In Discussion with Lêna Bùi: Changing Cities, Changing People

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Lêna Bùi good infinity, bad infinity installation shot. Courtesy of the artist.

By Devana Senanayake

Concrete jungles, urban rivers, preserved city spaces, and dynamic mountain villages are all totems in Lêna Bùi’s umbrella project Home. The Vietnamese multi-disciplinary artist takes the audience on her mental journey of processing urban change through breathtaking visuals. Though Lêna is a multimedia artist, her videos function as visual essays that pinpoint the complexities of human life in concrete ecosystems.

“I think that video is very seductive. You have so much to play with: visuals, sound, and light” Lêna says. “Video is perfect for narrative, but also for abstraction. It can be a story but it does not have to be completely linear. It can also be poetic.”

She focuses strongly on urbanization particularly as her home country, Vietnam, has undergone unprecedented change over the past couple of decades.  Statistics by the World Bank confirm that the country’s extreme poverty rate has declined to under 3 percent and the GDP has increased to 7.1 percent in 2018 as a result of a rise in economic activity.

Lêna understands that all change, even positive economic change, comes at a cost to the environment and to the people occupying it. Through her project good infinity, bad infinity, she uses Saigon as a starting point to explore the relationship shared by physical environments and people.

Through this point of focus, her audience is invited to join her on her personal journey to understand human behaviour, relationships, resilience and belonging across the globe.

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Lêna Bùi. good infinity, bad infinity. Home series. Courtesy of the artist.
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Lêna Bùi. Diagonal Time. Courtesy of the artist.

I am interested in the depiction of humans and their relationship to urban spaces in your art. Why does this dynamic interest you?

Everyone tries to situate themselves in the environment to make sense of it—this is my way of making sense of existence. Urban development is a tangent of human relationships with the environment and their surroundings.

Saigon has changed so much since my childhood. When I was a kid, it was still mostly bicycles and cyclos [and] there were hardly any cars and very few motorbikes. In the past five to seven years, they started building high rises everywhere so the landscape has transformed.

In Vietnam, the growth rate is very high. However, what are the costs of very rapid development without well-rounded consideration for the future?

I think this is happening all over South-East Asia. Change is inevitable but once we’ve knocked the old things down, we cannot revive them even if we come to regret it.

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Lêna Bùi. good infinity, bad infinity installation shot. Courtesy of the artist.

Waterways are an important totem in good infinity, bad infinity. Why did you focus so strongly on this component?

Both cities developed along waterways. Sharjah is right by the sea. They both have big ports and there is a lot of commerce and exchanges happening there. Saigon is a big port city and along the river are shipyards and ports.

Water is synonymous with life. Large water-bodies connecting to the sea like the Saigon river and the Sharjah creek enable the constant exchange of goods. Nowadays, construction materials are not sourced locally and a lot of it is imported. I was curious about how things were linked and connected to each other.

I was also looking at sand. Sand is a crucial component in the production of concrete [in particular]. For concrete to work, you have to use a particular type of sand with the right texture and size, which is river sand. Though Sharjah has a lot of sand, they cannot use their sand for construction and have to import it.

Vietnam exports sand, often mined illegally, which creates a lot of corrosion along the river-banks. Houses have crumbled along the riverbanks because sand was extracted from the middle of the river without any regulation. In the case of Saigon, you just have to go downstream to see multiple barges extracting sand. If you go a bit further, you see an abandoned cement factory and houses sunken in the water. At the same time, along the riverbanks are booming construction and increasingly large high-rise complex. There’s a full circle of construction and destruction going on here.

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Lêna Bùi. Diagonal Time. Courtesy of the artist.

What impact did urban developments have on human communities?

In Saigon, over the past ten years, very old structures and areas have been demolished. For example, the oldest shipyard built during the 1790s, during French colonialism has been replaced by villas and high rises.

I’m sure modern high rises cater to certain modern needs, [however] I’m interested in its effect on people. In the past, community networks were very tight which had both good and bad impacts. There was no privacy, everybody was involved in your business. However, people looked out for each other. What modern housing does is, it gives people [the] anonymity and freedom. But does it help people build community? Or, is it detrimental to our ability to connect with each other?

When I was invited to Sharjah for the residency, the reverse was happening there. They experienced a very rapid development phase in the 1970s. Then they realized that they wanted to preserve their old quarters, so they moved everyone out of the area. The old quarters are preserved but they are not lived in. They have become a museum, frozen in time. Even when we want to preserve the old, it changed into something else.

All these old men who had grown up in the area were dispersed all over the city and this broke the social network their old neighborhood provided. Now that they have retired, they regularly come back to the last original teahouse to chat with each other. They do this to find a sense of belonging and to find a community.

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Lêna Bùi. Diagonal Time. Courtesy of the artist.

I would also love to touch on your upcoming project based in Nepal, Diagonal Time. What did you learn about people in Nepal, particularly as it is lesser developed than Sharjah and Saigon and has a greater sense of community?

Nepal seems to be changing rapidly but it is a very special place. It’s old but it is alive, it’s not a museum. People still live in old structures, in small and winding alleys, maintaining many old traditions. I think it is immensely rich in culture.

I speak in the film as an outsider looking from the outside in. Many of the shots are through door-frames or alleyways. Then the viewers feel as if they are peeking into something private. Being a foreigner is being ignorant. It’s good because you don’t take anything for granted. It’s bad because often you can’t fully understand, or you misunderstand. My film is a documentary, but in the end, it is also a personal essay.

I was trying to understand human resilience. What aspects of our life contribute to our sense of wellbeing? I focused on the people who have found strength in something or who gave strength to others.

A character featured in the film is a female woodcarver. She spoke of how she learned to carve. Her trade gave her financial independence and agency. She worked hard and with her skills, made enough money to build her house and put her children through school. There was also an astrologer. People went to him with a problem, got his advice and then felt better. I think he functioned like the Asian version of a psychologist.

A solid sense of community is crucial in helping us find meaning in life. There are all sorts of festivals in Nepal that provide opportunities for people to connect and to feel connected. Rituals, music, and dances are all part of a language of unspoken understanding.

Of course, I cannot make a film about Nepal and not include mountainsthey definitely belong to the sublime. I don’t care much for the spirituality that is woven into tourism in Nepal but the mountains give a good sense of scale. They let us register how small and fragile human beings are. Traditional mountain villages are inaccessible harsh environments and can be a symbol of human resilience.

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Lêna Bùi. Diagonal Time. Courtesy of the artist.

What do you hope your audience notices, particularly in relation to the theme of home and changing cities?

In terms of home, home can mean people, home can mean the land and the water. As for changing cities, I’m resistant to changes but also pro-change. A city is a living thing, so it has to change and adapt to keep up, to stay healthy.

I make work about things I don’t understand. I am trying to solve a problem for myself. There is no overarching message and there’s no solution because it is unresolved. I want the audience to look at something they think they know, that they take for granted and see something else in it.

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