Ilza Burchett – About the Exhibitions: “Earth and Dó” by Nguyen Bao...

Ilza Burchett – About the Exhibitions: “Earth and Dó” by Nguyen Bao Toan and Ly Truc Son, and “Just by Being” by Nguyen Duc Phuong

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Two art exhibitions in Hanoi – running parallel to each other – appear to stir a seemingly dormant in the contemporary art in Hanoi of the past two years, way of an earthy, visually poetic artistic expression that draws its inspiration and strength straight from the roots of the traditional cultural heritage of Vietnam.

These two exhibitions are: “Earth and Dó” by Nguyen Bao Toan and Ly Truc Son, and “Just by Being” by Nguyen Duc Phuong.

These artists and their art – as presented in their respective exhibitions – seem to share the spirit of reverence for the natural and for naturally derived materials: clay, Dó paper, color pigments and these materials’ innate practical and aesthetic values, as primordial conceptual guides from ancient to traditional, and then to the modern of the contemporary.

This shared artistic view is all the more remarkable because of its across-generational drive, for Nguyen Bao Toan and Ly Truc Son, and Nguyen Duc Phuong are a generation apart.

The exhibition “Earth and Dó ” at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, is a form of a collaborative show of works, brought about by the friendship between two renowned and well respected artists: Nguyen Bao Toan and Ly Truc Son.


Nguyen Bao Toan’s earthen / ceramic vessels and sculptural forms connect the ancient Vietnamese ceramic tradition and cultural lore to the contemporaneous aesthetic sensibility of the refined modern functionality of art objects’ use as an expression of exclusive cultural sophistication and material wealth.


One can detect a kind of corny irony and a cheeky sense of humor in Nguyen Bao Toan’s gold-lipped earthen pots and animal figurines with – you might have guessed it – gold covered phalli, fenced by a low-criss-crossed-bamboo-protection-from curious-exhibition goer-touching.


This is quite appropriately so in the light of the above – after all the hardness of all things material is breakable… which renders one’s sense of the ‘contemporary’ in general and of ‘art’ in particular as palpably ephemeral and somehow naggingly urgent in its endless-time-coming.


Looking at Nguyen Bao Toan’s art, one can perceive simultaneously the reassuring earthly, rough beauty of the physical materiality of his art objects and the threatening implication of the potentiality of their destruction.



Gloriously, these works celebrate the enjoyment of life, perhaps because, or perhaps in spite of the artist’s demonstrable awareness in this exhibition of its fragility.


Further on: as if in a consoling, but visually restrained embrace, Nguyen Bao Toan’s creations are surrounded by Ly Truc Son’s body of works on Dó paper. With their delicate, nuanced expanses of muted color, these are evocations of some metaphysical landscapes of thought, which try and soothe with the softness of their visual poetry.


But it seems that this is only a fleeting impression, for his “Blossom in the Vacuum”, “The Magnitude”, “Metamorphose” series are loaded with ambiguity of the imagery and the accordingly transforming itself corresponding emotional state: the ‘innocence’ and seemingly detached abstractedness of the images in these works are ‘guilty’ of willfully probing the viewer’s perception, leading the viewer right to the edge of entering an emotional abyss of nothingness.


In this collaborative exhibition both artists address through their art the notions and perceptions of sensuality, the masculine and the feminine, the notions of ‘hardness’ and ‘softness’ in the skillful use of their respective media and the implications of the perceptual transformation of the ‘orthodox’ into ‘unorthodox’, abstract and representational, and accordingly the perceptual reading of meanings in their art.


Thus the two artists complete their art-dialogue in an explicit partnering artistic agreement.

This exhibition is open until November 11th, 2017.

The exhibition “Just by Being” by Nguyen Duc Phuong (aka Phương Giò) at Manzi Art Space is the first solo exhibition for the artist.

