A dimly lit room cast in an intense monochromatic red, that has a fake stage built in its center with curtains flanking a projection of a stark, black and white movie image of a wet barbed wire fence.
Above: Installation of IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS (2021)
Below: Diane Severin Nguyen. Still from IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS installation view, Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 2022. Photo: Useful Art Services.
︎ The Renaissance Society, Chicago

If Revolution Is a Sickness


Review
Camille Gallogly Bacon


If Revolution Is a Sickness by time-based media artist and photographer Diane Severin Nguyen poses existential questions about the process of inventing a self in the face of ongoing socio-political turmoil. On view until June 19, 2022 at The Renaissance Society (The Ren) in Chicago, IL, the exhibition features four photographs and a 19-minute film after which the show is titled. Here, Severin Ngyuen poses existential questions: What does it mean to inherit a history of revolution? How might we refashion said inheritance and use it as a tool to chart forward in the contemporary moment?

Co-commissioned by the Ren and The Sculpture Center, NY, If Revolution is A Sickness follows a Vietnamese orphan, Weronika, who washes up on a Polish shoreline, traverses the landscape, and later joins a K-Pop inspired dance group. The prevalence of sonic, visual and embodied ambivalence throughout the film illuminate the contradictions that animate the experience of displacement.

The only dialogue in the film consists of an epistolary voiceover narrated in Polish, then Vietnamese, then back to Polish, first from an unnamed figure, and secondly from Weronika herself. As an effort to “find contradictory perspectives that range from the ‘interior’ to the ‘collective’ and [from] certain to uncertain,” the voiceover is culled from a broad frame of references including “Ulrike Meinhof’s prison letters, Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, Mao Zedong’s Red Book, some [Edouard] Glissant, and Polish poets like Stanislaw Pignon and Czeslaw Milosz” and is interspersed with the artist’s own writing.1

While the first half of the film follows Weronika’s process of self-making on unfamiliar terrain and is set to a somber sonic scape, the second half visualizes a dance number featuring the main character and her new friends. For this, Severin Nguyen gathered a group of teenaged Polish dancers who perform original choreography set to music and lyrics co-written by the artist. “The music was… made with my collaborator Ryder Bach. We did heavy analysis on K-pop production, like how militaristic marching, bells and whistles are employed, [for example].”

Entering the heart of the installation entailed maneuvering through lengths of dusted-yellow fabric suspended from the ceiling like curtains, as if the act of brushing the cloth aside was a means of asking the space for permission to enter it. Aside from presenting an innovative entrance strategy, the curtains also delay the gratification of the audience. When entering most exhibitions one is confronted first with either exhibition text or the work itself. Here though, you could hear the film thrumming from the other side of the curtains, but it was unclear exactly how to enter into it, which kicked up a sense of anticipation, the feeling of knowing something was waiting for you, but not being entirely sure what that was. In having to feel around for where the opening in the curtain was and step through, the exhibition also demanded that I engage a haptic dimension of looking.

After breaking through the lengths of yellow, I realized the film was projected onto a cinema-sized screen that sat in the mouth of the elevated stage, draped on each side with more cascading yellow curtains. Nearly every other flat surface in the gallery space, including the stairs leading up to the stage, the floors, and the viewing bench were swallowed by scarlet carpeting. All the windows were blotted out with swaths of red vinyl, which spit tinted sunlight across the towering ceilings that frame the outer corners of The Ren’s exhibition space. With this in mind, the installation, in its entirety, assumed a sculptural quality. 

As I settled in to behold Severin Nguyen’s cinematic musings on the pitfalls of isolation and the lengths one may go to in order to invent themselves, I turned my face up to the screen’s glowing ether, preparing to be engulfed even further.

A camera pans over an austere shoreline, a creek draining slowly of water, a river frothing and falling over slick stones, white birds flitting across the sky, a rain-filled forest foregrounded by a fallen tree. The voice of an unnamed figure booms outwards: “Dearest Weronika… In our situation here and now, the most pressing issue we must address is how to explain the at times gruesome experiences we have had in isolation.” Who is Weronika? Who is addressing her? What is their shared condition? Where in the world are we? What is the context of their isolation? Severin Nguyen has deposited us on precarious ground, this time in terms of the content of the film itself. Beginning with more questions than answers demands keen attention…

Melancholy piano undulates in the background. The camera tilts upwards to capture a sun beaming behind a thin veil of clouds: “Isolation will destroy you.” A shutter clicks, the camera tilts abruptly down and a young Weronika appears washed up on the shoreline, waves rocking her softly back and forth, cheek resting on the sand, eyes closed in a tranquil manner.

