(Vietnamese version available – Bản tiếng Việt đã được cập nhật)
KVT offers a visual essay on fossils and bums
Some people in the know may suggest that I shouldn’t be opinion-ing about the Vuong Thao Exhibition at Bookworm Too in Nghi Tam Village but as I’m a huge fan of the artist I guess I’ll have to ignore any assertions they may make and have some writing fun!
Thao has had a few small exhibitions in the art spaces of the Bookworm as it has moved around the city when rent increases forced it to bundle up its book collection and move on. When he heard that the bookshop was going to take a risk and open a second branch in Nghi Tam village in a hidden away French Style Villa, he volunteered to celebrate the experiment by offering to have an exhibition there.
Bookworm Too handed over the bookshop display area for display and gave him the entire second floor to change into a one off gallery for a month.
When the exhibition opened on October 12, the contents were as much a delightful surprise to the Bookworm as they were to the public who have been dropping in to query prices. It is an exhibition that is a delightful mini retrospective of Thao’s work since 1998 and introduces a very interesting divergence in his living fossil concept
Thao is one of Hanoi’s more successful artists. A couple of years ago he was selected as one of the South East Asia region’s top ten artists and was represented in Singapore by his 64 living fossil sculptures of the Old Quarter all of which were subsequently bought by The Singapore Art Museum.
Retrospectively a viewer can see a fossilized piece of the Long Bien bridge…..the rest of which is scattered throughout the world.
Most fossils are displayed on under lit light boxes that make them look sensational in the dark
There’s a light pole that is a miniature of those used in the Old Quarter series
A Really collectable, fossilized round water tower still Standing at the convergence of Hang Dao, Quan Thanh, Phan Dinh Phung and Hang Than streets
And one of the façade of St Joseph’s cathedral from an exhibition this year at The Korean Cultural Center
It is the new experimental work which made me excited. And even though my images aren’t too great, I think you’ll get the idea. This fossil series takes us away from the fossilized representations of a disappearing present and puts us into a cerebral space. Those expecting the march of the fossils to continue adinfinitum could be a trifle perturbed by the new approach.
In a new four piece skull series Thao has four, normal sized skulls in four corners of a room. One is called Giao Dieo and is wrapped in words from the epic poem Kieu with words in Han Nom and the Quoc Ngu scripts. It is pointing out that too often basic theories are approved as doctrines without proof and people who follow the theory unquestioningly believe it to be the absolute truth (this concept could be extrapolated to a host of worldwide religious, political, even economic, theories).
Opposite this skull is another wrapped in Dong Ho prints and it seems to be commenting on the conformist ideas with which many cultures (also read religions etc) indoctrinate their followers, citizens etc to the detriment of a free thinking, worldly viewpoints. The skull’s mouth is a loudspeaker…perhaps pointing out that a person solely exposed to a particular viewpoint will only be able (or allowed) to espouse that train of imparted knowledge.
Opposed to the conservatively imprinted skulls are two that represent an open, individual intellectual development. One is wrapped in rose printed paper. The mouth is covered by a red butterfly in place of the loudspeaker and if I were to take on board the common and earthy symbolism of the butterfly representing the vagina then I may be tempted to read in some feminist overwhelming of a patriarchal cultural code or a dogmatic political one.
The other skull is fluttered by green butterflies though the mouth is still fluttered by a red one that could be suggesting its ephemeral life cycle. I wonder if the skull represents the impossible ideal of unhindered intellectual freedom….perhaps purely impossible just about anywhere.
In another room is a three piece series that is a complete departure and one that perplexed a Vietnamese reviewer the most. The viewer is confronted by a large mortar, or bomb casing, enclosed in composite. The projectile is engraved with the names of places in the world where deadly conflicts are taking place.
Separated from the deadly object are a large fossilized dining knife and an equally large fork. These, of course, offer a powerful comment on how the well off and well removed, are so often indifferent to the plight of those in war zones, that is until their own consumption is threatened…in which case they may even escalate the outrages so as to ensure selfish survival of their preferred lifestyles. Then, too, Thao’s comment could be read that the appetites of the first worlders is sustained by their deliberate stealing of resources (particularly food and land) from the have nots.
Before Thao’s venture into attempting to preserve remnants of a city under pressure of willy-nilly change (his village gates preserved in amber composite blocks at L’Espace last year were a wonder to behold.), he was famous for his ‘Bum’ paintings on Do paper that were wildly successful with collectors and which, of course, have been very badly copied and forged in dodgy galleries around town (an homage to their big commercial success)
There are the black and white bums which are delightfully whimsical and nostalgic, often warm and nicely erotic, sometimes reminiscent of limestone karst landscapes and sometimes gently redolent with social conventions and, like Thao himself, calm and approachable. Most have a painted background of old coins and are dated from the latter half of the century’s 1st decade.
Here are some I really love and to which I’ve given my own evocative titles (with apologies to Thao)
‘Bum Mountain Range’
Bum Halo-ed by Butterflies….and here I guess any reading is enhanced by the female genitalia reference that flutters around butterflies bang Tieng Viet (on canvas)
Two Bums under a Lotus Shower
Vertical Mountain Range
Two Bums on a Mat Under a Full Moon (on canvas)
Bums on Parade
A lot of people are enamored of the reclining nude, and who can blame them!
When you move onto the Bums in Color most viewers continue to be impressed, inspired, titillated etc. These, apart from one, are on Do paper and are all in Thao’s inimitable style.
Once again my own titles:
2 bums in lotus pond with butterflies
The dance…after Matisse
5 in a lotus pond
Sharing a lotus shower (on canvas)
One gallery wall is given over to three gridded works of lady’s or ladies’ bums on daily calendar sheets from 2005, 2006.
These have proven to be popular with visitors to the exhibition.
I’m also impressed.
Now back to 1998 and to two Bum landscapes that are really appealing, invite salacious and political interpretations, and one wonders if they were the start of it all! Also popular with visitors.
At L’Espace a while ago Thao had a display of fossilized farming implements…all painted red. These wept sad symbolic tears for farming land around the city being taken over for development and tears too for the ejected farmers. This was a far cry from the not so distant past when all arable land was prolifically utilized with socialist ardor to stave off famine and need in times pre Doi Moi.
A sculpture of red hoe heads stands beautifully rampant on a light box.Defiantly unfossilized
And for a lot of people, the very best of all are those two amazing bronzes
It’s one of those exhibitions that will really delight discerning viewers and though prices may be considered high (as they should be for the work of an artist of Thao’s fame and caliber), should you decide to invest, and should Thao decide to divest of his favorites, then you’d have a bargain as the venue does not charge the artist rental or commission fees.
The exhibition runs until Nov 10.
|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.|
Artist tags: Vuong Van Thao