It is: “consisting of a series of paintings on old books, pharmacopoeia or old bibles of Tày minority people from Tay Bac (Northwest mountainous areas of Vietnam), created with natural pigments originated from soil, flowers and plants; and a series of 9 sculptures made out of paper and clay,…”[1]

Sourcing his inspiration and choice of art-media from the cultural tradition and cultural artifacts of a Tày minority people’s, Nguyen Duc Phuong’s approach to ‘tradition’ and ‘contemporaneity’ in his art in this exhibition is putting to use – literally and otherwise – the general anonymity of (commercially available) collective cultural artifacts as a literally physical, but also as an emotional basis for achieving the intended by him ‘effect’ of his works, which dangerously hovers in the vicinity of a certain artistic pseudo-naivete, that could just as well be perceived as a misguided arrogance of thought.


Nguyen Duc Phuong’s tiny illustration-like images are placed as physical and symbolic, ‘fragments’ on the stained and ‘tastefully’ burned out / charred pages, which are pasted on equally tastefully blackened support, that apart from functioning as purely practical form of a framing presentational surface, also, and not unimportantly, functions as a surrounding ‘void’ in all its connotations and implications, to suggest the aesthetics of the preciousness of ‘salvaged’ by the artist physical remnants of the perhaps incomprehensible and mysterious, unknowable past and presumed extinguished knowledge that can not be retrieved and /or made sense of for what it actually ‘is’, if not for the artist’s gesture and efforts – conjuring up a pious emotional atmosphere.


But of course as a result, in this exhibition, these papers, these ‘salvaged’ remnants of the imaginary past are now given a new augmented meaning and accordingly, are now looked upon differently – they have become something else, which has another, newly added value: the art value ‘proper’ – perhaps these never had, nor even lay claim to – because this artist’s touch as a specific, concretely fixed in time and space presence, is now inscribed as his ‘personalised’ signifier on these old pages from these old books, implying the literal intrusion of ‘renewal’ by his physical and mental artistic intervention in the abstractions of the modalities of physical and cultural time and space.


Rather bluntly, these substitute artist’s created images as interpreting ‘illustrations’ for an ‘invisible’ and perhaps even incomprehensible, thus presumed already somehow vanquished, or absent collective expression and knowledge.



This line of personal sentimental immersion, translated as derivation from the ‘archeology’ of a minority people’s culture – of that ‘mysterious Other’ – of whom the artist clearly claim his own cultural heritage by showing us in his works his artistic, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities in his creative handling of these ‘archeological remnants’, turns on its head to puzzlingly appear and be easily seen in its newly transformed appearances – be that rightly or wrongly, from an ethical point of view – as a form of unwitting expression and an actual physical record of artist’s own cultural vandalism.


In this light, the title “Just by being” ambiguously suggests an automatic – by default – affirmation: an endlessly renewed justification for incursions of the contemporary artistic tropes into a collective cultural past.


Thus, in his exhibition “Just by Being”, Nguyen Duc Phuong is reflecting on his sentiments as a commentary on times past and present, religious and secular rites and tropes, the gone and the current modes of being, of signification of this mysterious ‘Otherness’ of cultural tradition(s) and the contemporary art tropes of their imaginary re -re -re […] presentation.


This exhibition is open until November 26th, 2017.



Some readers may say that the above mentioned parallels between the two exhibitions and common inspirational sources for the respective artists is perhaps incidental and that perhaps it is just a coincidence… Well, this might just as well be so, but it does not invalidate the significance of the above discussed general subject of how today’s artists seek and find their ancient cultural traditions as a source of inspiration in their creating contemporary art.


Notes: [1] — quoted from Manzi Art Space exhibition press release.
Photos of the works of Nguyen Bao Toan at the exhibition “Earth and Dó” taken with the artist’s permission.
Text and photos by Ilza Burchett

Ilza holds the deep conviction that there is nothing more damaging than indifference and that only a critique, based on peer to peer assessment of contemporary art practices, is the way to broaden and encourage the creative thought and new original artistic ideas — fostering a better understanding of contemporary visual art and the role of the artist as a creator of cultural values.
Ilza Burchett is an internationally exhibiting artist, now based in Hanoi, Vietnam.


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