KVT visits Hoa Binh and is inspired.
Today I write about a grand venture that should be widely supported……..If you want a really good art experience combined with a 2 and a half hour trip into the countryside where the mountains start to rise majestically from the flatlands, then head to the pretty little provincial city of Hoa Binh that spreads itself along the Banks of the Da river.
About 4 kilometers out from the town center, along the road to Mai Chau and Son La. you turn into a really pretty and truly rural little road and head along it for a few minutes until you reach the two hectare site of The Muong Cultural Space Museum
It’s a great initiative to preserve and present Muong culture to a wide audience and there’s even a stilt house that, if you ask about and isn’t being used by the artist owner or artists in residence, is available for visitor accommodation in what must be one of the most peaceful settings in the north of Vietnam…check the website.
Established by artist Vu Duc Hieu, who was born in Hoa Binh, the park is on a bit of a roll with tourists calling in on day trips from Hanoi for meals and Muong cultural exhibitions, and ditto with tourists on a stop-over from trips to My Chau and places further up the road to Dien Bien Phu. But not enough to disrupt the overall feeling of tranquility that drapes itself over this treed and bamboo-groved, water-tinkling oasis with its discrete and inviting mountain glimpses.
What I went for was the sculpture…..and was I disappointed? NO WAY!
After a few bowls of mountain tea I started by visiting the small art gallery that occupies the top floor of a stilt house with its undercroft tea house and Muong artifact store (no hard sell though – the Muong staff are welcoming but unobtrusive). And I became excited straight away because works by a lot of my favorite artists were on show, and in particular a living fossil Muong stilt house by Vuong Van Thao.
and an amazing still life by Vu Duc Trung.
The entrance fee to the park (used for maintenance and salaries) is a very cheap – 30,000VND and you’d have to be a cheapskate of the nastiest kind to take offence at it (mind you, I’ve come across more than a few of these western mealy minds during my time in Hanoi).
The expansive and well planned sculpture park is very, very ‘that su tuyet voi’ and full of really engaging pieces that meld into the trees and rocks and undulating slopes. Thus far it contains about 20 sculptural works that are thematically related to the particular countryside and /or Muong setting. Signage is in Vietnamese but a polite and non-pushy Muong guide can sometimes give an English translation.
First you pass through the bamboo entrance gate by Vu Quang Sang which refers to old city or village entrance arches (and if you’ve ever wandered narrow mountain paths in remote areas you’ll have come across similar structures delineating small villages).
Following a path of smooth paving rocks that meander the park like a mountain stream, you come across Vuong Van Thao’s ‘Symphony’. This installation of sound speakers is a pertinent comment on the unavoidable modernisation of Muong music making. Like Thao’s fossils it could be a lament for the loss of a culture as it gets gobbled up, digested and then regurgitated in a globalized and generic form.
Dao Chau Hai’s large water wheel is a mirror image of a series in a stream at the park entrance. This one is at the head of a rock paved, spiral, dry steam bed and is called ‘Water,Time is Going By’ and could an environmental statement about rivers that are forced to stop flowing; about cultures that cease to be; about extinctions.
I really love Pham Thai Binh’s work inspired by a Muong folk tale about the little pigs who climbed a ladder in order to give a law suit to the highest sky god….a bit like today’s humans not taking control of their own responsibilities towards their environment. It stands like an exclamation mark and is beautifully relevant!
‘Lua’ by Tran Duc Sy, is, I think (blame my poor Vietnamese ability) an agricultural implement eroded by time and is like a section of a relief map showing contours of an arid, eroded landscape. To me it was also reminiscent of a wooden xylophone, part of its song permanently recorded. Covered by glass it would make a functional, very discussable, and very beautiful table.
The piece de resistance for a lot of viewers would be Ha Tri Hieu’s rice terraces, deeply covered in golden rice husks with the wooden bowl part of a water powered rice husking device stood upright, like a gilded god, as the main feature. It overlooks a formal and, to my mind, symbolic pool. The whole marvellous thing is called ‘The Source of Life’ and begs lots of discussion. The wooden sculpture could stand alone and still be awesome. A fabulous construction.
