KVT – The Southern Journals… Part Six and and The One Planet...

KVT – The Southern Journals… Part Six and and The One Planet of Nguyen Manh Hung

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Has the locus of Vietnamese contemporary art shifted from Hanoi to HCMC?
KVT headed south to take a look for himself. The result is a series of articles about his encounters.

Read more articles here.

20 January 2013

2013 – One Planet – solo exhibition @ Galerie Quynh


One Planet is my first solo exhibition in Ho Chi Minh city. In this show, i present the transformation of the ideas from 2D works to 3D installations.

KVT teases out planetary threads

One of the nicest exhibitions you’d be likely to see this year has just finished in Ho Chi Minh City. It was by ex Hanoian, Nguyen Manh Hung at the sophisticatedly minimalist art space, Galerie Quynh...which has some seriously interesting shows coming up including a solo in April by still very Hanoian, Ha Manh Thang.

It was one of those exhibitions that get my brain into overdrive and I just can’t let go of the allusions, meant and imagined, that spin forth

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Every time I get along to Quynh I am impressed by the curating of the exhibitions, and Nguyen Manh Hung’s was no exception. Lots of space between pieces to let them breathe easily and not get their individual tales confused with each other.

It’s a timely show as it follows on from the exhibition of Hung’s grand diorama ‘Living Together in Paradise’ in the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia. This was first installed in 2011 in Hanoi at Goethe where it was enormously popular with viewers….as is this latest group of four of Hung’s recent installations that are collectively titled ‘One Planet’ and which Hung obviously hopes will be translated and transposed by viewers to a world viewpoint rather than a narrower Vietnamese perspective.

Four installations reference recurring themes that will be familiar with Hung’s fans..surrealism….fighter planes that are portrayed as benevolent rather than destructive entities… humans dominating the landscape…the use of kitsch mountain landscapes as figurative backgrounds…members of security forces wearing riot gear…the Hanoi high rise urban village. Use these links to Hung’s very professional website to see his 2D and 3D work since 2000 …. 

When you enter the gallery you are confronted by one of Hung’s fighter planes in glorious 3D. His father was a jet pilot during the American war and thus the dichotomy of the menacing becoming the harbinger of hope. In Hung’s typically surreal style the intricate sculpture soars through the space, a vapor trail pouring behind. On its fuselage and wings it bears plastic bags full of real fruit …Because it’s just after Tet when family altars were full of offerings to ancestors and incense smoke streamed in wispy ribbons of hope and prayers to the heavens I immediately translated the plane as a votive offering rather than the paternalistic provider that is the translation I usually make of them in his delightful, ironically humorous paintings. This one is titled ‘Go To Market’ and is a delicious contrast to the usual titles or connotations we normally see accompanying pictures of fighter jets peniling through blue skies.

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Upstairs the first work you see is the exhibition’s only 2D piece. Hung has commissioned a large kitsch mountain landscape from a small painting enterprise in Hanoi…similar to those that used to proliferate along Nguyen Thai Hoc…and familiar to those prints you can see, though less and less often, on house, hotel and office walls worldwide. Utopian scenes full of clear air, peace, and a sense of heaven on earth. Their implied  preciousness is often highlighted by fake, gilt frames. Rising above the pristine landscape is a giant human figure (a motif that recurs throughout Hung’s work). It’s an adult man, more than probably Vietnamese. Those who know Hung might assume it’s a self portrait. It  is ominously dominating its surrounds The fact that the landscape is foreign to the figure adds a wider translation to man’s stance within social and natural environments. We could read it from a Judeo-Christian perspective of man having divine dominance over all he surveys. Is Hung’s Everyman a  destroyer or a protector? We could read the painting literally as  Everyman ready to change or ready to defend a natural environment . We can also extrapolate that Hung’s uses this particular type of landscape as a metaphor for social tradition and history. The work is titled ‘I’ve Been Here‘, a nicely ambiguous title.

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That’s what I like about Hung’s works whenever I see them…all of those tantalizing threads hanging from them that can be teased out. The sort of threads that if I were a teacher of inquisitive and intelligent teenagers I’d be using  as knotting and knitting points for discussion and debate.

