public “epidemics of depression” recognizes long-term histories of violence tied to colonization and power, and might offer ways to “come to terms with disappointment, failure, and the slowness of change” in response.13 Such negative emotions might sometimes be antisocial, but they may also serve to catalyze creative forms of affiliation or relationality.

Ultimately, through a comparison of Serpents' Tails and In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still, I attempt to explore generative ways to include the liveliness of nonhumans within a human-centric public sphere and political discourse. Juxtaposing the two artworks is fruitful for teasing out the benefits and/or limits of various, recent theories regarding how to relate to or politicize nonhumans. In her 2010 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, for example, political theorist Jane Bennett enjoins readers to imagine a discursive shift from environmentalism to vital materialism, in order to conceptualize nonhuman matter as part of politics and the larger public sphere.14 Like UuDam's serpents' tails, material within a discourse of the latter becomes more alive and vibrant in some sense, relating humans and nonhumans more horizontally and equitably.15 Bennett's ideas have struck a chord with many sympathetic to fostering such a vision of human and nonhuman entwinement, but as scholars such as Janet Catherine Berlo, Macarena Gómez-Barris, and Jessica L. Horton point out, the “nonhuman turn” and body of writings categorized as new materialisms are not so new. Gómez-Barris opines, “Global South epistemologies and philosophies of race and racism, ranging from postcolonial and decolonial theories, to Indigenous critique, to Afro-based thought, to Black Studies to perspectivisms and relational models, have long anticipated the ways to differently imagine knowledge and perception as the foundation of planetary inhabitance.”16 Above all, questions of more-than-human speakability cannot be divorced from pressing issues of coloniality, indigeneity, gender, sex, race, and histories of socio-environmental slow violence across the planet. When such “voice” and “agency” is structurally oppressed in linguistic form, one may recuperate a feeling of animacy through the visual realm. This may move diverse publics in creative ways toward affiliation and reciprocity with the living, breathing land.

SERPENTS' TAILS AND A WORLD OF ENTANGLED BREATH

Serpents' Tails begins with a picture of genesis and birth, as stitched-together plastic bags inflate and give life to colorful, whimsical creatures and animals. Their playful forms and the neutralized, white-cube gallery setting, however, belie the toxic substance that fills their bodies and “lungs”—dirty exhaust fumes from motorbike tailpipes. Twisting together like a cancerous growth in the sterile space, they are warped—grafted from cheap, throwaway bags that litter the environment. Here the opening sequence foreshadows the arrival of the serpents' tails in Saigon—or, the dismembered body part that reptiles often jettison in order to escape capture and to survive.

Following this contorted, plastic menagerie, the second scene moves into the crux of the artwork. A large group of motorbikes encircles a man and a serpent's tail in the dark of night. The theatrically lit perimeter suggests an epic battle between the two, or perhaps a melancholic dance, as the man elegantly maneuvers around and through the writhing, billowing form of the inflated pink or transparent red tube. The heroic man armors himself with a helmet and face mask like the other “warriors” enveloping him and his partner and/or foe. Additionally, the three-screen installation condenses down to and hones viewers' attention on the single central channel for this scene. At times, it invites viewers in on the ground, as part of the surrounding circle, and at others, it offers a more dramatic view from above, visually abstracting the undulating form of the serpent's tail as if it were a written, albeit illegible, coiling script. In this section, moreover, the time of the camera occasionally speeds up or slows down in order to heighten the suspense of the struggle, and dramatic music accompanies the staged scene.

The choreography of the dance refers to several mythologies or serpents' tales, according to the artist.17 On the one hand, it draws from Euro-American stories such as those of St. George and the Dragon, and Laocoön. On the other, it alludes to Thánh Gióng and the Hindu myth of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. All involve climactic strife, and almost all include a poisonous dragon or serpent of some kind. In the biker's solo performance against the serpent's tail, he recalls the masculinist, Christian myth of St. George slaying a dragon in order to save a virginal princess. The charged tête-à-tête also invokes the Vietnamese legend of Thánh Gióng, or the saint of Gióng village. Saint Gióng is a giant-sized folk hero who rides an iron horse and helps save the Văn Lang kingdom from foreign invaders. His story served as inspiration for nationalist Vietnamese poets in the nineteenth century, and it still predominates in schoolchildren's textbooks. According to UuDam, these armored knight stories also inspired his previous video installation, Waltz of the Machine Equestrians—The Machine Equestrians (2012), where a phalanx of bikers ride in head-to-toe, colorful raingear. Additionally, the dance scene in Serpents' Tails elicits the iconic image of the Hellenistic-style statue of Laocoön and His Sons. There are several versions of the story of Laocoön, a Trojan priest, but in Virgil's Aeneid, he is famous for attempting to expose the ambush of the Trojan Horse. As the tale goes, after a failed ten-year siege of Troy, the Greek army feigned a retreat but left a gift of a wooden horse filled to the brim with hidden soldiers, who sprung out of the vessel and finally conquered the city. This act of surreptitious invasion recalls the spread of noxious exhaust fumes from motorcycles in Saigon. Lastly, in the legend of Samudra Manthun, or the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, two conflicting sides, the Devas and Asuras, agree to cooperate in churning the ocean of milk in order to produce and share the desirable nectar of immortality. They do this by each grabbing part of a snake coiled around Mount Madara. The Asuras hold the head of the snake, and the Devas grip its tail. From their churning, many treasures emerge, including the nectar of immortality, but simultaneously, poisonous fumes are released from the snake's mouth, a toxin that is so powerful that it could destroy all of creation. Again, the story recalls the deleterious pollution caused by the motorbikes, a more contemporary symptom of human greed.

