KVT – The One Planet of Nguyen Manh Hung

KVT – The One Planet of Nguyen Manh Hung

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KVT 2013

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(Vietnamese version available – Bản tiếng Việt đã được cập nhật)

KVT teases out planetary threads at Manzi

One of the very best exhibitions you’re likely to see this year has just opened at Manzi. It is by once upon a time Hanoian, Nguyen Manh Hung and it is installed exceptionally well in four gallery spaces.
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Most of the works were shown early this year at the sophisticatedly minimalist art space, Galerie Quynh in Saigon which has collaborated with Manzi and the artist to bring the works to us.

The largest installation was sold by Quynh and luckily the proud Viet Kieu owner has loaned it to Manzi for the duration of the exhibition.

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When I saw the works in Saigon my brain went into overdrive to play with the allusions, meant and imagined, that spun forth. Catching it again at Manzi six months later consolidated my thoughts about it. Thus this opinion piece is a cut and paste version of the Grapevine article from way back.

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Every time I get along to Quynh I am impressed by the curating of the exhibitions. They always have lots of space between pieces to let them breathe easily and not get their individual tales confused with each other. The same thoughtful curating has occurred at Manzi whose more difficult spaces have been utilized with effective care.

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It’s a timely show as it follows on the heels of 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.

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In the Manzi show five of Hung’s installations are collectively titled ‘One Planet’. The artist obviously hopes that the works 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.

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His father was a jet pilot during the American war and thus there is a wonderful dichotomy of the menacing war machine 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 …When I first saw it at Quynh 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….though I usually interpret similar planes in Hung’s delightfully ironic and humorous paintings as paternalistic providers.

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This one is titled ‘Go To Market‘ and is a delicious contrast to the usual names or connotations we normally see accompanying pictures of fighter jets as they penile through blue skies.

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Because of the outstanding cornucopian jet it’s almost too easy to miss the exhibition’s large 2D piece by the entrance door. 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…landscapes similar to those prints you can see, though less and less often, in houses, lesser starred hotels and some office walls worldwide. Utopian scenes full of clear air, peace, and a sense of heaven on earth. Their implied preciousness is highlighted by fake, gilt frames.

Rising above the pristine landscape are two giant human figures (the imposing human motif recurs throughout Hung’s work). They’re adult men, probably Vietnamese. Those who know Hung might assume they are self portraits.Exhibition One Planet-Nguyen Manh Hung 9

They ominously dominating their surrounds The fact that the landscape is alien to the figures 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. Are Hung’s portrayals of Everyman destroyers or protectors? We could read the painting literally as Everyman either 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 ambiguously titled ‘We’ve Been Here’.

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In a foyer upstairs are two more of these kitsch landscapes, much smaller, but featuring those intriguingly surreal figures. These are titled ‘Mauvais Gout’- Bad Taste- 1 and 2. I think that these pieces were completed before 2013 but none the less they fit in with the overall theme.

My immediate reading of the crashed plane was terrorist at play


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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.

Hung’s third installation 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.

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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-6/7/76.(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 what has previously been the most popular piece, is by far the largest. It continues the artist’s ongoing 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 visible today though perhaps becoming an endangered species.

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As is common when people are crowded into similar, dense urban high rise villages, 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, when you bend closer and peer through miniature windows and shutters, you can easily imagine them, and their communal noise.

First image below from original installation in TPHCM.

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This fascinating video that was part of ‘Paradise’ shows how Hung and his team of workers modeled the bits and pieces that are almost always made to scale

Hung calls this latest installation ‘The Barricade’ and has topped it with full size sand bags that perhaps 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.


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.


Hung, as the Quynh gallery blurb stated, 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…. thank goodness Manzi had the foresight to bring it and one of Vietnam’s most talented artists back to their roots

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 of installations are from Manzi and Hung’s blogspot.

Nguyen Manh Hung

Manzi PR indicates that Nguyen Manh Hung is one of the most important young artists in Vietnam. One of THE MOST IMPORTANT yes! though at 37 I would, perhaps, prefer to call him one of the most important mid career artists in Vietnam-which he undeniably is!

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.


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