Lêna Bùi, Circulations, 2021 – ongoing. Layered silk paintings. Circulations 1 to 10 was commissioned by Posthuman Ensemble, ACC Focus 2021, Gwangju, South Korea

15 March 2024
By Stephanie Bailey

When Lêna Bùi arrived in London for her residency at Delfina Foundation in autumn 2023, she didn’t have a specific project in mind. Instead, she saw as much as she could – exhibitions, performances, music events, theatre shows – and as she moved through the city, she began to write a script on her phone. The result was the artist’s first performance piece: Root People and the Circle Line, which she staged in November 2023 as part of an evening of performances, screenings, and installations by Delfina residents.

Lêna Bùi, Root People and the Circle Line. At ‘Cyphering, Vibrating, Emanating’. Event by Delfina Foundation, at Young Space, London, 29 November 2023. Supported by M Art Foundation. Photo Anne Tetzlaff.

Standing in front of a video projection showing footage stitched together from Lêna’s camera, much of it featuring the London Underground, the artist reflects on roots and states of rootedness. Lêna talks about how the Tube’s Circle Line is more of a loop or a circuit, how ‘our language is fluid because our thinking probably isn’t straight a lot of the time,’ and concludes that a circle is something that contains a middle with an outline defined by a return to a point. She then introduces her theory of human roots, by drawing a person’s movement within and beyond their house and back on a flipchart, creating looping lines that return to the same spot—home, or what Lêna calls, the ‘anchor root’. Later, the artist wonders how many generations it takes to grow roots deep enough, as images of a cemetery come into view. ‘How far do we have to go back in order to say something really belongs somewhere?’ Lêna answers when I ask her to expand on the question of rootedness that Root People and the Circle Line raises. ‘Actually, things are always in flux.’

Lêna Bùi. Making rubbings of a stump of a 150-year-old Khaya Senegalensis chopped down for road development in Saigon. 2018.

That condition of a rootedness in flux defines Blue Filaments, a project Lêna started in 2018, which could well have been her first true performance, she supposes, albeit an accidental one. When the artist discovered that the trees lining one of Saigon’s oldest roads were being cut down, she returned to the site every day for one month to make pencil rubbings of their stumps on paper. While iconic to Saigon, the artist explains, this particular tree, the khaya senegalensis, is native to West Africa, and was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the colonial era, when their seeds were germinated at Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. ‘That colonial legacy is embedded into the landscape,’ Lêna continues. ‘But in Saigon, the khaya senegalensis has become a cherished part of the city, which creates complex feelings about that history.’ The artist’s rubbings—which will be shown at Gallery BAQ in Paris for the first time this September—capture that complexity. ‘I thought the circles of the tree trunks would reveal their age,’ Lêna notes. ‘But instead I got marks left by the chainsaw that cut them down, like an imprint of violence.’

Lêna Bùi. Kindred. 2021. 7:37 minutes. Single channel video projection with sound. Installation view. Image courtesy of the 2022 Jeju Biennale.

One of Lêna’s tree rubbings appears in the artist’s single-channel video, Kindred (2021), which explores the textures of a landscape shaped by human development, as narrators speaking in different languages embody the voices of natural entities that bear witness to those transformations. ‘Through passing time most humans forget that we were foreign,’ one voice expresses, as if taking on the consciousness of the khaya senegalensis. ‘Within our trunk we held many spirits, letting them fuse or rest temporarily.’ Kindred, which will be screened as part of Art Basel Hong Kong’s film program in 2024, draws on the common belief in Vietnam that spirits live in trees, blending Taoist, Buddhist and Animist worldviews, ‘which is why there are altars placed underneath trees everywhere,’ the artist explains. These altars are not organised, reflecting a spontaneity to their creation and a somewhat anarchic, open-endedness to their meaning, which Kindred diagrams by starting and ending with images of water. ‘Through many more lives we will return to water,’ says the voice at the end, ‘and from water we may become earth’, visualising another kind of loop that starts and ends in fluid space.

Lêna Bùi, Circulations, 2021 – ongoing. Layered silk paintings. Circulations 1 to 10 was commissioned by Posthuman Ensemble, ACC Focus 2021, Gwangju, South Korea

All of which returns to her recent performance, Root People and the Circle Line, where Lêna introduces a theory of circular flow that is rooted to the organic materiality of life itself—an idea that runs through her practice. From Thresholds of motion: the phenomenon of collective behaviour (2014–2015), where intricate drawings, such as the swirling staccato lines in Invisible currents II (2012), explore modes of collective behaviour, including movements of bikers at a junction without traffic lights in Vietnam. To Circulations (2021-ongoing), a series of stunning layered ink and watercolor paintings on silk, whose forms are drawn from a dream the artist had, where she saw multiple creatures passing through her body, during which time she ‘imagine[d] the soul as not a singular entity but a valley full of numerous forms.’

Image 10: Lêna Bùi. Flat Sunlight. 2016. 47:45 minutes. Single channel video projection with color, sound.

For Lêna, plurality naturally defines life on earth. ‘When we die, we sort of disintegrate into the soil and then we become different things.’ The same could be said of Lêna’s projects, which she describes as branches of the same trunk. ‘Once a project starts, you realise you don’t know anything and your research leads to more’, she says. From a root, then, Lêna’s practice expands into loops before circling back to their point. Take the single-channel film Nắng Bằng Phẳng | Flat Sunlight (2016), for example, which focuses on a farming family in the Mekong Delta, which the artist developed out of a curiosity towards rural life, having grown up in the city. ‘I’m always interested in our relationship to the things we consume and the spaces we occupy,’ Lêna notes, describing how she expanded her study of contextual lives in Flat Sunlight with home (good infinity, bad infinity) (2018). The three-channel video installation focuses on residents of Saigon and Sharjah reflecting on the concept of home and the parallels and differences between the two port cities.

Lêna Bùi. Home (good infinity, bad infinity), 2018. 13:46 minutes. 3-channel video projection with sound. Installation view.

One material throughline in home (good infinity, bad infinity) is sand, a key ingredient in the production of concrete, which the UAE. imports to fuel its urban development, and which Vietnam extracts and exports from its waters with scant regulations. In Saigon, the artist explains, the dredging of sand from the river has caused houses to collapse due to the destabilisation of their foundations. ‘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 complexes,’ Lêna told Devana Senanayake for Femme Art Review. ‘There’s a full circle of construction and destruction going on here.’

Lêna observes these cyclical dynamics with a resolute ambiguity in her work, as if to make space to comprehend the magnitude of their transformative effects at every scale, for better or worse—such that a tree planted in Vietnam by the country’s colonisers might become rooted to the country itself, in keeping with the nature of organic time. Recently, the artist has been listening to the book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by mycologist Merlin Sheldrake. The book describes the merging of algae and fungi to create lichens, ‘which enabled the rootless ancestors of all our plants to emerge from water’, as summarised by Richard Kerridge for The Guardian. ‘I think this is how life is,’ says Bùi. Paraphrasing Sheldrake, ‘when you put helium together with oxygen, you get water: something completely different from the parts’ she says. ‘I’m always looking for different ways to look at how things connect and combine from different angles.’

Lêna Bùi. Chainsaw marks no.3. 2018. Pencil rubbings on tracing paper. 88 x 143 cm.

– Stephanie Bailey is Ocula Editor-in-Chief, a contributing editor to ART PAPERS and LEAP, and the current curator of the Conversations at Art Basel Hong Kong.

Lêna Bùi was in-residence at Delfina Foundation in winter 2024, supported by Delfina Foundation’s Network of Asia-Pacific Patrons