Vietnam in Venice: PERSONAL STRUCTURE 2017
The Venice Biennale is where art and nations meet to shout out how they always need, but sometimes dislike, each other. For the first exhibition of Vietnamese artists presented in the Venice Biennale as a group, instead of the usual route of accessing Venice via a national pavilion, they appear to have found an excellent platform the name of which cannot be more fitting – Personal Structures.
For Ho Chi Minh City-based Nguyen Trung (b. 1940), Do Hoang Tuong (b. 1960), Nguyen Son (b. 1974); and Hanoi-based Tulip Duong (b. 1959), and Ly Tran Quynh Giang (b. 1978), their works presented are personal forms - as individualistic expressions, and as testimony to their personal trajectories.
Yet their art practice paths crossed, within the common context, image and stylistic conventions, and art education (except for Tulip Duong, a mathematician turned self-taught artist) of the Vietnamese art world. Nguyen Trung, for instance, has been a leading figure first in the Southern Vietnamese art scene, and nationally after Reunification (1976). Nguyen Trung’s personal fondness for the art of Pierre Soulages, Antoni Tapies, Zao Wou Ki, and Cy Twombly is heard echoed in younger artists such as Do Hoang Tuong. Nguyen Trung singled out readings in philosophy and art which have inspired him significantly in the writings of Michel Ragon, Henri Bergson, Rabindranath Tagore and the 17th century Shitao, whose aesthetic theory pointed the way towards abstraction for the artist.
What struck me most, in the course of conversations with the five artists in the preparation of this essay, is the confidence and articulation, on the significance within their personal trajectories, and what the moment of the realisation of the works in Venice further represented, within a larger series or direction.[i]
The six works of the five artists (Nguyen Trung has two works) thus serve as a ‘Vietnam Pavilion’, but within a zone not of national representation, but of concrete personal structures and moments, and yet not without abundant clues to help audience navigate in-roads into the world of Vietnamese art. If art and nation had to coincide, the Vietnamese group within Personal Structures offers a refreshing perspective.
In the explanatory notes to the Personal Structures platform, it is stated that the platform subscribes neither to a teleological, linear, nor ideological notion of history and art development. In eliminating such structuring frames of history and art, Personal Structures becomes an open forum for artists and art works to interface.
We should consider, on the other hand, that the curious national flag waving culture of the Venice Biennale, which often exudes an uneasy tension with the reverence for diversity and individuality in contemporary art practices, points to the reality that only one extraordinary international exposition of art will perpetually be that pedestal where nations would parade. Such is Venice Biennale’s special niche in the art world. This status will not be defied even as the Biennale itself experimented with multiple initiatives to self-critique, lighten, or even dissolve the national representation and competition within the biennale.
The Vietnam artist group is lightly national, and the works and contexts quickly point the audience to the diversity within Vietnamese contemporary art practices. The artists have expressed the moment of the works within key turning points of their practices, as in “abstract” for Nguyen Trung, “unsettling” for Do Hoang Tuong, “conceptual” for Nguyen Son, “freedom” for Tulip Duong, but for Ly Tran Quynh Giang, that one word is uttered in silence. I realized in the course of our discussions that these words have very specific meanings in the context of the artists’ practices, and by extension, Vietnam.
The full title of Personal Structures is Personal Structures: Time, Space, Existence, the explication on which was developed in the essay “Time. Space. Existence” by Peter Lodermeyer.[ii] The three terms were subsequently the respective themes of three seminars organised under the same Personal Structures project.
In the Vietnamese artists’ engagement with the Venice Biennale and in connection with Personal Structures, time is a very central concern. For Nguyen Trung, while an adherence to immediacy characterizes figurative works, time relays through distances, as in “images from the past” which take a great length of time in gestation, in abstract works. Lodermeyer relates Heidegger’s “time is Dasein… Dasein always is in the manner of its possible temporal being… Dasein is its past, it is its possibility in running ahead to this past.”[iii] These lines may also be invoked to explain Nguyen Trung’s thoughts and painting practices. Indeed, as expounded by Lodermeyer, time as duration is understood as a temporality that is subjective, and following apprehension and movement that is not frozen in a moment or an order of sequence.
In Nguyen Trung’s MA 1 (2015, acrylic on canvas), the title refers to the images that look like the alphabets M and A, while a variety of brush and gestural strokes, and blocks, lines and drips point to a temporality of being. To locate Nguyen Trung’s MA 1 in the broader context of his oeuvre, time as a theme is key. In his earlier figurative works, prominently the women series, the present time is anchored in the figurative, or what Nguyen Trung states as the “instantaneous”, while the painterly and compositional, or formal elements, could point towards his life-long project of abstract works, understood in their gestation over longue durée.
The notion of time may also refer to art historical time. The group of Vietnamese artists who are based separately in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, do come from different art historical contexts given the earlier separation of the country. The cross references of the artists in this exhibition points to the prominent role of Nguyen Trung as a mentor, to a geography much larger than Ho Chi Minh City, even as the art history of the south is being written.[iv] Nguyen Trung was a founding member of the Young Artists Association, a vanguard art group in Saigon established in 1966 and remained active until the momentous political transformations in 1975.