Following the meandering path you come across Nguyen Ngoc Dan’s ‘Stillness and Movement’ which he indicates is about the instability of human behaviour. The symbols are quite powerful. The lingham and gravestone (life and death) as road signposts. The rock (or is it a dammed stream) balanced precariously. The empty, battered pail on a bed of rocks speaks bucketfulls! As a whole it could be read as a damning comment on the erosion and forced demise of a culture, or of the many ethnic cultures that have been forcibly relocated to places that are alien to their spiritual and material well being.
An architectural wooden maze called ‘Time Has Gone By’ by Nguyen Huy Tinh could be a visual mapping of the options and directions that people take as they negotiate their lives. The end result is a complicated 3D structure of intersecting, dead end, fallen, propped up, forced through decision makings that make you wonder how we ever achieve a worthwhile end result. Another stunning concept.
The same artist then decides to play with reality and gives us ‘Stone Lotus’ which I see as a delightful bit of whimsey but could also be a comment on how we like to duplicate or even corrupt nature so that the unreal is seen as more desirable than the real…..the very surreal way we manipulate truth and honesty.
Luong Van Trinh decided to build a mountain peak and then prop it up. To me it’s a great statement about the wide-spread mountainside clearing of rain forests throughout the north so that corn can be cultivated in a big way. You look at the once green rivers that turn brown after rain as mountain slopes erode into them and wonder how soon it will be until just bare rock is left on what were once grand and jungled ranges.
I enjoyed seeing Tran Trong Tri’s concept removed from a gallery, where I last saw it and installed where it really tells its story. His ‘Last Favor For Nature’ rests quite comfortably, eloquently and dangerously in this landscape.
Next to this is Tri’s ‘Desire to Return’ where he has laid out a path of stones on the ground and connected them with strips of steel (he always fuses disparate mediums so very well). This piece fits my own desire to return and stay a few days.
Another stand-out piece because of its monumental look is Luong Van Viet’s ‘Stabilize’ which was inspired by pillars in a Muong stilt house…perhaps it’s about the almost spiritual relationship between the cut and prepared wood being returned to be firmly re- rooted in the ground to form the structure that stabilizes the existence of a family and a culture. Is it also a monument to what once was and may never be again?
Doan Huu Nga takes 3 burned pieces of wood (death) and suspends them with red wires (blood) to green trees (life) and effectively calls it ‘The Push and Pull Between Life and Death’ which I guess is where nature is precariously suspended throughout the world. For me it’s a very effective indictment about large scale land clearing. It has a sad resonance.
Everyone will love Pham Van Tuan’s ‘Journey’ that depicts a mob of water buffalo descending a slope. My interpretation goes thus: once endemic to rural areas in Vietnam, these animals are being replaced by machines and in the delta lands are no longer normal parts of country landscapes. In the mountains they are also slowly declining and perhaps sooner than I like to imagine, my favorite sight of kids riding buffaloes home from grazing through evening dusk will become a romanticised memory. Like Tuan’s ghostly beasts!!!
Keeping to an animal theme as you follow the undulating path, you come across Nguyen Tuan Khoi’s ‘Salamander’ a playful construction of wood, rock and steel. Allegorically we could also be looking at fire as it leaps and prowls and devours whole mountainsides in tinder dry times and changes its complexion. A very arresting piece.
Lastly, of all the sculptures that my camera recorded in focus, there were Nguyen Ngoc Lam’s ‘Muong Trees’, skeletal representations of these mountain people’s houses. Very fragile and almost as ephemeral as this cultural group may become in a globalized world…where they may only be remembered in museums and as curious museum pieces. The husk preserved but the soul withered away.
The concept of the park and the museum is grand and the realization is even grander. It’s well worth a visit…and even better, a holiday…AND IT’S AS EASY AS PIE TO GET TO ONCE YOU’VE NEGOTIATED A PATH THROUGH BURGEONING, GREATER HANOI.
Also…unlike other art exhibitions, this one will be stable and ongoing for a long time.
As usual, I hope my interpretations of the works aren’t too far away from the artists’ intent.
|Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.|