NGO DINH TRUC / Photography

Picturing the city: A dissolution from concrete to image
Sue Hajdu



Perhaps the most immediate response to the problem of representing Saigon photographically is the work of British architect, David Hodkinson, who has been practicing in Saigon for five years. In response to this project, Hodkinson visited sections of the city that have been of both personal and professional interest to him — historic buildings in District 1; the canal that runs out past Cholon to District 8 — neighborhoods that are crumbling under the now all-too-familiar developer’s sledge-hammer. He then used a photo-stitching program to merge his photographs in to panoramic vistas.


The resulting ten photographs that make up Untitled are not of the human scale. While they strike us first as landscapes, they operate more as self-portraits. Humans appear in these images, but they are insignificant organisms on the body of a large, organic, host.


David Hodkinson, #9, from Untitled Series, Saigon, 2005.
Hodkinson’s interest is in how people “can wander through a place and see its backbone or uniqueness or harsh contrasts by cutting a section through an area of the city”. He adds that, “this way of observing Saigon is particularly appropriate at the moment, as areas of the city are being cut into and altered to make way for a more modern, high-rise and fast city.” Thus, his photographs — an instrument of viewing — are also an instrument of cutting, but the artist’s incisions are an echo of the slicing and carving that is already going on.


David Hodkinson, #7, from Untitled Series, Saigon, 2005.
This body of work suggests that it is not the photographer, but the city itself which is driven to this intimate act of revealing, of gashing itself open, so that the viewer is witness to its internal bits — an irregular frontage of houses makes up the concertina folds of an intestine, city blocks of densely packed flesh, or knocked out teeth in the smile of the camera lens’ distortion — the urban corpus exposed to us at a scale that is unfamiliar, a little surreal.


A city in partial disembowelment; a sensual process of semi-tabula-rasa.





The super-highway that is planned to run the length of the canal that Hodkinson photographs may indeed be new, but this process of urban change is not a new story. Saigon has put on a new face, dabbed on a little powder, pierced its ears and dangled ornamental earrings many times. The multiple incarnations and existences of Saigon are traced most consciously in Idle Talk Series by Ngo Dinh Truc. In contrast to Hodkinson’s act of revelation, Ngo’s work reveals not the bodily city, but of the city that exists in the mind — the mental pictures of Saigon that are created through photographs.


Ngo Dinh Truc, #8, from Idle Talk Series, Saigon, 2005.
It is not surprising that Idle Talk Series
is the most reflexive of all the Saigon contributions, as Ngo is a practicing commercial photographer who is now developing an artistic practice. In the series, he re-produces well-known photographs depicting urban scenes or personages that have been used to represent Saigon over the years. As the artist explains, the original images “might have been taken about Saigon, in Saigon or could be unrelated to Saigon. But all of them are used to talk about Saigon.” Working in Photoshop, he surrounds the photographs with a generous white border, and then composes a semi-fanciful text that run across the surface of the new image. An urban history of/in photography, looking back on itself, is presented through the words of the re-photographer.


Ngo Dinh Truc, #4, from Idle Talk Series, Saigon, 2005.
This is a playful and poignant work that demonstrates to us how careless our acts of gazing can become. It is as if the artist invites us to sit down with these terribly familiar photographs, to lay them out on the table and examine them once again. But he has flipped the images — horizontally — almost as if he is playing a card-game, and waits patiently, curiously, to see if we notice. Doesn’t the Saigon curl the opposite way? Isn’t General Loan’s pistol pointing in the wrong direction? Do we remember right? How do we even know? Are we as happy with a construction as a fact? Will memory fade, just as certainly as these fragile pieces of paper will rot away in the tropical heat? River


Ngo’s texts may distract us with fictions that could be created around this city, and meditations on how we can use the photograph as a material support for the stories we wish to weave:


The view of Saigon around 1882. It must have been a peaceful afternoon. But time has drifted by, and water has drifted by. The anchored boats have made sail downstream to the ocean. This photo is like an eccentric who keeps saving everything perfectly, irrespective of the passage of time or the flow of water. Port





While Ngo’s work invokes idleness and eccentricities, his series remains deeply engaged with the discourses of photography and representation. It is left to the visual artist, Hoang Duong Cam, to present idleness as the ultimate artistic commodity.


Hoang’s piece, Like a Detrition, invokes the flaneur as described by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin — the man of leisure who wandered the streets, arcades and departments stores of the newly-born modern city, taking in its anti-heroic spectacles of merchandise and consumption; observing but vaguely disengaged.


Hoang Duong Cam, #5, from Like a Detrition Series, Saigon, 2005.
Hoang wanders by means of setting up a visual experiment as a response to the theme of the exhibition: “Inspired by limitations, I decided to conduct an experiment about similarities between what can be presented by a macro lens and what one can see at a very close distances.” His ten images focus on “patches” that make “the subjects changeable, undistinguishable, and weave-able as a kind of imaginable landscape, or something empty and dumb or as if someone is chasing after his own cast shadow.”


“Changeable and undistinguishable” — we are now beyond the threat posed in Ngo’s images. We are smack in the purely image world. The photograph is not a document, just a tool, an experiment in lenses and distances, and any photo can be used to spin some idle references to the city.


Hoang Duong Cam, #8, from Like a Detrition Series, Saigon, 2005.
As the artist disclosed, “to look, is to have a distance, unlike the blind, who must feel.” Indeed, a lover’s face is always blurry if it is too close. And yet, the sense of touch is evoked in the title through the word “detrition” — a process by which something is worn away through friction. As Hoang explains, “looking is like a kind of scratch in the mind”.


To look, to “scratch the mind”, to wear it away until nothing remains — neither the body in Hodkinson’s work, nor the intellect in Ngo’s. Hoang has created a series of ten superimpositions, largely images of objects, be they scrubbing brushes, chinaware, splattering drops of milk or a doll’s jittery eyes. Somewhat out of register with each other, these superimpositions destabilize the viewer. We are left with the interchangeable signs of the commodity culture described by French theorist, Jean Baudrillard. Image? Object? The distinction no longer matters. In Hoang’s words, “the inherent and the embellishment are all the same”.


The city, imaged. A sensuous feast for hungry eyes.



Source:  Picturing the City: A Dissolutuion from Concrete to Image, Sue Hajdu, Catalogue of 600 Images 60 Artists 6 Curators 6 City: Bangkok/Berlin/London/Los Angeles/Manila/Saigon.