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“Playroom,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

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“Playroom,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

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“Night Gathering,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

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“Night Gathering,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

All of these epic tales serve, in the end, to shape cultural identities and values.18 These are formative mythologies that children learn in their homes and schools, as part of broader humanist traditions that orient them toward a bigger-picture understanding of their world. This opening battle scene between the hero dancer and the serpent's tail suggests a similar aim, set as it is in a type of ritualistic space. Preceding the dance, for instance, a large formation of bikers all ride to the central stage, with simple handmade balloons waving from poles on their bikes. These evoke banners, flags, or more specifically, the lantern festivals common to different cultures in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, for example, lantern processions are typical in the Mid-Autumn Festival, which celebrates the fertility of the land and the reproduction of all living things, from grain and livestock to children.19 In fact, the festival has morphed over time into an overt celebration of children in particular, as signifiers of the future. Youth parade around neighborhoods wearing playful masks and carrying colorful lanterns in fantastical shapes. Although the festival originally celebrated the dragon, which brought rain for a bountiful harvest, today it features lion dances. The masks and lanterns also often depict animals, or even the Earth God, which according to ethnologist Văn Huy Nguyễn historically marked a “harmony between human beings and the natural world.”20 Handcrafted shadow lanterns, originating from the twelfth century, also regularly included figures such as the legendary hero Saint Gióng, but today, mass-produced plastic lanterns exhibit stars from movies and pop culture such as Pokemon Pikachu and Hello Kitty.

Serpents' Tails evokes such a shift in cultural representations and values in Vietnam, and hints that this globalizing change connects to the world of children, as symbols of futurity. Its motorbike soldiers herald simple, amorphous, and trash-bag-like balloons that arguably signify the atmosphere itself, just plain air, no longer suggesting a harmonious link between humans and the rest of the natural world. They are illuminated only by the headlights of globalized “machine equestrians.” Additionally, the playful yet distorted balloons in the opening sequence, hand-stitched together from disposable, mass-produced plastic bags, also suggest a type of hybrid “urban craft,” to employ art historian Iftikhar Dadi's term.21 They are handmade, decorated objects for local, daily, or ritual use, but they also draw on industrial, reproducible materials and globalized media images.22 In this way, UuDam's work arguably fits within a trend and history of artmaking in Southeast Asia, as Pamela Corey contends, that combines conceptual questions with vernacular craft categories or processes.23 A striking comparison with UuDam's work is Dinh Q. Lê's Damaged Gene project (1998), in which the artist rented a street kiosk in Ho Chi Minh City and sold fabricated baby clothes and toys. These were warped in different ways, such as clothing made for conjoined twins, and thus pointed to a violent history of chemical warfare and the use of Agent Orange by the US in the Vietnam War, which led to birth defects among other injurious effects.24 In some respects, Vietnam received many Trojan horses like this from the war that continue to exacerbate more durational forms of slow violence today in both its rural and urban areas.25

Returning to the dance/battle choreography, the exciting pas de deux suddenly stops, and we are confronted with the cloaked face of the woman wearing a US-flag-themed face mask. Unexpectedly, both the breath of the dancer and the pumped exhaust air of the serpent's body are cut short, as exactly a third of the way into the video, an aerial view of the slow-motion, semicircular serpent's tail fades and bleeds into an outline of the woman's visage. However, we might not even be able to assume that this is a woman because so many accouterments conceal her face and head.26 The masking of the riders throughout Serpents' Tails has a queering effect, generally disavowing gendered roles, often assigned in cultural mythologies or narrative film, between active men and passive women. What remains concretely here is a historical reference to the US stars and stripes—framing, stifling, “guarding” the airways of this figure. The arrested scene and face mask underline a gaze confronting and imploring viewers to take notice.

Immediately afterward, the middle section of the video displays the increasing threat of polluted air throughout Saigon, as serpents' tails multiply and invade the city's built environment, from the pavement up to the rooftops. Now the dance becomes collective, with multiple bodies winding through cramped interiors of homes and empty offices, through stairways and amid open-air power lines. As of March 2017, there were 7.3 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City, which in 2016 had an official population of 8.3 million.27 Urban dwellers favor motorcycles because they are relatively cheap and flexible to use in the city, but the elements and pollution cause many to fully gear up in surgical masks, glasses, helmets, gloves, socks, coats, and/or a kind of skirt covering.28 During this section, the video remains suspenseful by alternating between a quick, jarring tempo and slow-motion camerawork, ultimately offering a fragmented, increasingly grim image of the serpents' tails' colonization of the urban atmosphere. The performers become choked by the serpents' tails, plaited in unrelenting holds that physically compress their airways and figuratively restrict their ability to express and communicate. Speakability here becomes a matter of lethal urgency, tied to the venomous presence of increasingly toxic airways. In redirecting communication from the mono-direction of voice to the multi-direction of dance, the video emphasizes the physicality of breathing through the whole body. Breath is critical to the expression of a dancer, and a matter of grave risk in the polluted streets of Saigon.

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“Serpents' Dance,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

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“Serpents' Dance,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

Yet there is also a certain beauty to the humming, pulsing tubes, which arguably attempt to “talk” to audiences. In the fourth section of the video, UuDam employs numerous camera tricks in order to imbue the serpents' tails with an aura of life and energy. Shooting disjointedly slows down or speeds up, goes forward or backward in time, and becomes topsy-turvy in its orientation to the horizon line. Viewers now witness the serpents' tails from within their plastic shells, and suddenly the colorful tubes look like corporeal birthing canals or an organic circulatory system, particularly when the video switches to a six-screen display (the only time it does this). This inside-out view offers a newly filtered, dynamic perspective on the airscape. Additionally, the tubes writhe, pulse, and hum with a kind of independent life, and this is particularly evident against the hard, immobile architecture of the city. Toward the end of the section, they also interweave through a formation of sitting motorcyclists, completely enveloping the anonymous physically armored group. The theme of entangling humans and nonhumans becomes overt, but in the very final minute of this section, the tubes dominate, overrunning the rooftops like a cancerous invasion. They are unable to communicate with the people through their white noise.

