Dance video

K-pop dance video takes center stage in new show by Vietnamese artist at CAMH

Until February 2023, the upper level of the Museum of Contemporary Art Houston is awash in red. An eerily crimson hue covers nearly every inch of the room as if the bloodthirsty elevator scene from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” spilled throughout the building, leaving behind a brutal stain.

Far from being a seasonal haunted house, “Diane Severin Nguyen: If Revolution Is a Disease” is more of a revolution set in a pop music video, says CAMH curator Matalon. The exhibition consists of three main elements that explore the relationship between the Asian diaspora and Eastern Europe in response to the Cold War and the Vietnam War: an 18-minute video installation, a quartet of photographs and a public art commission in the form of a billboard, arriving in Midtown by January 2023.

Plus, some bonus material. In what CAMH describes as a “site-specific architectural intervention,” several thin slits cut into the walls of an otherwise dark side gallery expose some light to the space.

“The splits have never been to other shows. They break from the redness,” says Severin Nguyen. “It can be like looking at the sun. Light can be violent and it’s not always that fleeting thing.”

When: until February 26, 2023

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston 5216 Montrose

Details: free; camh.org


Duality is a recurring theme throughout the work. Matalon adds that the three components straddle lines of in-between, moments of transition, ambiguity, and the idea that many things can be true at the same time.

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She highlights how revolution can be seen as contagious or contagious, or both, depending on the goal. And how there is power in numbers, as a group, and simultaneous peril within a clique.

“If Revolution is a Disease,” the video follows a Vietnamese orphan who is stranded in Poland and then taken in by a South Korean-inspired K-pop dance group. The streaming projection has lots of red circles around the musical notes, red acrylic nails, red hair highlights, red ribbons, and red sweatshirts. And there’s also a lot of body gyration and roll.

“It illustrates the power of youth culture,” says Matalon. Séverin Nguyen makes the distinction that while war is usually declared by men in chambers, revolution or revolt is initiated by young people. Nowadays, this happens online through social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.

Viral K-pop covers are often shot in universally popular locations, like the Eiffel Tower or a shopping mall. Severin Nguyen therefore spent two months in Warsaw to capture images. She even hired a Vietnamese choreographer for the dance moves. The casting of the main character of the video turned out to be more difficult. So the artist took to Instagram and typed in “Veronika”, a common Polish name, and “Nguyen”, her own last name” and the first account user to appear landed the lead role.

“My mother grew up in Vietnam during the communist takeover,” says Severin Nguyen. “One of the songs she sang in Polish while doing the dishes was about ‘Chopin’s House’ or ‘Our Brothers and Sisters in Poland’.”

This led to questions: when does something become a symbol? When does something become recognizable with added social value? Has the notion of curtailment versus training been the subject of a strategy?

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Viewers of the video may recognize the Palace of Culture and Science as the prominent backdrop. The 231-meter tall skyscraper is Poland’s tallest building, a controversial gift from Joseph Stalin after the nation’s capital was destroyed by Nazi bombs. A Jewish cemetery also appears. Severin Nguyen wants audiences to think about the meaning of monument destruction and subtle censorship throughout history.

“Things that seem to be about one thing, but are actually another,” Catalon says. “The malleability and elasticity of meaning. And the sticky softness that is actually synthetic.”

A side gallery containing four highly scenic close-up photographs captures states of “becoming or becoming unfit”. They are both striking and disturbing. A braid of blood-stained hair hangs diagonally in “As If It’s Your Last” (2021). A piece of fruit is pierced by a shard in “Kill This Love” (2021). Or is it a heart, visitors wonder.

Catalon clarifies that the substance in the image is napalm, the gelled incendiary mixture used as a weapon used in flamethrowers, bombs and tanks during World War II against Japanese forces and by the United States during the war from Korea.

Severin Nguyen and Catalon will activate the third and final stage “If the revolution is a disease” at the beginning of next year. They don’t know what will appear on the Midtown billboard, although the show’s ending in Houston is no accident.

“It was adapted for CAMH,” says Catalon. “We are home to the second highest population of Vietnamese Americans outside of California.”

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