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On Creating Art With the Water From Saigon's Polluted Canals

A new art exhibition in Saigon looks at the relationship between humans and nature, as well as the importance of clean water in daily life.

Sto Len, a New York-based artist, premiers his exhibit Water Is Life at Vin Gallery in Thao Dien tonight. The artwork will be featured until January 9, 2018. The works were created on some of Saigon’s most polluted waterways through a process known in Japanese as suminagashi, or "floating ink".

"I started using this process around 2011 and I just got obsessed with this idea of collaborating with nature and painting on water," Sto tells Saigoneer. "Essentially you don’t have total control, and it made a lot of sense for me as an artist who improvises a lot to work in this manner.”

Sto first used this technique for his art in New York City. "It’s been amazing to get out of my studio, get on a boat and get out into the real world and go to places that people don’t usually go. I specifically tried to find the most polluted water in any given place because that actually has the most material to paint on," he explains.

The Newtown Creek, which forms part of the border between the New York boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn and is considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States, served as a great canvas for Sto.

"It’s essentially dirt on paper, but I usually try to make them into patterns so they sort of look like marble," he says of the end result. "They look like overhead maps."

An example of Sto's work. Image provided by the artist.

The artist has been based in Saigon for the last month, and he found ample inspiration in the city’s many dirty canals, most notably in Go Vap District and District 2’s Thu Thiem area.

"Upon arriving I just started visiting all of the black canals," Sto says. "It’s been amazing to go to these place that I feel like everyone sort of knows about…and I think it’s important to go see it in person and to be a part of that environment and to create work there that’s in one way making something beautiful out of something tragic, and in another way giving it visibility," he elaborates. "That’s important to me."

Sto at work on a canal in Thu Thiem. Image provided by the artist.

Sto’s ultimate goal is to create a conversation regarding the importance of clean water to life, hence the exhibition’s title. “Maybe, in a way, [it] can start a dialogue about what we can do, or that it’s actually not OK to continually pollute and litter…we are 70% water…so if we treated our body like the earth, we would be killing ourselves,” he shares. “It’s a very urgent, necessary thing to think about now before it’s too late.”

The Vietnamese version of the title, Nuoc La Su Song, plays on the duality of the word nước, which can also mean country. "I like the double-meaning of that as well, it’s like water is life, country is life, so if you’re patriotic about your country, you should be patriotic about cleaning the water. If you care you care about where you live, you should care about the water and the trash," Sto explains.

Sto pulling an artwork from a polluted canal in Saigon. Photo provided by the artist.

A thematic focal point of the exhibition will be an altar that Sto designed that centers on a boat. "I'm going to set up an altar for a funeral for the water...when I went to these places it felt like the water was dying. I saw plenty of dead fish, and it affected in the same way that it would feel if I saw a person dying."

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