The serpents' tails embody a type of acting, vibrating matter. Bennett describes such material as quasi agents or forces with propensities or tendencies of their own. She does this in order to try to move beyond the idea of matter as “passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inert,” which often prevails in discourses of environmentalism.29 Many things, in her view, critically impinge upon, alter, or even steer the course of events, such as microbiomes in the gut that affect human moods. At stake in this reimagining of not-quite-human matter as active and generative is the possibility for enabling a place and “voice” for nonhuman kin, so to speak, in a sphere of politics.

However, Bennett's analysis would benefit from a look at specific sociopolitical issues that have been historically intertwined with the dehumanization and designated “nonhumanity” of certain groups. The “invasion” of the serpents' tails, for instance, cannot be dissociated from much longer views of Saigon's colonization, militarization, and US-influenced neocolonial development. Scholars such as Long T. Bui and Erik Harms examine how the contemporary city continues to be shaped by such “imperial ruins” and duress, to borrow Ann Laura Stoler's critical phrasing.30 Harms, for instance, has written extensively on the coexisting dreams and destruction —or “luxury and rubble”—of a returned “market economy” in twenty-first-century New Saigon, where “so many Vietnamese have come to associate the expansion of property rights with their aspirations for building a better world.”31 Recent decades of blatant land grabs and innumerable dispossessions of working-class rural peoples coincide with new commercial developments that promise a more beautiful and breathable city. Harms focuses on the paradoxes of such urban reconfiguration, where dispossessed residents feel exasperated on the ground (bú'c xúc—or loosely translated, “feel forced or oppressed”) but subscribe more generally to the lofty governmental and corporate rhetoric of a more beautiful city with open, green spaces and better air quality.32 Harms offers a compelling investigation of these paradoxes but tends to conflate beauty and breathability and to instead focus more on discourses of beauty as they operate as mechanisms of control.

In contrast, the final scene of Serpents' Tails particularly brings an enmeshed question of breathability and urban development into high relief. It features a four-story, red brick building—either abandoned or under construction—in a peri-urban or rural area near Saigon. From its roof, numerous silver serpents' tails leash it to the exhaust pipes of circling motorbikes ready to ride away and pull it down in multiple directions. The camera offers numerous bust shots of these riders, their eyes staring directly at us, although often concealed by sunglasses and individualized only through their diverse face masks decorated with commercial patterns of flowers, kitschy hearts, leopard skin, plaid, a self-referential bike rider motif, or in simple red. Of course the idea that their flimsy plastic tubes could pull down the solid-albeit-unfinished construction is absurd. Instead, a storm blows in and demolishes the careful arrangement of silver tubes, which begin to theatrically swirl out of control amid the nonverbal sounds of thunder and a female operative voice. Shaky camerawork, as well as spiraling aerial views, convey a feeling of uncertainty and precarity in this “socio-atmospherics of power.”33 In other words, the serpents' tails enter a state of suspension, which according to Timothy Choy and Jerry Zee, offers a “form of thought [that] looks up and around, at plumes, clouds, and sky” in order to turn our attention to the “differential distribution of good and bad air.”34 Furthermore, it is the only time that the video installation primarily features silver tubes, pointing to the “luxury” in juxtaposition to the “rubble” of Harms's analysis regarding neocolonial development in Ho Chi Minh City that ends up stratifying its citizens into classes of the privileged and the dispossessed. The aspirations of a New Saigon fall flat here—just as its diverse urban rider-citizens (not the affluent with cars) are flattened visually by their masks, glasses, and helmets—differentially limited in their ability to aspirate.

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“The Babel Tower,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

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“The Babel Tower,” still from Serpents' Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen; © 2015 UuDam Tran Nguyen.

The video concludes with one more allusion here to the fall of the Tower of Babel. In this Biblical story, a united humanity, attempting to avoid a second great flood, constructed a tower that would reach to the heavens. God did not condone such a hubristic action, however, and thus confounded their speech so that they could no longer communicate, which ultimately scattered the people around the world. They lost their ability to speak with one another, and in this last scene, they have lost their ability to even breathe clean air together. Serpents' Tails not only animates nonhuman matter such as exhaust particulates, but also recasts their lively presence within a mélange of world creation stories, from Hindu and Greek mythology to Vietnamese and English nationalist tales. The video installation traverses cultural and political boundaries at a moment of planetary ecological crisis, but it does not do so in order to suggest some kind of universalizing, humanist myth or language for combatting environmental destruction. Instead, it proposes an alternative and heterogeneous origin story, one that de-emphasizes human protagonists and imperatives. It animates and suspends these in order to float a new question in the air, inquiring about the state of our present moment “as an atmospheric condition rather than the expansion of anthropogenic powers.”35 In order to convey such a feeling of animacy for viewers, Serpents' Tails crafts a cosmological horizon that coils together the breath and expressive “voices” of both humans and nonhuman subjects in its genesis and destruction.

ECOLOGY AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE IN VIETNAM

One is tempted to interpret this last scene as a moment when nature “speaks back” and ultimately wins the battle, but this reading would be too simple. There are no winners. The constant visual fragmentation of the three screens and an accompanying dissonant soundtrack assert a picture of broken communicational structures. In many ways, it suggests a choked public sphere in Vietnam, one restricted by an authoritarian single-party state, where many voices have been stifled or suppressed. With the end of the Vietnam War and unification of the country in 1975, the Vietnamese Communist Party instituted a model of state-controlled civil society.36 In 1986, with the establishment of a new Open Door (Đổi Mới) economic policy, and the loosening of domestic-foreign market exchange, civil society began to slightly open up as well. Yet the government continues to curtail criticism in the public sphere, ranging from major changes to the constitution in 1992—circumscribing the right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and peaceful assembly and association—to the more recent proclamation of Article 88 of Vietnam's Penal Code, prohibiting “propaganda against the state.”37 These measures have been commonly enforced with brutal beatings, arrest, and detainment.

