The artist returns with his family to their home inHanoiand a wistful melancholy stays with him. He decides to start painting a new series of canvasses that will encapsulate the memory landscapes of his childhood
Like the Bangladeshi driver, he wants to capture and hold memories.
As a father he knows he is doing this so that the son, as he grows to adulthood, may have empathy for what molded the father’s soul.
He decides to paint twelve, long landscapes of the past, each one measuring 2.4meters by 0.5 meters. Each canvas, he knows, will be a based on a different memory of his childhood home. Each will symbolically feature the artist at various ages in the future. Many will pose societal comments. Some will be simple recollections. Most will delve deeply into the artist’s inner being.
He spends time looking at old Vietnamese movies to retrieve images of rural landscapes and communities in a recent past when time and change ran slower
He decides that one canvas will be concluded before another is investigated; that he will give each a month to gestate and be born complete before he commences another.
Each canvas has a dark background, as unfathomable as the subconscious, upon which memory will emerge and float or be re-enveloped in its depths. As he paints he knows that he will become intensely reflective and that he will have to identify between actual memories and old dreams that will attempt to undermine or conflict them
His landscapes, like those of Dali, are smitten by the persistence of memory.
He knows that much of his earlier work the artist has been an observer of social issues. Now he decides he has to be an insider-a key player, a man directly affected.
The first canvas he starts is of a memory of night in the countryside of his childhood.
Two eyes peer from a face in a body of clear water-or is it a rent into the subconscious? They are those of the artist as he begins the process of searching his mind for mementos of the past. Perforated limestone rocks and outcrops that punctuated his childhood and adolescent countryside grow luminous tussocks of feathered grass. Myriad fireflies flash the velvet night while nine representations of the artist attempt to hold and wonder at their ephemeral magic.
It is a good time to reflect on the circles, rectangles and triangles that are essential components of the canvasses.
I am reminded of a line by the poet Rimbaud: ‘dream flowers tinkle, flash and flare’
Just as I was writing this in the home village of my childhood and where, like Tuan Anh, I was engaged in happy nostalgia mixed with of regret and frustration caused to memory by the ravages of modernity , a black storm covered the ground with a carpet of pea sized hail stones. I did just as I used to do when I caught sight of fireflies in the bushes of another part of the world that became home for many years, I ran to scoop them up in my hands. Instinctively I craved to feel their cold smoothness; to taste and dissolve them in my mouth for moments of déjà vu; to store a pile in the freezer to turn into pebbly icecream that revitalized more memories, not all of them happy!
A river of memory flows across the bottom of the canvas which we read from right to left. An empty boat is mired on the bank and represents the present from which the artist has momentarily escaped. We see the artist as a dreaming head balancing on an old bike negotiating a slippery path that is returning him to his roots. Symbolically the bicycle is the artist’s father who guided and supported him through his early life journey. On the far side is a heron keeping careful watch and wait. This bird has long been a recurring metaphor in the artist’s paintings and is one that Vietnamese instantly recognize. It’s a potent symbol of a mother’s sacrifice and also a central lullaby softly sung to them by their mothers as she rocks them to sleep.
Circlular shape seductively dominate.