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Hung’s third piece is a sculpture of a piece of soil and rock with roots of plants protruding below (as if they are some of those threads waiting to be untangled!). It has been plucked from some anonymous place on planet Earth and might be seen as  its own asteroid of torture and repression. The riot police could come from any international location though the numbers on their uniforms indicate that they too could well be self portraits…they numerals represent Hung’s birthday and birth year-67/76.(also note the number on the plane’s fuselage The naked pig figure bears many connotations…innocence, filth, good luck gone sour, the villains of ‘Animal Farm’ being usurped, victims re-branded to make them easier to kill….and so on….Is Hung presenting a scene that instructs us to abore violence and repression, or is he simply presenting a scenario that makes us voyeuristic bystanders…salivating, protesting, silent, compliant, complicit, etc etc? The wonderful piece is called ‘Keep My Planet Clean’ which  suggests various interpretations from vicious ethnic cleansing to officialdom meaningfully fighting a life threatening blue ear disease outbreak

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The last, and most popular piece, is the largest and carries through with the artist’s continuing exploration of living in densely packed , urban apartments or tenements. In this and previous works they are represented by the Soviet inspired, concrete high rises built in Hanoi in the 1960ies and still very visible today. As is common when people are crowded into dense urban high rise villages like these, the natural instinct is to carve out as much space as you can with add ons, and, as you get richer, to personalize, your spaces and  by all means possible, keep control of what you consider to be rightfully yours. Hung grew up in one of these concrete blocks and , like all kids, enjoyed the communal experience, but as a kid was mainly divorced from a lot of the bickering and dissension that ebbs and flows and simmers and  boils over and can make high rise village life a series of trials and tribulations. Thus these apartment dwellers turned their apartments into places that were barricaded against inquisitive, gossiping, jealous or recalcitrant neighbors, and officialdom determined to eradicate those add-ons.

This two meter high work is wonderfully constructed- though when it needs to be transported, fits easily into sectionalized compartments- and though it is devoid of people, as voyeur you can easily picture them, and their communal noise, as you bend closer and peer through miniature windows and shutters.

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A previous installation included an associated video that showed how Hung and his team of workers modeled the bits and pieces that are almost always made to scale

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Hung calls this installation ‘The Barricade and has  topped it with full size sand bags that makes the whole building a metaphor for each individual living space but adds a sense of truth when you contemplate the tension that the inhabitants must feel when many are served eviction notices if their valuable inner city dwellings are re-possessed far below market value to make way for high class  high rises, and then when they are often offered places in outer city high rises where the whole communal  barricading process has to begin all over again.

One wonders if we will reach a stage soon when these buildings will become an endangered species and perhaps  a heritage listing will have to be applied on the last remaining few...or do as they do in affluent countries, preserve the facade and build directly behind. One wonders if Hung’s ironic art statement will end up as a lone monument to a communally crowded past.

I already know which added on facades are high on my preservation list.

Unfortunately a preservation listing would not accommodate the people who used to inhabit the buildings and, of course, these are essential in any reading of Hung’s apartment blocks….. all of which when represented in Hung’ paintings and sculptures of them could be interpreted as individually inhabited planets in surreal orbit around the sun of Hung’ wizardry.

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As far as my research  goes, the buildings were constructed for workers attached to various government departments and many were originally named after the department or ministry that employed the inhabitants. The small apartments, some only 23 square meters, were given to the inhabitants and eventually they were allowed to sell them. As demolition doomsday approaches many owners are perhaps hanging in there waiting for the wheel to  turn, many Dongs to be made, or are just resistant to change and deployment.

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Hung, as the gallery blurb says, keeps on investigating ‘the idea of community, the conflicts that exist within and without constructed societies, and the complexities of civic development and individual responsibility’. It’s the same investigation that is necessary and often ongoing in all societies where urban living for all but the wealthy is an arrangement of give and take with the poorest sectors taking the most abuse.

All sectors build their barricades. The latest ‘ecological’ enclave for the better off near Bat Trang pottery village is an example of the rich being barricaded against the comings and going of an outside world by a private security force -with some houses having symbolic moats surrounding them. The rural poor immigrating to the city build personal, flimsy barriers in their slums to outline limited personal space and hopefully protect themselves from the more aggressive.

As I said before, Hung’s art work always gives me than enough food for thought.

Brilliant exhibition….a great pity that we probably won’t see it in Hanoi

For the several hundredth time I offered up my thanks to the Danish Embassy in Hanoi. Their financial support of Hung was invaluable for him and for us

The great images are from Hung’s blogspot and the others mine shot on location.

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.


  1. Great post, KVT. I really enjoyed this exhibition too! One thing that had me wondering, and I didn’t ask the artist on opening night because it was so busy, perhaps you might know. Why are there no little altars on any of the balconies? There’s formidable attention to detail, but not a single altar. And since here in HCMC I have seen them frequently on terraces, balconies and other protuberances of buildings, I’m curious why here there are none. Any ideas?

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