Nonetheless, mass demonstrations and government criticism have flourished in the last decade, and scholars have tied this burgeoning public protest to an environmental movement. For instance, Thieu-Dang Nguyen and Simone Datzenberger suggest that the environmental movement “potentially represents a new frontier of civic activism in Vietnam.”38 They claim that it is “one of the first events since the end of the war where people from all parts of Vietnam [have come] together and formed a united force.”39 The activist-writers credit this to many factors, but primarily cite the fact that damage to the environment raises basic concerns central to people's livelihoods, as a kind of universalizing, apolitical issue.40 Political ecologist Jason Morris-Jung goes further, tying Vietnam's blossoming public sphere specifically to a controversy over bauxite mining that erupted in late 2008 and 2009. He even refers to these “new trends and dynamics” in the Vietnamese public sphere as a “post-bauxite politics.”41

According to Morris-Jung, the government's unilateral proposal to extract massive amounts of bauxite from the Central Highlands in 2007 catalyzed many new groups and constituencies to emerge as more strongly critical of the single party-state. He contends that even the National Assembly and state-dominated domestic press and organizations have shown signs of a more independent, critical voice.42 Bauxite is the main raw material for producing aluminum, and Central Vietnam holds the third largest bauxite reserve in the world. In late 2007, the Prime Minister decreed Decision 167 to extract 5.4 billion tons of bauxite for processing into alumina, but critics quickly voiced concern over the strip mining's potentially devastating ecological impact, including pollution and intensive electricity and freshwater consumption. The Vietnamese scientific community worried that the plans of the state-owned Vietnam Coal and Mining Corporation (Vinacomin) to store indefinitely on the highland plateau, tens or even millions of tons of “red mud,” an untreatable toxic sludge, would threaten a wide stretch of the area with a hanging “mud bomb.” Criticism of the plan initially assumed more subtle forms within government-sponsored and largely state-controlled workshops, but a more oppositional politics soon emerged with greater mainstream media publicity, the writing and signing of many petitions, editorials by prominent scientists and intellectuals, social media protests, an overnight vigil, and even a lawsuit filed against the Prime Minister. Furthermore, prominent political leaders—even including the renowned, then ninety-eight-year-old General Võ Nguyên Giáp, revolutionary icon and last surviving founding father of Vietnam—stressed issues of national security, as potentially tens of thousands of Chinese workers, perhaps “soldiers in plain clothes” (suggested by an independent blogger), would be imported to work the initially Chinese state-operated mining expedition.

Overall, a tremendous critical response exploded, from blogging sites to the chamber of the National Assembly itself, in an extraordinary event of oppositional articulation to the authoritarian party-state. In Morris-Jung's analysis of the complex unfolding of intellectual and public resistance, the bauxite mining controversy seems to have created a perfect storm in unifying an environmental movement with the public's desire for greater government accountability and transparency. Every year since, a more powerful public voice has arisen hand-in-hand with concern over subsequent environmental catastrophes, with street demonstrations now common in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.43 These include, for example, numerous protests against land expropriation; the municipal government's decision in 2015 to cut down 6,700 trees in Hanoi, many of them quite old; and most notably, the 2016 Formosa disaster, a massive fish die-off due to a toxic spill from a steel mill by the Taiwanese company Formosa Ha Tinh Steel.44 Rallying cries for decrying the latter—“Fish need clean water, citizens need transparency” and #IChooseFish—quickly swept social media sites such as Facebook in order to raise publicity for emergency relief for local residents and for clean-up campaigns and independent research in the contaminated area.45 However, images and videos of bloodshed and violence also circulated widely on Facebook, even though many smartphones were confiscated by the police. At least five hundred demonstrators were detained and brutally beaten, with some reports indicating as many as one thousand arrests.46 Bloggers have also frequently suffered the same violent treatment for “spreading propaganda.”47 Moreover, social media sites have been intermittently shut down by the government, and many others that spread uncensored information or galvanize dissent have been firewalled.48

It is no wonder that against such a backdrop, artists in Vietnam have recently turned toward ecological questions through often digitally transferrable art forms. It is also no surprise that their artworks are often more oblique than directly activist in their content and modes of representation. As I have learned through informal conversations with artists and curators in Vietnam, they are often at an impasse in displaying contemporary artwork in the country, with exhibitions frequently not permitted or canceled by the government. Instead, artists must often self-organize shows in alternative spaces and through friend- and peer-based networks facilitated by social media sites. With regard to Serpents' Tails, it has evaded censorship so far, perhaps due to its sweeping, epic story—translated through more traditional mythologies and expressed with bright colors and riveting dance choreography. In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still has fared almost as well. With Mami's artwork, there is also no direct finger-pointing at the government or corporations, despite many local demonstrations and the artist's need to often use hidden cameras for documentary footage. However, Mami has had to self-censor the video and its larger installation in minor ways. Some sensitive parts of a poem, for instance, had to be changed in translating it from English to Vietnamese. The artist wished to make it accessible for the Vietnamese public, but also needed to submit the material to the government for approval. Let us now turn to a more detailed investigation of In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still and its use of affect in order to both arguably circumvent censorship, and reimagine human and nonhuman relations in the public sphere.

FEELINGS OF ANIMACY IN IN ONE'S BREATH—NOTHING STANDS STILL

In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still is a ghost story. It appears to be a poetic-critical documentary of limestone mining in northern Vietnam, but according to the artist, it is a fictional narrative of a man who has dreamt his own death. The work is set in the mountain village of Mami's parents, Thanh Thủy in Hà Nam province, where many believe that after one dies, one's spirit will remain on earth for three days in order to find a way to “the other world.” The family of the deceased typically invites a shaman to speak with the spirit and to help it find its way through music and oral guidance. Mami's video portrays these three days of wandering in a liminal zone between life and death, an apt metaphor for the emaciated landscape and jeopardized health of the local residents.

