KVT – To Doubt and Believe in Black and White

KVT – To Doubt and Believe in Black and White

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KVT 2013Dual Exhibition Nguyen Son and Richard Streitmatter_5570_C

KVT gets trapped by skulls and amoebas

I don’t usually give an opinion on Grapevine about exhibitions that have finished but because I’m a big Rich Streitmatter-Tran fan, I’ve made an exception.

Unfortunately I’ve sometimes let my ideas run away with my typing fingers…like hungry geckoes darting up walls after juicy fat moths tempted to linger too long in the glow of shed light.

I first came across Rich’s work at Manzi in 2012 and on an expedition down south early this year made personal contact and wrote an article about him and his DIA Project.

Streitmatter-Tran teamed up with another Saigon based artist, Nguyen Son, for an invited show at the newish gallery space that perches on the 5th floor above the Women’s Museum in Ly Thuong Kiet. It was titled ‘Doubt and Believe’ and on one level refers to those feelings that all good artists have about their art work and art practice and also to the initial effect that the art works impose on the viewer as they come to terms with it.

The organizer was the MAM-ART project which is co-ordinated by the CUC gallery in Cau Giay, Hanoi and sponsored by Mercedes-Benz.

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From what I hear on the local art grapevine (not necessarily this Grapevine), the CUC gallery is the one that a lot of the best artists are aspiring to be represented by because it is one of the few selling fine art to Vietnamese patrons who have, or are beginning to have, a taste for expensive, contemporary home grown art.

At present the same art space is hosting the ViveKKevin jeweler gallery from TPHCM and if you’re into superbly exquisite bling stuff made by brilliant craftspeople, it’s an unmissable visit before January 6. Have a salivating foretaste of its excellence here.


When I excitedly took a group of people along to see the Streitmatter-Tran/Nguyen Son show the powers that be wouldn’t allow the lights to be turned on and this certainly deprived the works of their intense drama. The gallery has a fair bit of natural light filtering in through a skylight but on a cloudy day or towards evening, not enough to enjoy art work without a lot of close peering. Thank goodness I was able to access Steitmatter -Tran’s Facebook to see how it all looked on opening night and all the images following are courtesy of this artist

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The art works by Nguyen Son, who was shown by CUC in Hanoi in 2012, are fascinating works in ink painted on hand made xuyen chi paper. They works have a compelling, floating amoebic quality. The longer I peered into them- and afterwards perused images in the handsome exhibition catalogue (100 000VND), I imagined myself in a lotus pond with stems and leaves and immature flower buds swaying in water.

It’s easy to see why they are immensely collectable. Their sense of calm and meditation has huge appeal.

Nguyen Son states that painting comes to him as naturally as breathing. These works on paper are like precious breaths from a greater deity.

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Dual Exhibition Nguyen Son and Richard Streitmatter_5582_C

The work of Streitmatter-Tran is always intellectually engaging and once again he made me sit up and take notice. I’ll even say that it’s amongst the best contemporary art displays I’ve seen all year. Combined with Nguyen Son it’s certainly in the top of the pops category

In a previous 2011 work the artist installed a huge, golden mouse/rat trap in an ongoing series based on the thoughts of ancient philosophers or god like entities. This was called ‘Hephaestus’ Lure’. Hephaestus was the Greek god who created Pandora for Zeus who gave her a jar with instructions never to open it. Like all of us, Gods or mortals, who can resist temptation? Pandora peeked inside and all the temptations that can tempt mankind into destroying itself began to wreak havoc over the earth….only hope was kept intact out of which mere mortals could manufacture redemption and empathy

Streitmatter-Tran’s sprung trap, made of symbolic gold with a pure gold bait, lured and maimed those besotted by greed and avarice.

This year the trap has been reconstructed and painted black with a bait of 24 carat gold glinting in its maw and seen here waiting a deserving victim

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Dual Exhibition Nguyen Son and Richard Streitmatter_0860_C

Beyond the mantrap is a display of partial skulls perhaps of those previously trapped, these are displayed like the animal head trophies that are mounted on walls by shooting aficionados. They are dramatically under lit and are fascinatingly and compellingly alluring.

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Although Streitmatter-Tran insists that his two installations in the exhibition are separate and have two different titles (Mantrap for the rodent catcher and Lucid for the array of skulls), because of their close proximity my mind initially refused to read them as anything but intimately connected…thus my allusion to trophies in the previous paragraph.

The skulls are indeed lucid, being translucent and lit from below with track lighting. Their lucidity is because they are constructed of layer upon layer of banh trang sheets (those rice sheets you used to make portional food wraps when you share a fish in a restaurant….or for nem), The artist states that the translucence acts as a metaphore of internal lucidity (clear thinking, enlightenment, brilliance). One wonders if their allure is another temptation to make the viewer wander into the mantrap that is just to one end of the enticing lantern show.

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It’s not the first time that Streitmatter Tran has delved into the realm of edible art…take this beautiful work for sweet tooths… his collaborative piece from the 2008 Singapore Biennale

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Some viewers of his skulls find them too macabre…. but is this because, in this modern world, skulls have increasingly become symbols of abhorrence? In a less queasy and refined world, skulls were (and sometimes still are) seen as benign objects as was Streitmatter Tran’s intention… valued, even cherished objects. Hamlet lovingly fondled and talked to the skull of his friend and mentor, Yorik. Subjects of post renaissance portraits were often posed with skulls

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In a recent short story anthology-by expat author and philosopher, Kim Huynh who returned to his roots as an adult after leaving them as a boy for migration to a western country- writes a tale of a farmer in a village near Hanoi who decides to forego the services of professional bone cleaners when the bones of his mother are exhumed to be placed in a bone box after the ritual three year burial period. The tender conversation he has with it as he carefully brushes earth and residue from the skull is profoundly moving.

Catholic churches still exhibit revered and bejeweled skulls of early saints and martyrs.

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Which gives the multi million dollar diamond skull made by Damian Hirst a term of reference

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The skulls seen in old, bone ossuaries throughout Europe attest to a once upon a time western acceptance of the skull as benign objects

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One of the best books of this year, ‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Krester, addresses the inhuman brutalities put upon the peoples of Sri Lanka during their recent civil war. In one awful scene the mothers of teenage sons slaughtered on the way to a country school, collect their children’s bloodied heads from stakes in the school grounds and lovingly, carefully, sorrowfully wrap them up and take them home.

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Our macabre attitude towards and our abhorrence of skulls (which I discovered from conversations with young, urban Vietnamese is also a prevalent attitude amongst them and as one thirtyish man suggested, is an adoption of Western trends and traits) has been used by contemporary artists to shock, titillate, use as commentary. My favorites, apart from that made by Hirst, include that by Dutch artist Diddo who made one out of gelatin and pure cocaine.

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Those carved by Canadian artist Lasserre out of software manuals

And those of Australian artist Ben Quilty who paints skulls with oil layered like thick butter and Quilty, in tune with Streitmatter Tran’s edible skulls, invented the skull burger

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Outstanding Vietnamese artist, Vuong Van Thao recently presented an excellent series of life size skulls fossilized in resin cubes. These were biting commentary on forced repression of individuality and creative thought

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If Streitmatter-Tran is intending to ask the viewer to question our doubts and beliefs in relation to human death and mortal remains, then he succeeded with me and got me going fast and furiouslyfrom the first moment I viewed images of his ‘Lucid’ skulls.

Though I’m tempted to continue, I’ll call it quits and try and convince the person who just leaned over my shoulder, saw an image of the skulls on exhibition and shuddered, ‘Ugh! Skulls!’ the error of her perceptions

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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