The "Work of Art" Exit Interview: Trong Nguyen

The "Work of Art" Exit Interview: Trong Nguyen

Trong Nguyen — who, as you might remember from our recap of the first episode, was one of ARTINFO's favorites — got eliminated inthe second episode of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. ARTINFOchatted with Trong about how artists aren't always in their 20s, how the name of the show is cringe-inducing, and how he felt critic JerrySaltz's behavior is out of line.

Your piece for the second challenge featured televisions on which you painted, “I hate reality TV” and “It’s so fake.” Do you feel animosity toward reality programming?

The piece itself was about my ambivalence and what I thought was everyone else's ambivalence about doing the show. I thought that any serious artist,  when they’re talking about making a reality show about art, has to have subversive reasons for doing the show. Those could be minor or they could be great, but the artists definitely second-guess themselves, and they definitely possess this ambivalence.

And you were expressing that with the televisions?

So, for that piece I set it up in a way that the placement of the televisions basically mimicked the positioning of the judges in relation to the artists. If you look at the TVs, the three TV sets that are sitting on the bench look very similar to where the judges stand, and then the lone artist stands in front of them. A lot of the remarks that were made on the television sets themselves I think end up becoming psychological remarks that relate to the judges and relate back to the artists — they're just things that are going through all of our minds, and I felt like whether the judges liked it or not, the truth kind of hurts sometimes.

Did you feel like any of the judges’ criticisms were helpful? Will any of their comments affect how you make work going forward?

For some reason I feel like the judges are so defensive that they end up ignoring what you have to say, which I feel is so unconstructive.... A lot of these people, they probably are public speakers. I mean, someone like Jerry Saltz has been a lecturer and visiting professor, and his behavior on the show would not be tolerated. It just didn’t feel true, and I feel like my critique in this particular episode was early on, so after I had my critique I kind of just blocked everything else out. I think they actually dote on certain works and certain people on the show for whatever reason, and it hasn’t felt constructive to me.

Do you think that the promise implied by the title of the show, that it will produce the “next great artist,” is one that will be fulfilled? Do you think the judges expect the show to produce a “great artist”?

When we auditioned for the show, I think it was temporarily called Untitled Art Project, or something like that, and I think it was only after shooting that they announced the actual title of the show. I think we all moaned when that happened. We thought, "What an odd thing to call a show." I want to say stupid, but I’ll stick with odd because its just like there’s no way you can call somebody "the next great artist." First of all it belittles the great artists that are out there. Judith [Braun] was saying, "Why can’t we call it another great artist?" It’s such an odd choice because, again, art is its own creature; it doesn’t go by the same rules that everything else does. An art career is such a long thing — you have emerging artists out there who are still in their 50s, it’s not like any other profession.

Yes, it’s hilarious how everyone keeps dwelling on the fact that Judith is supposedly so old, and she isn't really. 

It’s so silly because it’s such a particular profession and one of the issues I had coming into the show and seeing who was there was that I just felt like, okay, there are all these young artists on the show who just finished their undergraduate degrees and, in a way, you feel very protective of them because you went through that yourself. At that age, no matter how talented you are, you just haven’t experienced life enough to really make art that has substance to it. I think that's something that is sorely lacking in the critiques so far, whether it be the fault of the producers or the critics. That's just something that has not been taken into consideration at all from what I see.

Yes, the median age is pretty infantile. 

Again, these artists are so young, and it’s like it’s so easy to ruin your career in the first place. So that was one of my main things I said to myself: "There’s no way this is going to affect my career negatively." And for these younger artists, I feel like they’re potentially putting themselves in a dangerous predicament, and so you kind of feel for them. Because this is just not like any other profession, it’s not like you finish med school or you finish dental school and you can go immediately into your practice. Art just takes a long time and there’s no way of speeding it up.

Do you think that the work you were producing for the show was significantly different from the work you produce generally? I saw some of your pieces on Governors Island recently and they seemed totally dissimilar.

On the show, you’re in a competition and you have such a limited amount of time — I think the first challenge was just a day and then the second challenge was a day and a half — so you have a different strategy, you have a different purpose, you have different intentions, and the work itself has different intentions because you are trying to please a certain set of judges who have their own backgrounds. That’s who you’re catering to, whereas in real life I think when you’re making work you’re not really catering to anyone, you’re just making what you normally would make.

But then what is your interest in reality television? You even made a piece some years ago that was a staged reenactment of the original "Dating Game" show. Is there something that interests you, conceptually, about reality programming?

The piece you are referring to is "All You Need Is Love," and in that work, it was a real-time dating game taking in place in two spaces with real contestants, where we deliberately tried to miscommunicate in as many ways as possible to eventually still make a love connection between two people. Reality television for artists I think is just another medium. Art itself is about communicating ideas and to me it's not effective unless it does that, so the wider the audience your work can reach the more effective it is. So a number of pieces I’m working on there is this element of audience interaction.

Did you have any good experiences on the show? You’ve talked about it as if your time on the program was entirely unconstructive. Did you enjoy yourself at all? Did you make any friends?

I was rooming with three of the guys and I’m convinced I would have gone completely crazy if even one of them were not there. We had such a really great relationship. We were of course filming all the time and we basically outlasted the film crews. We had maybe like three hours out of the night when we weren’t being filmed, and the film crew was always waiting for us to go to sleep, and we would never go to sleep. But we had a great time being each others' psychiatrists on the show. It really helped after being in the studio all day to just come home and process everything. Even with such varied backgrounds we all kind of came together in some way where we were really able to communicate and have a dialogue with one another that felt rich.

So it wasn’t all bad.

Everything was good, I mean, even the bad critiques ultimately. I’m not taking any of it negatively at all. I think it was a really good experience — I really enjoyed it, I made some really great friends on it, and ultimately the most important thing for me is to have had an experience. I know there are a lot of other artists and professionals and colleagues in the art world talking the show down and stuff, but if someone asked you to do the show, would you do it? It’s that kind of thing. Well, you have this great opportunity to experience this, why wouldn’t you do it? It’s the difference between living an active life and living a passive life. So I always go for the route of active.