The work begins with a short clip from a performance piece, another fragment of Mami's larger five-year project and multimedia installation. In the performance, a man slowly moves to the pace of his breath, with each breath equaling a single gesture. The man stands in a miniature “lake” of white powder—in fact, toxic mining dust—slowly blowing out puffs of dust from a pile cradled in his hands, his body completely covered in the material. The white powder on which he stands suggests the “frozen” lakes of the mountain village, which people can literally walk on now because of the large quantities of dust dumped into them. Over the years the lakes have slowly turned into concrete. The performance alludes to the particularly deleterious process of grinding the local limestone into sand, which has become increasingly valuable in a region voracious for cement for building construction, as well as sand for land reclamation and island-building. Making artificial sand is lucrative, but the process particularly suffocates the locality with fine dust particles. The remaining water in the area is also noxious, no longer potable, and children cannot even swim in the river as the artist did in his youth.

In other words, the churning of sand and dust in In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still shows us the flipside of rapid development in cities such as Saigon and Hanoi. The video's opening sequence particularly recalls the so-called “white marches” that took place between 2007 and 2010 throughout urban areas in Vietnam.49 Small groups of evicted residents, mostly farmers, wore white clothing and silently congregated or marched for only short periods of time, disappearing and reappearing elsewhere in order to evade arrest. They often carried barely legible placards and ghostly portraits of loved ones killed by acts of land expropriation. Drawing on Judith Butler's work, Nguyễn-võ Thu-hương and Grace Kyungwon Hong compellingly analyze the “incompleteness of the messages and the[ir] seeming inarticulateness” as a demonstration of a public sphere constituted by grief, and more specifically, by the ungrievability of these dispossessed lives.50 In Vietnamese culture, the color white is not used for weddings, but rather for funerals. The opening scene in Mami's video visualizes such death as expiration, the performer's measured and disabled breaths evoking numerous ghostly victims of land expropriation and development throughout the country.

Following this, the video introduces text, song, and images that suggest turbulent relations between human and nonhuman realms. Chanting and singing by a local shaman overlays a visual sequence of the mountainous area and its inhabitants, with the song (titled Dong Nhan Diễu Mộ)—part of local oral culture, mixing Buddhism with animism—meant to help the spirit find his way through his last three days on earth. For example, it ends with the lines,

Heaven—my father. Earth—my mother. Mountains and waters—my brothers and sisters. Here stands the flag separating realms. Where on the first day of the lunar month, Soul, please come searching for nourishment. You lucky Soul. You propitious Soul. Receive gifts from the Buddha's fortune. Amitābhāya.

According to the artist, the song conveys a spiritual belief in the entwining of humans with nature, and its words suspend over a deadened landscape in the video, conveyed through sweeping, aerial shots of the white mountains, pans across still photographs of them, and footage of isolated figures—at different points, a one-armed man, a boy, a dog, and three women—walking away from the camera through dust and rubble on the ground. The musical-visual sequence concludes with an image of a bust of one of these women, a member of the indigenous Mường community, silently turned away and to the side, her face hidden by protective headwear. She recalls the masked figures in Serpents' Tails, also in need of safeguarding against the air pollution. In this mountain village, such gear used to be worn for farming and cover against the sun, but now it is donned in the mines, to shield against toxic dust, and as a masking device to hide protesters' identities from the government.

IMAGE 9

Still from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

IMAGE 9

Still from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

According to Mami's narrative, these figures serve different roles in the spirit's three-day wandering.51 The one-armed man, based among the spirits of the forest, acts as a guard between life and death, but one situated on the side of the living. At different points he carries a large stick burning on one end, which scares spirits back to the living world. Another shirtless man, in contrast, functions in the reverse. He is a spectral guard situated on the side of the deceased. In one image, viewers witness this guard beating bones on a table in order to grind them into dust for the spirits. He sits in almost complete darkness, as if at the gates of hell, where the hungry ghosts congregate. This staged footage originates from a restaurant in the mining area, which is, in reality, almost completely dark all day due to plastic curtains shielding against the dust. According to the artist, a happenstance visit to the restaurant evoked for him an infernal scenario. At another point in the video, viewers also observe a few more figures lying face-down in meadows. The men might be resting after a morning of hard labor, yet they appear here as if abandoned corpses.

The main protagonist of this artwork also has no “face”: it is an amorphous, white screen of dust, fog, and smoke. It pervades everything. It coats the foliage, smothers the ground, and churns entropically in the air. Whereas the motorbike exhaust in Serpents' Tails channels through the tubes and gives life and body, so to speak, the deadly particulates in this video scatter in all directions. Air moves naturally not in the quickest, straight-line path, but instead spirals outward from high-pressure to low-pressure regions, attempting to find equilibrium. Since there is no manufactured piping of air as in Serpents' Tails, and thus no specific frequency of vibrations, a question of “voicing” becomes even more elusive. The main protagonist—the white haze—is a turbid screen that obscures communication with the landscape and characters in this story.

IMAGEs 10–11

Stills from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

IMAGEs 10–11

Stills from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

Instead, what emerges is a picture of white noise. Similar to how white light includes all of the wavelengths of the visible spectrum at equal intensity, white noise contains all frequencies audible to the human ear at equal power. That is why people use it to aid sleep: because it helps mask noises at any frequency. It sounds like a constant humming or droning, and this is what In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still feels like: deadened, lethargic, and ominous. Referencing an earlier iteration of Mami's larger installation, one art critic describes the accompanying “eerie soundtrack” of noises sampled from around the quarries, including “insects buzzing and machinery scraping, mixed with electronic SIN waves to create a continuous drone.”52 Instead of vibrancy and an exciting pace, as in Serpents' Tails, here there is an all-pervasive inertia of toxic white powder and white noise that is slow and debilitating and masks all other sounds or language. It clings to the landscape and slowly chokes it, leaving it in an almost paralyzed state between life and death.