The unnamed voice resurfaces, repeating the child’s name, “Weronika,” as she opens her eyes and turns her face up to the camera with fervor. And so begins a suite of snippets that capture a young Weronika, utterly alone and making her way across the severe landscape of Warsaw, Poland as the droning voice over unravels like a procession:

An image of Weronika donning the pastel yellow bandana, sunflower-yellow t-shirt, and red arm warmers she washed up with, twirling a red ribbon over the side of a bridge (“In isolation you can’t permit yourself, on top of everything else, to torment yourself”).

A close up of Weronika looking pensively into the distance, a quick transition to her stretching in camel pose within a concrete structure, a quick cut to a length of barbed wire slick and dripping a gelatinous, clear substance. (“That doesn’t mean you can avoid certain experiences in the process of liberation from alienation”).

Weronika finds herself in a cavernous room, she struts back and forth, she sways her body while meeting the camera with her gaze. (“Isolation strips you of all illusions about yourself, which can be a very hard pill to swallow”).

Young Weronika is punching the air, bringing her left hand down to her left foot and repeating on the other side, swinging her arms methodically: No longer “dancing” but perhaps rather “training” for an encounter with an unforeseen threat… (But only the chant endures… Nobody knows about your sorrow”).

She sits in a field of high grass and nibbles on a piece of white bread. The camera pans to the image of a waterfall, then transitions into an image of a teenage Weronika sitting next to a fountain and munching on a sandwich. And so begins our protagonist’s voiceover: “Yes, I was already ready to fall to my knees.”

As her voiceover continues, Weronika reveals herself to be a deeply questioning subject, perhaps even one who rejects assimilatory demands of immigrantion: “If I can move past all this, will the ones who once loved me still recognize me?” Here, our protagonist points to the rupture promised by displacement, the anxiety associated with shifting to accommodate the demands of her new surroundings and the realization that the connections she left behind may not be able to be recovered. Still though, Weronika is in relentless pursuit of herself. Her peace might just lie in her capacity to create: “If I don’t become an artist then I will remain just a victim.”

Almost exactly halfway through the film, there is an abrupt shift, both sonically and visually. Weronika is now surrounded by her Polish adolescent friends as the K-pop number begins to overtake the piano tune. In reference to the dance group, Weronika wonders: “Do they really think I'm cute, or just different?” thereby probing the essential question of landing in a foreign place and striving to call it home. Surely, the weight of the assumption that immigrants will assimilate to their new nation’s modes of being is not to be romanticized. And yet, here we get to witness Weronika inquire after and invent herself in real time.

We as the audience are not privy to the particularities of the process through which Weronika comes to be in relation with the dance group—their conversations are never audible, but the synchronicity of their movements suggests they spent time practicing together, which also assumes a degree of discussion and connection. Thus, Nguyen poses the antithesis of a fetishistic understanding of cultural exchange. Though these adolescents might appear to have nothing in common, it is the dance, both literally and metaphorically, that allows them to come together around shared motives.

The lyrics of the dance number point back to the tension between differing understandings of what “revolution” entails or can make possible and an ambivalence around the promise of revolution more broadly. “Is the freedom worth the pain?” asks the dance group, again, without providing an answer and leaving us to speculate in the red and yellow hue of Severin Ngyuen’s atmospheric installation.

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Citations:
  1. From email correspondence with the artist

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7.8.22

Camille Gallogly Bacon (she/her/they/them) is a graduate of Smith College and a Chicago-based writer and curator. She is cultivating a “sweet black writing life” as informed by the insights of poet Nikki Finney. Her work derives from a rich legacy of Black feminist theory and practice.
Video screenshot of a small child in profile with a medium skin tone, long black hair put up in a beige scarf, and a yellow t-shirt, eating a piece of bread with both hands, and standing in front of an out of focus field of dried tall grass. The subtitles at the bottom read: “those better than you were deprived.”Video screenshot of a small child in jeans and a yellow t-shirt runs a pink ribbon around a tall wooden pole in the center of the frame, in dim light in front of a hazy forest. The subtitles at the bottom read: “Where is the truth of unremembered things?”Video screenshot of a small child with a medium skin tone and black hair wearing jeans, a yellow shirt, a beige scarf, and pink shoes, is viewed outside on a wooden platform stretching backward on their knees, grabbing the soles of their shoes. The subtitles at the bottom read: “in the process of liberation from alienation.”
Video screenshot of a figure largely in shadow in front of a green forest, wearing a beige scarf and a block letter necklace, who holds a small hammer as if it were a microphone and seems to be in mid-speech. The subtitles at the bottom read: “Why do shadows appear”
Video screenshot of a group of young people, looking sternly toward the viewer on an overcast day outside. They are mostly wearing reds and whites, except the centermost figure, who is wearing yellow, and has an outstretched hand, pointing at the viewer.
Video screenshot of around 6 young people all wearing coordinating colors of red and black, are all moving synchronously, as if mid-dance, in front of a bronze soldier monument. The centermost figure is looking at the viewer, and has one hand pointing up, and the other pointing down.
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