Specula Spectacular

Specula Spectacular

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I’ve been holding off writing an opinion piece about Phi Phi Oanh’s speccy installation because I keep having new thoughts about it (all good) and keep wanting to revisit it (and it gets even better each time).

Specula (singular = speculum) are medical instruments used to open body cavities or orifices for careful inspection. They are intended to provide direct vision of area of interest and can have inbuilt illumination to make investigation easier.

Phi Phi has given the term a poetic and artistic licence and has created a long and wonderful, softly illuminated cavern that viewers can wander through and explore. The illumination is provided through a floor of thick, opaque panes of glass gridded into squares. The cavern walls are large, lushly lacquered fiber-glass panels.

As I wander through the arched corridor I am reminded of many evocative places. At times I am in Sydney or London in a passageway leading to an underground train; I’m in the cool cistern beneath the streets of Istanbul; I’m in a disused railway tunnel carved through rock walls or walled with mossy, damp bricks; I’m staring up at the curved and tessellated roof of an old mosque; I’m in an abandoned mine shaft with streaks of semi precious minerals seaming the walls; I’m in an archaeological dig, ancient, fossilized artefacts glinting among smooth rocks; I’m in the future and observing a Planet of the Apes or The Road scenario of a ruined earth as it existed before a cataclysmic devastation; I’m in the apse of a shimmering cathedral; I’m in new places each time I view the installation. It’s a cavity of fantasy and suspense.


The subtle and diffused lighting makes you wander slowly and peer carefully into the layers of lacquer for the wonders that were either deliberately imposed by the artist or that magically appeared as the layers of lacquer were applied and rubbed back.

The artist has a recent history of pushing the boundaries of lacquer painting. A couple of years ago her boxes at the Art Museum in Hanoi were stunning. This year her floor piece of lacquer on metal was the attention grabber at the opening of the Bui Gallery. And now she’s done it again, using traditional lacquer in ways that puts that medium well and truly into a modern focus.

In Copenhagen this week a group of famous, contemporary artists have installed new art works that in some way reflect on, or comment on, humans and their effect on the planet’s fragile environment. Phi Phi Oanh’s Specula would have no difficulty in holding its own there. In fact it would be a stand out. She is obviously an artist who will have a successful international future.

Specula is installed at the Hanoi City Exhibition Hall. It’s a noisy space that thunders and blarts with passing traffic and somehow this mix of fumes and noise doesn’t detract from the magic of the piece, even adding to its layers of meaning… though on one visit I wore ear plugs to imagine what it would be like installed in a deathly quiet gallery. It is such a wonderful piece of art that it would be at home in an open air place as well as indoors and I could see it re-commissioned as a permanent entrance to a theatre, a hotel feature, a restaurant. It definitely belongs on display in a world class Museum of Modern Art.

The present site is great because it is so close to the passing parade of pedestrians and it’s wonderful to lean into the shadows and watch the effect it has on casual viewers. It’s always good to have impressive art removed from the eloquent and rarified air of art galleries and museums so that the public can interact with it… and in this case through it.

Phi Phi has worked on this large architectural piece with a group of dedicated assistants ranging from structural engineers to lacquer mixers and they must all have big smiles of accomplishment on their faces as they see the results of their labour. It is the top of the pops in solo art exhibitions this year in Hanoi and is a fabulous way to visually complete the first decade of the new century.

Keep your eyes attuned to the Grapevine because I hear that Phi Phi will have a further exhibition this month of her recent work (17 Dec, Japan Foundation, details coming soon) and if she has another Open Studio before she leaves us and heads to Europe in the new year, don’t miss it. If you have the chance to purchase any of her work think of it as a real investment.

As you can see I’m one of her biggest fans and my reference to her earlier this year as a new Yoko Ono still holds fast.

Thanks to the American Embassy for being instrumental in sponsoring this massive and massively important art work.

SPECULA is glowing spectacularly until Dec 31.

Not a reviewer, not a critic, “Kiếm Văn Tìm” is an interested, impartial and informed observer and connoisseur of the Hanoi art scene who offers highly opinionated remarks and is part of the long and venerable tradition of anonymous correspondents. Please add your thoughts in the comment field below.


  1. Always nice to whole heartedly agree with you. This is a fantastic work of art; thoughtfully considered, amazingly realized. Phi Phi is a major talent whose absence will be felt when she leaves for Spain.

  2. i was able to see the pieces while they were being worked on. She is a talented and devoted person. she will be missed.

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