Pipo Nguyen-duy, Hotel Window @ClampArt

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the back gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, mounted on aluminum, made in 2015, 2016, or 2017. The horizontal images on display are sized either 20×30 (in editions of 7) or 30×35 inches (in editions of 3); the vertical images are sized 19×14 inches and are available in editions of 10. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: A second floor hotel room with a forgettable view, looking out on a narrow back alley in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, doesn’t exactly sound like a likely venue for a complexly layered photographic project. But over a period of three years, and for close to six months of total time, dutifully working from morning until late at night, Pipo Nguyen-duy shot pictures from a single fixed location in this very spot. And while we might assume that what he came away with was a simple mechanistic documentation of what passed in front of his lens, Hotel Window is a surprisingly nuanced body of work, interleaving themes of cultural change and voyeuristic surveillance with unexpected formal inventiveness that make the most of limited options.

The alley setting of Nguyen-duy’s photographs is a dense jumble of competing architectural realities. Rusty tin-roofed shacks huddle near low buildings, with remnants of French colonial structures tussling with more modern concrete blocks and sleek glass skyscrapers in the distance. The view from the second floor looks down on the passage, with thick vines of electrical wiring bisecting the composition and stubborn jungle greenery finding a tentative foothold in the urban world. Seen together, it’s a contemporary scene filled with dissonant forces – geometric order and overbuilt chaos, natural and man made materials, overlapped old and new, openness mixed with hemmed in tightess.

Pedestrians of all kinds pass through the alley day and night, and it is these people that become the actors in Nguyen-duy’s set pieces. Women from a nearby modeling agency pose in matching sparkly tops, short shorts, and boots, draped over motorcycles or lined up for beer ads, their contemporary sexiness at odds with the concrete drabness of the location. Similar photo shoot posing takes place with patrons of a traditional costume shop, the elaborate Chinese opera star gowns and Japanese kimonos lit by extra lighting, heightening the sense of surreal mismatch. And a third local business makes painting reproductions, so movers are seen lugging Warhol, Bosch, Vermeer, and even the Mona Lisa across the passageway, creating incongruous artistic combinations.

More mundane activities fill most of the hours, and Nguyen-duy captures businessmen, soldiers, vegetable sellers, people talking on their phones, and countless others as they pass by. The alley is the venue for all kinds of action: groups of men play an impromptu game of cards, people zoom through on motorcycles and bicycles, a woman sells birds from a cage propped on her head, and a bright pink umbrella enlivens a rainy grey day. Some of the photographs have been cropped down, isolated, and enlarged, getting closer in, telephoto-lens style, creating a taxonomy of types. Here the cultural polarities of contemporary Vietnam get clearer, with conical hats and business suits jostling in the same space.

Nguyen-duy moved to the United States in 1975 as a refugee, and so the way he sees his Vietnamese identity is more complicated than that of many of the locals in the street. In Hotel Window, he observes the city from a point of detachment, physically placing himself behind a wall of glass and at a distance from his subjects. This outsider placement adds a feeling of voyeurism into the construction of the pictures, and indeed, he does watch some illicit activity taking place in the alley below, from flirtatious couples (in various combinations) to a man masturbating out in the open.

One way he mediates his viewing from afar is by using the hotel curtains to veil his vision in different ways. Some images are effectively straight, the window unblocked, allowing him to see the street and the street to see him. In other photographs, he pulls the curtains to a partially closed position, creating flanking vertical strips that bracket or interrupt the compositions. In still others, the curtains are entirely closed, like a scrim or screen that is transparent in day and more opaque in the seething red light of the night. Nguyen-duy smartly uses these curtains to frame individuals in tight zones of clarity, as parallel geometric elements in wider scenes, and as a wavy textural covering in front of his closeups.

Nguyen-duy isn’t by any means the first photographer to find unexpected interest in a fixed vantage point; just last year, Hayahisa Tomiyasu discovered an entire world near a ping pong table set in a park in Leipzig, shot from his student dorm room (his photobook TTP was reviewed here). What sets Nguyen-duy’s project apart is how many layers of dynamic social complexity and personal resonance he has uncovered in this one perspective, this one alley becoming both a microcosm of Vietnam’s current cultural moment and an indirect examination of his own sense of belonging.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The horizontal images are priced at $1250, $1800, or $3500, based on size, while the vertical images are priced at $1250 each. Nguyen-duy’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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