Artist UuDam Tran Nguyen In Seven Objects

UuDam Tran Nguyen says he’s a sculptor but his body of work is eclectic – everything from apps to 3D-printed skeletons. Here, UuDam picks seven of his favourite objects in his studio.

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“My optician hates me,” UuDam Tran Nguyen laughs as he places another pair of trademark Oakley glasses with their hard-to-make curved lenses on the table. “I think I have six pairs altogether,” he adds. The artist is the son of artist and poet Rừng. And he studied at Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art University, before heading to UCLA and the School of Visual Arts in New York. Today, his eclectic output, that he’s shown everywhere from Shanghai to California, overflows from his studio in District 2.

UuDam Tran Nguyen looking at the neon of his piece ‘No Vacancy’.

Besides artworks, there are stacks of catalogues and books from the many international exhibitions in which he’s featured. But lots of his work can’t be stored physically – the performances, videos, collaborative drawing apps, that have also appeared in his practice. Video and performance both featured in his Serpents’ Tail and Waltz of the Machine Equestrians – interpretations of the beautiful chaos and choreography on the streets of Saigon but also the toxic impact of traffic and pollution on the city. 

UuDam has also embarked on a number of other long-term projects “developing them over the course of years.” The most prominent (and energy consuming) has been Time Boomerang, a project started in 2013. “I’ve taken trips to ‘conquer’ Europe and Australia as well as organizing map breaking performances in Shanghai, Tokyo and California,” the softly-spoken artist smiles showing us a globe that tracks the project. 

A video exploration of UuDam Tran Nguyen’s Time Boomerang.

He talks about the artworks loitering in his District 2 studio like they’re old friends, elaborating a little here and there. So we asked UuDam Tran Nguyen to choose some objects, like his Oakley glasses, that mean the most to him for this, the first in our What’s in your bag? series. 

UuDam Tran Nguyen picks seven of his favorite objects including a 3D skeleton and four pairs of Oakley glasses.

1. 3D-printed skull and hand

The skull and hand are actually models of UuDam Tran Nguyen’s skeleton. “It’s nice to see your bones when you’re not dead,” UuDam nods. He made them by having a CT scan taken then a 3D printer printed them out.“Technology’s let me hold something that would only be visible after your death,” UuDam murmurs turning the skull around in his hand. He made the objects for another phase of his Time Boomerang project showing in California Orange County Museum of Art and Kaohsiung Museum. “Two continents across the Pacific, one body of work,” he adds proudly.

“It’s nice to see your bones when you’re not dead.” UuDam Tran Nguyen exploring his replica 3D-printed skull.

2. Macbook Pro

UuDam’s Macbook Pro looks well-used. “True,” he confirms, “as an artist I use it for everything from retouching photos, to communicating through email and social media.” 

3. Globe 

There are lots of objects in the studio related to cartography. There’s one yellow cast of a map that shows California as an island, “from around the 1600s.”

“Cartographers from France thought California was an island filled with mermaids and beautiful women. They proposed to the King to give them funding to go and prove it – we still do the same today searching for rivers on Mars and things…”

But UuDam’s chosen the globe as one of his objects because it’s particularly relevant right now as Time Boomerang continues to grow. In total there are eight phases covering five continents. As a comment on sovereignty and geo-politics, next, the artist will travel for four weeks by cargo boat to California. He spins the globe again to point out the previous routes he’s taken to Europe and Australia.

UuDam with another piece from Time Boomerang, his exploration of borders and sovereignty.

4. Sketchbook and pencil case 

“If I had to choose, I’d take my sketchbook over the iPad every time,” the artist says confidently, There’s something about being able to touch it; it’s something real…” 

He starts turning the pages of the sketchbook. They’re filled with lines of handwriting and quick sketches. “How do I decide which ideas will be realized?” he asks. “Most of my works come from my observations of daily life. You can say they’re socially-inspired. But because some of my projects take years – the idea for Time Boomerang actually came to me in 2010 for example – I choose very carefully which ones to commit too.”

5. iPad Pro

UuDam’s works often engage with technology. His piece for 2016’s Technophobe show ‘Licence 2 Draw’ – the first exhibition held at Saigon’s Factory Contemporary Arts Center – was based around an app. Users accessed the app anywhere in the world which gave them control of a mechanized vehicle fitted with ink. The result was a globally crowdsourced doodle. And another when he did the piece again in Yokohama, Japan. 

He’s currently using the iPad and Apple’s native notes app to share plans for a permanent installation inside the new Toong Vista Verde coworking space in District 2. 

6. Sony RX100 Camera

The ephemeral nature of lots of UuDam Tran Nguyen’s work means it needs be recorded in some way. “That allows viewers to see it, even after it’s happened,” UuDam nods. “It’s very important to have a camera at all times – sure mobile phones can do a lot, but a professional camera is still essential.” He owns three Sony cameras. “This RX100 for portability, an A6500 as back-up, and an Alpha 7RII for high-resolution 42-megapixel shots,” he says.

One of UuDam Tran Nguyen’s six pairs of Oakley glasses. “I even wrote to them to ask for more.”

7. Four pairs of white Oakley glasses 

The glasses have become UuDam’s trademark. He has four pairs with him of the six pairs he owns. However, as the style is no longer being produced, he’s obsessively collecting pairs he finds. UuDam’s been wearing these distinctive white Oakley glasses since 2010. When he first wore them, a friend posted a photo on Facebook, “and a day or two later people began asking ‘who’s the alien-looking guy with the glasses.’” That was the motivation to wear the glasses every day. He’s still searching out the last pairs made in that style “because they get broken easily.” 

“I’ve even written to Oakley for more,” UuDam laughs, “but they haven’t replied yet.”

You can learn more and contribute to UuDam’s Indiegogo campaign for his trip to California by cargo ship here.

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