Against this hazy background, it is unclear if the spirit in this story finds entrance to the other world or awakens from a dream, still in the “living” world. The final moments of the video include the ending to the shaman's song again, with an accompanying sequence of short, haunting images. Incense from a people-less altar transforms into billowing smoke against a black screen; blurred camerawork shows the three women, covered head-to-toe, now walking back toward us on the road; shaky footage captures a dog sitting shackled around the neck; and a young boy and his guardian float in a subterranean pool, probably the only safe water source nearby in which to play. These images do not really move the story line. Rather, they act as documentary evidence of the violence being perpetrated in the landscape. Mimicking the suspension of this video's spirit and white haze, In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still continually confuses the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. Mami explains that some of his footage is staged, and some is documentary, which productively blends together in scenes such as the restaurant and its gates of hell. The video's last scene concludes with this ambiguity, depicting a man who appears to have just woken up. He looks confused, probably as to whether his spirit is in fact dead or alive. Speechless, he only coughs, the dust presumably in his lungs. Finally, his journey appears at a standstill.

The overriding mood of In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still is one of collective blockage and impasse, resonating with what feminist/queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls a feeling of public depression. For her, depression may be a public-political category, arising from long-term histories of violence and inequity tied to race, class, gender, sex, colonization, and more. One of her analytical terms, “impasse,” suggests the idea of being stuck, at a “dead end” or “no exit,” as with the spirit's sojourn in In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still. Throughout the video, movement is inhibited or slowed down, suggesting that things cannot move forward or get better, that the land and its inhabitants will slowly be poisoned to death from the toxic limestone mining. Things might still change, but “the world is not designed to make it happen or there has been a failure of imagination,” as Cvetkovich describes it.53 In the last third of the video, for example, a worker down in the pitch black of the mine confesses his all-consuming anxieties amid the cacophony of the drilling. He is terrified, for instance, that he will contract HIV and AIDS from sleeping with prostitutes or from the barbershop. He knows with absolute certainty that the barbers change the blades before shaving him, because he witnesses this, but he is still obsessed with the thought. The worker's anxiety is symptomatic of his debilitating state down in the mines, caught in a violent, exploitative cycle that ruins the health and well-being of all in the area. According to the artist, many workers also die in the mines, but gun violence and company-financed payoffs by mafia men conceal this fact to the larger public. The one-armed “guard” in the video, for instance, as well as the wandering “spirit” at the end—only shown sitting because he is, in fact, unable to stand—both lost their appendages due to mining accidents.54 Currently, there is no clear line of culpability for the large web of state and corporate actors perpetrating socioenvironmental violence in the mountain village. Accordingly, a mood of impasse pervades the video, with the materiality of the limestone rubble and white haze equating to a psychosocial feeling of blockage and depression.

IMAGE 12

Still from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

IMAGE 12

Still from In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still (2018) by Tuaấn Mami; © 2018 Tuaấn Mami.

Cvetkovich, however, also insists that depressive emotions can be animating, and that the slowness of impasse might lead to creativity and forms of affiliation.55 Cvetkovich does not relate or attribute such emotions to the environment, yet becoming attuned to the depression of the mountains or a shackled dog, for instance, could lead to a greater understanding, spiritual or otherwise, of the animacy and kinship of our more-than-human world. The title of the artwork, In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still, signals this hope. It not only alludes to breathing as life, as well as voice, but it also casts breath as a spiritual act. Mami states that the sublime scenery reminded him of a statement by Buddha to the effect of, “in our human life, we live only in one breath.” The mantra speaks to the flow of time and consciousness, and humans' perception of a larger, awe-inspiring cosmos of existence. The title, however, supplements the idea of living in one breath, of being in the present moment, with the notion that “nothing stands still.” Things change, and the apparent immobility of impasse may enliven new perspectives and creative forms, particularly when one assumes a more-than-humanoutlook and opens the door to other understandings of animacy.

The recent post-bauxite politics of Vietnam, including citizens' calls for greater transparency and accountability by the government, also attests to the possibility of such transformation. In his long span of research, Mami confesses that he felt lost for many years, overwhelmed by the enormity of the destruction, and that he almost quit the project after more than three years.56 But then in the summer of 2016, people began to protest on the streets. They worked during the day and protested at night, sometimes for up to three months at a time.57 They created makeshift tents out of bamboo and rocks and often had to remake these every day as the tents were destroyed and protests violently dispersed. Mami's artwork depicts an apparently immovable mass that may still be emotively moving for viewers. In capturing this feeling of public depression, In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still might touch people with a sense of urgency for a more spiritual or emotional connection between humans and nonhumans.

CONCLUSION: FROM BREATHABILITY AND SPEAKABILITY TOWARD A FEELING OF ANIMACY

In the twenty-first century, humans need a way to reconceive and reestablish respect for a more-than-human world. As Kimmerer claims, we have lost a grammar of animacy, one that conveys through language a sense of relationality, world-making, and ethical planetary cohabitation among humans and nonhuman subjects. Recovering a grammar of animacy is not to anthropomorphize and thus forfeit an “objective” or scientific understanding of reality, but to offer respect and moral concern for other intelligences. For example, Kimmerer describes her attempt to learn the ancient language of Potawatomi, which does not demarcate human versus “it” pronouns, as in English and European languages. Notably, Potawatomi relies on verbs: seventy percent of its words are verbs, as opposed to thirty percent in English.58 A bay, for instance, functions as a verb in Potawatomi—“to be a bay”—rather than a noun. If it were a noun, the water would be dead. But the water can do otherwise; it can be other verbs and become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall. An apple is also addressed as a “who,” with the conjugating verb “to be.” As Kimmerer suggests, grammar here serves to reflect the animacy of the world, or the “life that pulses through all things.”59 In her analysis, however, Kimmerer must denote such subjects as the apple with a limited, noun-based English, using terms such as “nonhuman person” or “nonhuman relative.” As a botanist, she does not refute the value of Western science and its richness of vocabulary and attentive, descriptive power. Yet this language of objects “reduces a being to its working parts” and does not reflect the abundance of animate being in the world. Thus she has had to become bilingual between the lexicon of science and a grammar of animacy.