Nguyen Trung’s sculptures are predicated on found objects. Some of these objects are found directly in his immediate environ as in the artist’s home and studio, such as an easel, a lamp, a vacuum, which have been enlisted to become a part of his art “when painting is not enough”, noted Nguyen Trung. As in The Light (2016, lamp, stretched canvas, acrylic), the artist does not purposefully looks for objects for incorporation into his works, but rather these objects are there and have been under consideration, so to speak, for the longest time as the artist traverses through a temporality of time but materially and geographically restrained within the discipline of the studio and vicinity. These works form a continuum to the paintings, framed within the same temporality of being. They also address Personal Structures’ interest in the issue of “space-relatedness”. In Nguyen Trung, space is the studio space as both physically bounded and aesthetically unbounded.
A different concern for time is seen in Nguyen Son’s Nostalgia (2017, epoxy, acrylic, ink, aluminum and steel). The six art objects are one work, but each is also a stand-alone piece, like durations and moments. This condition may be explained by Nguyen Son’s conception of time. “The invisible hand,” accordingly to the artist, “represents time”. The large metal spoon was a standard scoop used all over northern Vietnam to serve food. It represents an architype, as they were exactly the same spoons used in every meal and in every household. The invisible hand and the metal spoon are universal, a natural and cultural commonality, which collectively represents the omnipresence of time as a frame within which human actions and emotions took place.
When evoked through memories and images, time has a fluid physical presence in a sequence that is both about human sentiments as well as events that occurred, as they are imprinted in memory. The six sculptural elements capture events that happened within a day during Nguyen Son’s youth, when the family went on an outing, and at one point when the artist happened to have been left alone by himself and the young boy was frightened. The appearance of his mother gave him reassurance. A family photograph was also captured by the Cuban artist Vidal Hernandez who was also present. This photo forms the basis of the current image digitally reconfigured for the individual sculptural elements. Episodes here are sequence within a day, and yet each moment is a standalone, triggering a certain emotion in the larger topography of temporality.
Nguyen Son’s background in professional visualization in film production helps explain some cinematic characteristics in Nostalgia. Nostalgia, on the other hand, falls within a “conceptual” line of work as Nguyen Son has it, extending from the earlier series comprising Duchamp’s Fountain image. Duchamp’s Fountain was superimposed with other icons including a portrait of Lenin, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, etc., as the artist’s reflections on historical imagery and coincidences in times, such as the same year of the first exhibition of Duchamp’s Fountain, and the formation of the Soviet Russia, following the abdication of the Crown. They both happened in 1917. The coincidence of such historical moments is significant to Vietnam given its communist background, and its art given the inspiration of avant-garde practices.
In the Venice exhibition, the two works with human figures, Do Hoang Tuong’s Black Party (2016, acrylic and oil on canvas) and Ly Tran Quynh Giang’s Where They Turn To (2016, carved wood) speak of human condition with psychological intensity. As stated earlier, the one word for Do Hoang Tuong is “unsettling”, whereas for Ly Tran Quynh Giang, it is a silent sound.
Do Hoang Tuong enrolled in the art college in the year of Reunification (1976). His frequent informal exchanges with Nguyen Trung continued as he became an art teacher and taught anatomy during 1984 to 1991. Also an accomplished illustrator, Do Hoang Tuong returned to figurative works in 2004, after a period of non-figurative and non-representational works done over one decade. The S/he series in 2004 marked the beginning of new figurative work. In the subsequent 12 Women series, the artist painted women in bodily contortions which would have been impossible in physiological term. As an anatomy lecturer, Do Hoang Tuong knew exactly the physiological boundaries that he wanted to subtly trespassed, so as to formulate a commentary on the status of women, a suffrage seemingly natural but physically torturous.
Sensitive to events happening around the world, Do Hoang Tuong’s works are about a haunting “unsettling” human or social condition. The artist moves from gender concerns to current affairs, capturing the unsettling and disturbing in the world of politics. The Black Party shows a concluding moment of a party, indicated by the near empty wine glass serving as a time marker, with a photo line-up formation group image of six suit cladding men and one naked woman. The blurring of the facial features along with circumvention by surrounding forms highlight probable interpersonal tensions in the group. The work is unsettling and is open to individual viewer’s reading of any narrative. The artist also painted another work entitled The President during this late 2016 period. Do Hoang Tuong states the work as commentary on the unsettling affairs around the world but stops short at specific matters.
While Do Hoang Tuong’s Black Party is about human consciousness and condition, specifically gender and political situations and possibly alluding to a prevailing unsettling situation in the world, Ly Tran Quynh Giang’s Where They Turn To comprises impossible anatomy, is intensified by the natural form and texture of the Dunn blocks.
