Diane Severin Nguyen
IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS
“Lose yourself to the new image,” the autotuned chorus croons, as a posse of dancers twist and groove over a K-Pop soundtrack. To “lose oneself” in something can mean to devote oneself fully to an artistic experience—but it can also mean an erasure of one’s selfhood in the face of greater forces. In Diane Severin Nguyen’s first solo exhibition, a commission at SculptureCenter entitled “IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS,” it means both. The centerpiece of the exhibition, a short film of the same name, explores the fallout of the Cold War through the individual journey of a young Vietnamese child joining a K-Pop group in Warsaw, Poland.
Staged to resemble the grand banquet halls common in Asia and Asian diasporic communities, with frilled gold curtains and an expansive red carpet, the video that plays on a large projector is accompanied by a pair of speakers that thunder through the cavernous warehouse space. The color scheme threading both the exhibition and film recalls the flag of unified Vietnam, which depicts a yellow star on a red field, and those of Communist countries writ large. In the first portion, we meet Veronica as a little kid in a yellow bonnet and t-shirt with red sleeves, practicing her dance moves with childlike clumsiness and aplomb. This continues through her adolescence in Warsaw, where she rehearses with fellow dancers, before landing on a final cut of a music video. In it, they dance before a Brutalist concrete structure like those common in post-Soviet nations as drums and distortions swirl in and out of the melody, morphing into a K-Pop song with a powerful bass and unsettling lyrics.
The lyrics are an often contradictory hodgepodge of writing drawn from revolutionary writers and groups like Ulrike Meinhof, Hannah Arendt and Mao Zedong. “The East is red / The sun is rising,” is the refrain. A rap portion completes the conditional suggested by the exhibition’s title, “If revolution is a sickness.” It goes: “I wanna be sick, sick, sick (hey, hey, hey!).” The muddled influence of multiple competing cultural powers in the fallout of an extended conflict that ostensibly ended decades ago comes through strongly as well. The dynamic of Southeast Asians “losing themselves” or “coming into themselves” via an East Asian cultural product, for instance, is another form of increasingly common erasure, especially as the nuances of intra-Asian tensions are lost among non-Asian countries. “With all respect, Veronica, you were set apart by a flaw in your blood,” the narration reads at one point.
The rap concludes with the lyrics, “No new idols / This is the end of history.” Both points, clealy, are moot. The U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 prophecy that history would end with the dominance of Western liberal democracy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union now looks hopelessly dated. Even the Old Testament commandment against idolatry dissolves under the rise of that powerful new non-Western idol—the K-Pop star. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Diane Severin Nguyen: IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS, installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2021. Photo: Charles Benton