With the same ethos, In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still draws inspiration from an epic poem of the Mường minority people who live around Hà Nam, called “Đẻ Đaất Đẻ Nước” (“The Birth of Soil and Water”). The video borrows from the ancient literary work's animist belief in the spirituality of all things, or as curator Bill Nguyen poetically explains it, the idea “that the creation of the world is constantly in a state of chaos, where humans struggle to cohabit harmoniously with other creatures, and especially with themselves.”60 Like an old-growth forest, the Mường's is an old-growth culture, whose precious stewarding of and reciprocity with the rest of the natural world also borders on extinction at a critical moment. Instead, land grabs and mass dispossession in Vietnam entrench a worldview committed to neocolonial development, social stratification, and the extraction of commodified “natural resources.”

Without a foundational grammar of animacy, one might rely on feelings of animacy. In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still, for instance, challenges viewers to intuit not only the anxiety of the miners and inhabitants, but also the depression of the rocks and air. And this emotion is stirred not through language, but through visuals. It is conveyed through the ubiquitous turbidity of the white fog in Mami's piece, as well as the vibrancy of colorfully channeled air in the Serpents' Tails dance. The latter creates a different feeling of animacy through its gripping choreography and reworked cosmology story. In both moving-image works, nonhuman subjects are mutually entangled with humans in a precarious world state that must remember and adapt older forms of spirituality and mythology in order to persist. These are more intuitive and imaginative ways of placemaking.

In the end, these artworks attempt to bypass obstacles of language in order to emotively move viewers toward a deeper sensitivity of the animacy of more-than-humans. In the twenty-first century, the spirituality of old-growth cultures may be on the wane, but the emotional charge of visuals across a digital, public mediascape is at high tide. Such sentiments may be more instinctive and indirect than written or spoken language, but they are powerfully world-building. In Vietnam, this is evidenced by a feeling of change in the last ten years in the public sphere, despite the single-party state's control of information. Widespread calls for greater freedoms of speech and assembly have arisen due to distressing online images of mass fish die-offs and the decimation of ancient trees, and these have often been poignantly protested through the vulnerability of bodies breathing and assembling in space together.

The bike rider in Serpents' Tails returns our gaze, above and despite her/his/their face mask.61 It does not deter—and indeed signals ever more urgently—the need for protests against mass crimes of the airscape, where more marginalized ecologies of people and nonhumans are stripped of their lung capacity. Serpents' Tails and In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still highlight questions of inequitably distributed breath and voice, and moreover, do so through enlivened, more-than-human environments. With emotional charge, these moving-image works convey a sense of nonhumans' mutual animacy. They attempt to re-instill an ethos of respect for, and reciprocity with, the living, feeling land.

NOTES

1.

Timothy Choy, “Distribution,” from the series Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen (January 2016), https://culanth.org/fieldsights/distribution.

2.

Choy and Jerry Zee, “Condition—Suspension,” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 2 (June 2015): 211.

3.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, ed. Rosalind C. Morris (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 21–78.

4.

For more in-depth analyses of Letters From Panduranga, see “Narration: Epistolarity and Lyricism as Argumentation,” in Laura Rascarolli, How the Essay Film Thinks (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 143–63; and Pamela N. Corey, “Siting the Artist's Voice,” Art Journal 77, no. 4 (Winter 2018): 84–96.

5.

An analysis of this problematic would be beyond the scope of this paper. For an important anthology exploring such questions in the region see Nora A. Taylor and Boreth Ly, eds., Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2012).

6.

See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

7.

See for instance, Thieu-Dang Nguyen and Simone Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam: A New Frontier of Civic Activism?” in Challenging Authoritarianism Series 4 (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute: May 2018), www.tni.org/en/publication/environmentalism-and-authoritarian-politics-in-vietnam.

8.

It is standard to refer to Vietnamese artists by their given names, and both artists prefer this. Also, unless stated otherwise, my analyses of Mami's and UuDam's artwork (and any direct comments by the artists) are informed largely by conversations with them in June 2018 in Hanoi and Saigon, personal emails, and continued, in-person interviews March 4–6 (UuDam) and March 20–22, 2019 (Mami) in Boulder, Colorado. Reliant on these conversations when secondary sources are scarcer, I adopt an approach similar to the “oral hermeutics” described by art historian Margo Machida, or through an “ethnographic” lens, advocated by art historian Nora A. Taylor. Machida, Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 8–10. See also Nora A. Taylor, “The Southeast Asian Art Historian as Ethnographer?,” Third Text 25, no. 4 (July 2011): 475–88.

9.

See Trinh T. Minh-ha, Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event (New York: Routledge, 2010), 12.

10.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 57.

11.

Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 57.

12.

Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 81.

13.

Cvetkovich, Depression, 7.

14.

Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

15.

Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 111.

16.

Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 100. See also Jessica L. Horton and Janet Catherine Berlo, “Beyond the Mirror: Indigenous Ecologies and ‘New Materialisms’ in Contemporary Art,” Third Text 27, no. 1 (January 2013): 17–28; and Nicholas Mirzoeff, “It's Not the Anthropocene, It's the White Supremacy Scene. Or, The Geological Color Line,” in After Extinction, ed. Richard Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 126.

17.

The artist gave an overview of this in a talk at the Esplanade Theaters on the Bay in Singapore (January 20, 2018), archived and available for viewing from the organization.

18.

Trinh T. Minh-ha asserts the importance of collective tales as “dreams that move and move societies.” Within Vietnam, according to her, “No book, no substantial study on the history, culture and civilization of Vietnam written by Vietnamese can do without the body of tales, which constitute the core of a popular literature widely spread among all classes of its society.” In Elsewhere, Within Here, 16–17.

19.

Văn Huy Nguyễn, “The Mid-Autumn Festival (Tết Trung Thu), Yesterday and Today,” in Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, Spirit, ed. Nguyen Van Huy and Lauren Kendall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 92–107.