Since graduation from the Hanoi Fine Arts University in 2002, Ly Tran Quynh Giang has been creating expressionistic works depicting existential conditions shared by humans and the Natural world alike. The paintings and wood blocks often portray humans along with trees and fishes. As the artist puts it, “it is not about the distinction between human and fish and the trees, but their conjoining in a work is called for because of their shared situation”. For the human figure, apart from the physiological features of male and female, there is no gender differentiation. Ly Tran Quynh Giang’s world is also one of continuous erasures of socially and culturally constructed distinctions within the greater ecology.
The artist’s ecological and transgender worldview is repeatedly echoed in her works. In Where They Turn To, human faces are set within natural forms of tree trunks with arms stretched to torturous lengths as these were the directions of hope. This world depicted by Ly Tran Quynh Giang, however, does not appear to be a joyful one. There is a deep sense of melancholy in Ly Tran Quynh Giang’s works.
Fluent in Russian, the artist’s favourite literary works are by Russia authors such as Aleksey Tolstoy during the 1932 to 1945 period. “A period of social and political chaos,” reflects the artist, “is when great literature is written”. Ly Tran Quynh Giang’s work is existentialist, veering towards the darker, disheartening predicament of life. Art is a quiet solace. Existence to the artist is further felt in the larger ecology of living beings. Ly Tran Quynh Giang’s work may not be about advocacy, but a reflective moment of being.
Tulip Duong’s career has the unusual combination of mathematician, educator, marketing analyst, and artist. When, however, the oeuvre of her artwork is looked at holistically, the above combination makes sense. In the course of our conversation I jokingly said that at the back of each of Tulip Duong’s canvas there is a mathematical formula written there. The artist’s project is characterized by turning mathematics to artistic strategies, marketing into communication, and art into a realm of limitless possibilities. Artistic articulation to Tulip Duong is a sheer pleasure. Not hedonism, but the pleasure of freedom as each work launches new possibilities, and into terra incognita.
In OCDM (2016, lacquer on wood, cremones), “OC” refers to open/close; “DM” is the Vietnamese version. In Tulip Duong’s earlier landscape paintings, the sceneries were always framed, as if they always had to be looked through a window, much like the extensive use of framing in Akira Kurosawa’s films, a constant reminder that the visual field was there only because there was a viewer. For Tulip Duong, this was always the viewer had the desire to leave an enclosure to be out there in the landscape.
This notion of viewer within enclosure is further developed in the current series utilizing the cremone bolts (for securing doors and windows). The cremone is a mechanism that involves a knob to be twisted, so as to extend or contract the rod to lock or open the door. It simulates the opening of the window or door. Like in many of Do Hoang Tuong’s women themed work, it is about feminism. The cremone is a reminder to be free, to advance into the landscape, by the symbolic turning of the knob. In all Tulip Duong’s cremone works, the audience are invited to physically turn the knob.
Tulip Duong is highly methodical in her approach to art making. The artist looks at a large pool of materials, resources, thematics, and methodology, before selecting a key theme for a new series, and working through the many artworks to reinforce the theme from various angles. In Tulip Duong’s illustrious career, art came as an enlightenment on the limitless possibility of freedom. The artist’s switch from mathematics and education to management came just shortly after Doi Moi (1986), with the national move towards market economy. Tulip Duong offered to teach marketing in the reconstituted University of Commerce, in gearing up the management support for the open economy.
Tulip Duong’s art practice was given a strong boost when the Museum of Ethnography in Hanoi organised her first solo exhibition in 2005. The artist’s passion for art in its sheer creativity and openness, was consolidated through a visit of museums and collections in Europe in 2013, when she experienced not only many works she knew heretofore from reproductions, but also site-specific works, the context of the museums and collections, from the architecture to the museum photographs of Thomas Struth. Tulip Duong proclaimed, “there is no limit for everything in art!”
In my conversations with the five Vietnamese artists, each of them invoked at some point of our discussion the term “Oriental” or “Asian”. I came to the realisation that there is still much to be understood about the context of Vietnam, in the six works designated for Venice and also in the numerous other works we looked at. While there is every recognition of multiple sources of inspirations and references in the art practice and the works of these artists, I felt that the term “Oriental” or “Asian” served as a reminder on the deeply felt cultural differences and the lived experience of Vietnam in comparison with other biographies, aesthetics and expressions in talking about art in a global context. I regard the term as a marker of a contingency of difference, as we explore more into the world of contemporary art in Vietnam. I return to the point about a national pavilion as methodology.
[i] Interviews with Nguyen Son on 3 March, Nguyen Trung on 4 March, Do Hoang Tuong on 4 March, Ly Tran Quynh Giang on 10 March, and Tulip Duong on 11 March, 2017.
[ii] Essay 2009, Personal Structures, www.personalstructures.org, accessed 1 March 2017.
[iii] Essay 2009, section II, Ibid.
[iv] For instance the extensive documentation in Uyen Huy, The Urban Fine-Arts in Sai Gon – Gia Dinh 1900-1975, published in 2014.