The Oberlin Review

Photography Professor, Pipo Nguyen-duy, Awarded Prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship

Linus Ignatius, Staff Writer

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This month, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation officially named Oberlin professor of studio art and photography Pipo Nguyen-duy a fellow in the creative arts. Selected from thousands of applicants, Nguyen-duy is one of 180 recipients of the 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship. The Foundation awards a select number of scholars, artists and scientists in the U.S. and Canada grants each year to support their developing research. The grant is “intended for men and women who have already demonstrated exceptional creative ability in the arts,” and provides winners the chance to further develop their research.

Nguyen-duy didn’t start photographing until his late 20s, when a friend tossed him a camera. “It’s not like I know what my work is,” he said. “[If] you take a look at all my work, you might think, ‘this guy must be schizo.’ But I’m like that. My life is like that. It keeps me stable … to be in the state of becoming over the state of arrival.”

His most recent project — East of Eden — features photos from Vietnam, and support from the Foundation ensures that Nguyen-duy can continue his work in Southeast Asia. The award will pay for Nguyen-duy’s lodging, food, photo materials and equipment and, most importantly, airfare to and from Vietnam.

East of Eden began in the US as a response to changing conceptions of the American landscape. For Nguyen-duy, the romantic, positive view of our country — as a profusion of resources, as an Edenesque frontier of exploration and possibility and as a sanctification of manifest destiny — has given way to one more mournful, anxious and detached.

According to the artist, September 11 and the ensuing events have “shriveled the distance” between threats overseas and our sanctuary at home. The land that once represented safety and opportunity is changing before our eyes. The country is no longer insulated from terror. We now live with color-coded threat levels and foiled bomb plots.

In the series, staged scenes echo classical paintings and biblical themes, transporting audiences to a time when artists depicted humans as a natural outgrowth of the landscape. However, modern manufactured materials and colors alienate the subjects from their organic realities and remind the viewer of the complexity of our own displacement.

These themes are deeply connected to Nguyen-duy’s personal narrative: His recent work reads both as a national and personal investigation. As a child growing up during the Vietnam War, he recalls hearing gunshots frequently. Just days before the fall of Saigon in 1975, the US government airlifted him out of the country with a group of at-risk refugees, promising them access to a land free of violence.

Today, morbidity and danger here in the US have overwhelmed the guarantee of a personal Eden. Perhaps this alienation from the American environment brought Nguyen-duy’s attention back to his country of birth. “I can only do it in Vietnam,” he said between drags of an American Spirit. “The rush and high I get from the work — I can’t get it here.”

Contemporary Vietnam insists on presenting itself as a hotbed of economic regeneration and growth, looking to distance its image from the devastation in its past and the missing pieces in its present. In the process, the memory of the war is erased to make room for a message of hope, casting victims of the disappearing past — amputees and the wounded — out of society.

Nguyen-duy seeks out the forgotten people, those maimed and marked by the war, and dodges government intervention along the way. “We have a great time — it’s more like a party. I don’t have to pay them but I do.”

His photos have inspired NGOs to distribute wheelchairs to Vietnam, not to mention garnering the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s recognition. The support comes at a critical time. His associates in Vietnam are sick and wounded — in his own words, they’re “dropping like flies.” For Nguyen-duy, that’s only reason to work harder. “It’s not my job,” he said, “But it’s what I truly love and believe in.”

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