According to Buddhist scriptures, UuDams (Udumbara) are sacred flowers that descend to earth from heaven to signal a new, prosperous era. These flowers are extremely rare as they only bloom once every three millennia to mark the reappearance of Buddha to the world.
After studying at the University of Fine Arts in Vietnam and receiving his BA and MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles and the School of Visual Arts in New York City respectively, Artist Ưu Đàm Trần Nguyễn, who inherited his name from his father, continued to perfect his craft by learning from world-renowned artists like Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, Sarah Sze, and Pulitzer-winning art critic Jerry Saltz. Today, Ưu Đàm is a pioneering example of what every modern-day contemporary artist strives to be.
UuDam makes his mark by trying to make sense of the world around him through his art. He combines video, performance, photography, sculpture, and technology to challenge the boundaries of what contemporary art is today. His body of work is uncompromised and eclectic, which is risky, but that's what makes his art rare, just like the UuDam flower. After all, conceptual art, a field in which UuDam is in familiar territory, is all about taking creative risks.
His recent project, ECO-Đi, sits within the canon of his work, but is also a first for the artist on a number of levels. The project won The Best Conceptual Design award at the 2020 Vietnam Design Week. This year's event was dedicated to propelling the development of Vietnam's design industry through promoting the use of economical and sustainable materials with the theme of “Regeneration.”
The week-long festival included a series of exhibitions, workshops, and shows celebrating distinguished artists, designers, manufacturers, handicraft villagers, and students in all industries from Food and Beverage and Fashion to Public Art. For UuDam, an event like this is just a launching pad for what's to come for Vietnamese artists and curators alike.
What are you showcasing to follow Vietnam Design Week's theme of “Regeneration”? What was your inspiration behind it?
Eco-Đi was inspired by my artist retreat to Hòn Sơn, an island off the coast of Vietnam. Each day, on my walk to the beach from the mountains, I was faced with the reality of trash-infested sands, extensive deforestation, and murky water springs.
The big picture was miserable – no one seemed to care about the waste-ridden environment around them. A fisherman could throw away his worn-out fishing net in front of his house and walk over it the next day on the way to his boat. And the handful of islanders who did care were channeling their energy elsewhere; nature always came second or third even though it is the main source of their livelihood.
The same destruction of the ecosystem can be seen throughout the whole country, from corporate over-development to individual mindlessness. I’ve always wanted to change Vietnam's habits to better protect our environment. But, for a while, I thought it was the job of an activist, not an artist. So, how could I do it through art?
After getting an invitation from Vietnam Design Week, I thought about the power of Art Intervention; art that protests the existing conditions of the world. I want my work to leave a lasting effect, to permanently alter our habit of treating nature as an after-thought. And that's how the ECO-Đi slippers were born.
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What does this project mean for you and what do you hope to achieve with “ECO-Đi"?
ECO-Đi is very special to me for it is able to do the Impossible. ECO-Đi combines the English word “Eco" from “Ecology" with the Vietnamese word “Đi" (to go). ECO-Đi means to “do things the Eco way” (what's better for the Earth). The message “Good Travelers Leave No Trace" is carefully etched on the sole of each ECO-Đi slipper to remind us to be gentle with the fragile earth. Each step creates a bas-relief into the sand, which is smoothed out by the wind and the waves, only to reappear again when a new step is taken, so the wearer becomes an agent of change and an environmental activist.
Eco-Đi is simple, yet sophisticated. The slippers symbolize how everyday simplicity can transform into a powerful, universal message. Since walking can be done effortlessly, any ECO-Đi collector can spread the message as they travel around the world. It’s message will remind us to leave no traces when "traveling," which should hopefully help maintain the beauty of the beaches in Vietnam and many other natural wonders of the world.
This project marks the first time my art is crossing 6 different disciplines:
- Conceptual art: Art conceived and executed by an artist.
- Sculpture (bas-relief): The words “Good Travelers Leave No Trace' appear on the sand as the wearer walks.
- Wearable art: The slippers as a footwear product.
- Performance art: Each wearer is a performer.
- Intervention art: Planting an environmental-protection seed into the wearer's mind.
- Advertising: Repeated and effortless execution.
What does the future look like for Vietnamese artists and curators?
Vietnam’s turbulent history of war and political and economic turmoil has created huge limitations for our design industry. But we are learning to stamp out those barriers. There's a new creative wave approaching as artists, designers, and architects are building up the courage and inspiration to transform the existing art scene. We need to stay hopeful and keep working towards designing a better future for Vietnam.
What trends are you noticing in the art industry in Vietnam and globally as well?
The trend is to create works that are sustainable. It can start with something as simple as buying durable materials, using them for a long time, and bringing them to the right place to be recycled. That would already be a game changer. Plastics are wonderful inventions, but our reckless intentions make them out to be evil. There is no need to get rid of plastic, but a need to correct our attitude of using and disposing it responsibly.
Which of your other recent projects are worth mentioning?
This year, I had the opportunity to work with Tân Nguyễn (D1 Architectural Studio) and Dương Đỗ (Founder of Toong) to design a building based on my sculpture “A Portrait of Emptiness”. Imagine having your sculpture turned into a 7-story building!
The most exciting feature of the building is the torso. I was inspired by those empty vases you can typically find as part of Vietnamese worshiping altars. These vases don't have a purpose. They represent emptiness (an important concept in Buddhism). After cutting the vase in half to further emphasize its emptiness, I saw that it looked like the torso of a person. I made a base and added 5 praying beads so it would look like a person sitting in a lotus pose in meditation.
What's next for UuDam Studio?
For an upcoming project, I will be working with Chu Kim Đức of Think Playgrounds to create a public playground for the Hanoi community funded by the British Council Vietnam. This is something that's very new to me, but I like challenges.
In 2021, I'm hoping to make a million more pairs of ECO-Đi slippers and put them in stores and museums world-wide. Starting a campaign to inspire environmentally-conscious wearers will be fun. I am confident the message will spread from one continent to another and ultimately, help sweep away the trash around the world to keep mother Earth alive.
I recently produced an art video called ECO-Đi directed by the talented Ducky (Hồ Ngọc Đức) of Zen Post Asia. The video expands on the idea of Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer, that great acts begin with small deeds. In the film, it is only when the wearer stops to pick up the trash does the message “Good Travellers Leave No Traces” appear. Towards the end of the film, the soles of the Eco-Đi slippers appear blank to symbolize that no matter the shoes we wear, it is our collective effort to preserve the earth that matters. We do what we can as individuals, but the impact will multiply to the scale of a tsunami if we do it together.