20.

Nguyễn, “The Mid-Autumn Festival,” 101.

21.

Iftikhar Dadi, “Plastic Toys and Urban Craft in South Asia,” Prince Claus Journal 10a (2003): 142–53.

22.

Dadi, “Plastic Toys and Urban Craft in South Asia,” 145.

23.

Pamela N. Corey, “Beyond Yet Toward Representation: Diasporic Artists and Craft as Conceptualism in Contemporary Southeast Asia,” The Journal of Modern Craft 9, no. 2 (2016): 161–81.

24.

Corey, “Beyond Yet Toward Representation,” 172.

25.

This includes not only poisonous chemical agents and unexploded ordnance throughout its landscape, but also a legacy of militarized capitalist forces tied to urbanization and the governmentality of war. See Long T. Bui's description of Saigon as a “global war city” in “The Global War City: Traces of the Militarized Past in Saigon's Urbanized Future,” Verge: Studies in Global Asias 2, no. 1 (Spring 2016), 141–69.

26.

Although the figure appears to be a woman, several of my students have challenged this assumption.

27.

Duc Tien, “Saigon: A City on Motorbikes,” Tuoi Tre News (November 27, 2017), https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/lifestyle/20171127/saigon-a-city-on-motorbikes/42841.html.

28.

For an insightful discussion of urban “civility” (văn minh) in relation to ecological sustainability, and particularly with regard to the positive effects of motorcycle versus car usage in Ho Chi Minh City, see Erik Harms, “Civility's Footprint: Ethnographic Conversation about Urban Civility and Sustainability in Ho Chi Minh City,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 29, no. 2 (July 2014), 223–62.

29.

Bennett, Vibrant Matter, vii–viii.

30.

Long T. Bui, “The Global War City”; Ann Laura Stoler, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

31.

Erik Harms, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), 11.

32.

Erik Harms, “Beauty as Control in the New Saigon,” American Ethnologist 39, no. 4 (2012): 737–39.

33.

Choy and Zee, “Condition—Suspension,” 211.

34.

Choy and Zee, “Condition—Suspension,” 211.

35.

Choy and Zee, “Condition—Suspension,” 211.

36.

The following description draws on Thieu-Dang Nguyen and Simone Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam,” 1–15, www.tni.org/en/publication/environmentalism-and-authoritarian-politics-in-vietnam.

37.

“UN Human Rights Chief Urges Viet Nam to Halt Crackdown on Bloggers and Rights Defenders,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (October 14, 2016), www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20679&LangID=E.

38.

Nguyen and Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam,” 10. In a related yet different conclusion, Erik Harms ties emerging citizen rights to land use rights and property value. See Harms, Luxury and Rubble, 12.

39.

Nguyen and Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam,” 12.

40.

Nguyen and Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam,” 11.

41.

Jason Morris-Jung, “The Vietnamese Bauxite Controversy: Towards a More Oppositional Politics,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 10, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 91.

42.

The following description derives from Morris-Jung, “The Vietnamese Bauxite Controversy,” 63–109.

43.

Jason Morris-Jung, “Vietnam's New Environmental Politics: A Fish out of Water?,” The Diplomat (May 23, 2016), https://thediplomat.com/2016/05/vietnams-new-environmental-politics-a-fish-out-of-water.

44.

Morris-Jung, “Vietnam's New Environmental Politics.” See also Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, “Protests over Land in Vietnam: Rightful Resistance and More,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 9, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 19–54.

45.

Nguyen and Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam,” 5.

46.

Nguyen and Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam,” 6; and Morris-Jung, “Vietnam's New Environmental Politics.”

47.

Nguyen and Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam,” 1; and Morris-Jung, “The Vietnamese Bauxite Controversy,” 89. See also Philippa Lovatt's discussion of this context in relation to Mami's installation in “(Im)material Histories and Aesthetics of Extractivism in Vietnamese Artists' Moving Image,” Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, 4, no. 1 (March 2020): 221–36.

48.

However, many Vietnamese citizens do manage to circumvent these restrictions through VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). Nguyen and Datzenberger, “The Environmental Movement in Vietnam,” 4; and Morris-Jung, “Vietnam's New Environmental Politics.”

49.

Nguyễn-võ Thu-hương and Grace Kyungwon Hong, “The grammar of failure: dispossession, mourning, and the afterlife of socialist futurities,” Social Identities 24, no. 2 (May 2017): 157–160.

50.

Thu-hương and Hong, “The grammar of failure,” 164–65.

51.

Personal email with the artist, January 7, 2019.

52.

David Willis, “In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still,” ArtAsiaPacific Magazine (2018), http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/WebExclusives/InOnesBreathNothingStandsStill.

53.

Cvetkovich, Depression, 20–21.

54.

Of course this resonates with the dismembered bodies and “ghostly” afterlives of the Vietnam War as well. Ghosts are a recurring motif for many scholars in this area: see for example Yến Lê Espiritu's discussion of Vietnamese refugees and “exilic remembrance” (p. 20) in Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014).

55.

Cvetkovich, Depression, 2, 21.

56.

After many longer visits to the area, Mami has just moved his home and studio from Hanoi to the mountain town in the spring of 2019, with the aim to live there for several years.

57.

Iona Sharp Casas, “Interview: Artist Tuan Mami,” Framer Framed (2017), https://framerframed.nl/en/dossier/interview-with-tuan-mami.

58.

Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 53–56.

59.

Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 55.

60.

Nguyen also translates an excerpt from the poem: “There is soil, bare soil/There is water, muddy water/This is where it all begins.” Quoted from informational text for the installation of In One's Breath—Nothing Stands Still at the Factory Arts Centre in Hanoi (March–May 2018), http://factoryartscentre.com/en/event/in-ones-breath-nothing-stands-still.

61.

For an excellent analysis of the “right to look” and an ethical reciprocity of the gaze, see Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Right to Look,” Critical Inquiry 37, no. 3 (Spring 2011): 473–96.