Joan Jonas and Art Labor drink in Vietnamese coffee culture at Carnegie International
Once America’s industrial heartland, Pittsburgh – like many of its neighbouring Rust Belt cities including Detroit and Cleveland – had to reinvent itself in the past decades to address economical decline and depopulation. Today, the Steel City is maybe best known as a hub for new technologies, having famously pioneered Uber’s self-driving cars programme in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.
But the art scene too, has a long and tumultuous history in Andy Warhol’s hometown. Now in its 57th edition, the Carnegie International is America’s oldest art event, founded in 1896, only a year after the Venice Biennale. Originally conceived as an annual exhibition under the impulse of steel baron Andrew Carnegie, it is now mounted every three to five years, showcasing works by international contemporary artists in and around the Carnegie Museum of Art. This 2018 iteration is curated by the American Ingrid Schaffner, and features 32 artists and collectives, including Zoe Leonard, Kerry James Marshall and El Anatsui.
A highlight this year is without a doubt the collaboration between American performance and video art pioneer Joan Jonas and Vietnamese collective Art Labor, composed of Thao-Nguyen Phan, Truong Cong Tung and Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran. Together, they have conceived a traditional roadside hammock café, installed directly within the museum. The project is an extension of Art Labor’s ongoing initiative Jrai Dew, which critically stages a dialogue between industrialisation and mythical narratives.
Installation sketch, 2018, by Art Labor and Joan Jonas
The interactive and fully functional installation fuses the collective’s research into Vietnam’s coffee industry – first brought by French missionaries in the 18th century – with painting, sculpture and sound. The hammocks, at once a common domestic feature as well as a traveling solution used by communist soldiers during the Vietnam war, create a relaxing yet unsettling social experience, complete with coffee service. What’s more: the installation is crowned by traditional Vietnamese kites, painted by Jonas.
‘I thought of the jungle,’ Jonas told Wallpaper*, pointing to the different coloured-greens she used to paint the kites. The American artist, now 82, is all too familiar with the collective’s work, having mentored founding member Thao-Nguyen as part of the prestigious Rolex Mentor & Protégé programme in 2016-2017. During that time, Jonas visited a Vietnamese village where they made kites. She ended up using them for a show in New York (also later displayed at her Tate Modern retrospective this year) so it only felt natural to revisit the flying device once again.
‘I always love being in Joan’s world,’ says Thao-Nguyen, reflecting on her long-standing collaboration with her mentor. Now an accomplished artist, has the student become the master? ‘We’re contributing to each other’s work,’ says Jonas, the grande dame of performance art. ‘I hope it goes on in the future.’ §