In the first three weeks of November 2018, Art Labor, an artist collective from Vietnam comprising of three members, writer/curator Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran (along with her four year young son Minh-An) and artists Thao-Nguyen Phan and Trương Công Tùng with three Jrai artists took part in a residency at Bellas Artes Projects which culminated with an artist talk at Areté at Ateneo de Manila University on November 22nd.
Arlette introduced the founding of Art Labor back in 2012 when the three of them had the mutual desire to return to Saigon and work together as a collective to collaborate with people from across disciplines. She elaborates that labor’ in Art Labor has two definitions: an abbreviation of ‘laboratory’, as the collective treats its collaborations as a temporary think-tank, and can also refer to the word ‘laborer’, which eliminates the barriers between art making and various disciplines.
The most recent and ongoing project Art Labor has been working on is the Jrai Dew Project. Tùng, who is from the central highlands, together with Phan and Arlette were able to access the Jrai community and began a collaboration with its members. Their interest in the Jrai roots from wanting to work with the rural community of the central highlands away from the city. One of the main concerns when Art Labor started working with the Jrai artists was the language barrier. While some would see this as a drawback, the collective saw this as an opportunity to communicate through art expression through the Jrai artists’ wood carving culture. Arlette explains that the collective would gather discarded tree trunks (from the deforested central highland forests) and give Jrai artists the freedom to express through their craft. With each artist having a distinctive style ranging from use of natural color to mixing ground stone to coat the food, this created different figurative and abstract forms. By also using products and symbols that either belong to the Central Highlands of Vietnam or related to the violent changes in history, Jrai Dew leads to a scene of human chaos in a poetic and critical way.
The Jrai Dew Project encompasses small projects, one of them being the Jrai Dew Sculpture Garden. As a collaborative group, Art Labor always works within the context of their collaborators, hence hosting this small festival/exhibit for the wooden sculptures at the Jrai village. This enabled the artists’ family and friends and people from different disciplines such as archeology and performance art to celebrate the sculptures.
As a result, museums and international institutions have taken interest on the Jrai Dew Project which has sustained the project and has benefited the Jrai artists; both receiving commissions and being able to participate in residencies with Art Labor such as the one with Bellas Artes Projects.
The residency has been such a contrast and informative experience for Jrai artists Ró Mah Aleo, Rchâm Jêh and Puih Hăn. Arlette mentions that they were able to witness Las Casas wood carvers handling materials with small and intricate tools as opposed to their axes used to “carve” wood to create expressive and bold, gestural strokes. This has opened the artists to further experiment with the wood materials in Bataan and create wooden sculptures.
Tùng too was inspired by materials found in the Bataan and he created an installation produced from the Las Casas terracotta workshop and a floating mobile sculpture using wire, gold leaf, and a piece of wood also from the workshops. These works are currently being exhibited in Casa Quiapo, Las Casas within Cian Dayrit’s exhibition Busis Iba’t Ha Kanayunan (Voices from the Hinterlands).
Art Labor’s forthcoming projects involve research on the robusta coffee which relates to the story of industrialization in the central highlands and its important economic attribution to Vietnam and the problems of the coffee industry. Furthermore, the collective is partnering with a senior researcher to publish an art book about some of the most important text regarding anthropology of the central highlands. A third aspect involves collaborating with a comic artist to adapt the myth of the Jrai people. This comic book will also functions as a portfolio for seven Jrai artists.
FOR FURTHER DETAILS:
Art Labor’s website: http://artlaborcollective.com/
Jrai Dew’s website: https://www.jraidew.net/