Mai Chi – Exhibition “Family Tree” at Art Vietnam

Mai Chi – Exhibition “Family Tree” at Art Vietnam

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Mai Chi
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Harmony on show

According to curator’s statement of “Family Tree”, Trần Hoàng Sơn’s current show at the Art Vietnam Gallery, his works deal with serious questions which have been haunting humanity ever since: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Having gone through the show, attentive visitors would come to believe that finally the answers are found.
Son brings into the gallery space about two dozens large portraits of people who matter in his life: his extended family, his friends and villagers from his origin. His male fellow artists and colleagues from the Hanoi Academy for Fine Arts, where he teaches, gather on the ground floor. One level up, vertical layers of portraits of his family members and relatives hang from the ceiling and are positioned symmetrically to both sides, creating a space half stage, half walk-in altar. Viewers can walk pass the generations to arrive at the matriarch of the family at center back, a village woman whose face was destroyed by time and the hardships of life. The Dó paper used for the paintings, the extra long format and the light coloring produce an extra feel of tradition.

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The second floor represents the artist’s native village, populated by old women clad in traditional headwear, the wrinkled faces having more aura and character than the urban dwellers seen in previous rooms. All heads are painted with sharp, short, black ink lines, surrounded by soft, blurred decorations of roses, chrysanthemums, lotus or bamboo leaves. Showing no emotions, they look like colored versions of truyền thần images.

Although the portraits are skillfully drawn, after a while, a sense of shallowness starts to arise. A few years back, performance artist Lê Vũ did a work which also dealt with family relationships. In the piece he laid face down on the floor, carrying on him the weight of his father, who was laying on him, back to back, as if on a couch, taking all the time to read the traditional “Tale of Kieu”. In the silent union of father and son, fault lines across generations became visible. Under the quiet surface, a brew bubbled, a mix of love and suffering, respect and frustration, of questions about who carries whom and who nurtures whom. “Family Tree” is devoid of all these complexities. Here, people are just figures in a larger order. No story, no history, not even a name.

At the opening, the artist’s father gave a speech, and his young son played the piano. Uttermost harmony was put on show. The family tree has grown nicely from farming into urban middle-class, and no doubt the boy will carry on. He is seen on a large triptych on the ground floor, with a determined look, his outstretching arms dominating the whole space. The show breaths an air of conservatism. Here, order still prevails, the world is still intact. So what are the answers to the existential questions mentioned above? The response to “Who are we?” seems to be that you are defined through your relationships; you are the child of your parents, and the parent of your children. And where are we going? Well, once you know your place in your village, you can go anywhere. Stop asking.

“Family Tree” runs until 18 Mar at the Art Vietnam Gallery, 7 Nguyen Khac Nhu, Ha Noi.

Photos by Larissa Gehrke.

To read KVT’s review of the exhibition, visit Hanoigrapevine’s previous post.

Mai Chi is a Hanoi-based arts commentator and has been contributing to various online media.


  1. Wow! A well written, intellegent and thought provoking opinion piece. Great to see a Vietnamese take on it all. Looks like I can start to think seriously about retirement. More please.

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