Artist Profile: Tuan Andrew Nguyen on Baseball and Wood Carving

♪ The baseball bat is produced by a company, Hillerich & Bradsby, which in the 1940s was also producing rifle stocks for the U.S. military. So you have in this work, Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s “Enemy’s Enemy: Monument to a Monument,” the subjects of religion and sport– but also, a reference to the history of Vietnam, and American relations. In that both are kind of fused together, it also then can be seen in relation to the artist’s own background, having been born in Saigon, but pretty much living and growing up in the U.S., and then returning to Vietnam. I played baseball when I was really young. It’s a really interesting game. I’ve never wrapped my head around it. But when I was doing this project, I started thinking about the symbolism in baseball, and the experience one gets when one goes to a baseball game. I mean, the obvious things are singing the National Anthem and “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” And then you have these missiles being projected up, and the other team is trying to disengage them, basically, by catching them before they land. Right? Before they hit the ground. Then you have this team trying to occupy bases. I started thinking about the U.S. and how they were occupying different military bases, and their moves during this Cold War era, and it seemed like they always left baseball behind. But for some reason, baseball never took on in Vietnam. Baseball’s really big in Korea. And just look at what happened in Korea. I mean, it’s still split. And the U.S. has a major influence on the Korean economy, Korean culture, Korean media. Look at Japan. You look at all the countries in South America, you can kind of make these parallels between the success of the U.S. military intervention, and whether or not baseball was left behind. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a stretch, but there’s something there. The other thing that the work references is Vietnamese wood carving, which was a highly complex form of wood carving that was popularized during the last Vietnamese dynasty, which was the Nguyen Dynasty. The work combines this craft of Vietnamese wood carving with the technology of making things like baseball bats. I think there’s something very seductive about the act of carving. To redefine an object that symbolizes one thing with an image, that signifies something else– I think the tension confronts people when they first approach the work. The wood is Northern White Ash– that’s a very American wood. So, you have that, and then overlaid on it, you have Vietnamese wood carving by a carver from Hue. I worked with a carver from Hue, which is located centrally in Vietnam. Hue has a tradition of carving that dates way back, back before royalty. And this particular carver was obsessed with the lineage of monks that self-immolated during the war in Vietnam. It was important for me to go back to Hue, because that’s where the monk is originally from. In Hue, you can actually visit the pagoda where they have on display the car that was situated behind him, that took him to that location, where he self-immolated. So, I worked with Thai, the carver, to carve these baseball bats. We’ve done three prototypes. We call them prototypes, for lack of a better word, I think. Initially, we carved it, and it was the bat halfway carved. The second prototype was the bat carved all the way through, with the flames leaving the bat like an empty shell, like a dried-up leaf, where you just see the veins. And the third one was an attempt at trying to mimic the monument as closely as possible. So, basically, the work is really simple. We tried to replicate the monument that was erected in Ho Chi Minh City on a wooden baseball bat. Of course, the carver takes some artistic license, and there’s some technical things that we can’t possibly reproduce because of the size and the material. But we took the commemorative information that exists on the monument– the name, and the year in which the monk lived– and we put that on the bat as well, just to give that object a reference to where it comes from, which is a monument. I think this particular work was interesting because it combines the cultures, but at the same time it’s a very recognizable form. And it’s aesthetically, very attractive and appealing. Therefore, it draws the audience into finding out about why, or how this work was produced. ♪

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