Nguyen Huy An – A collector of the past

Nguyen Huy An – A collector of the past

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Written with photos by Hà Bi for Hanoi Grapevine
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The second solo exhibition by Nguyễn Huy An at Galerie Quỳnh gave me that feeling: a clear-eyed man going hurriedly yet steadily against the flow of people rushing to the future, carefully picking up fragments of memories, of him or of someone else that were left on the road. Earnestly, he kept the remnants, cleaned them up, gently placed them in the corner of the house, observe it, thought about it.

Tranh Thuyền (Boat Painting), watercolor on dó paper

Those are tiny boats amidst the vast river on dó paper. In the cool blue-gray or warm yellow palette, the boats and their silhouettes still bring about an air of solitude. There are people in it – very few – but we don’t know what they do for a living, where they came from, where they will go. The boats don’t even bother to move. It seemed that the atmosphere had become so thickened that even “real boat” could not shift one bit. Helpless, paralyzed.

Light-leaked scenery, from an old film roll

It was a 6cm-long, dimly lit piece of roll film showing the roof an ancient temple that we must squint to see. Huy An intentionally collects these burnt films. The light-leaked images become abstract, forcing the audience to look at them with another light source to capture the remnants of the original image. Just like Cái khe, Cái hõm và Cái lỗ (The slit, The hollow and The hole), it forces people to activate their imagination, wondering what this is, what the author wants to say, and then finally had an eureka moment when they discovers something interesting on their own. The artwork reveals only parts of the objects, narrowing the viewer’s perspective to a single point, eliminating distracting visual elements.

The Cái khe, Cái hõm và Cái lỗ (The slit, The hollow and The hole)

Those are patterned light streaks flowing along the length of the stairs from the lamp hanging above, which looks like a mosaic painting of light on the cold gray staircase. The motif on the lamp is taken from a bronze ritual crown, used to worship the Great gods. The worn-out original crown is now “alive” in a new form, a new experiment.

Lamps with motifs from the ancient crown

The audience also had the opportunity to meet the theater chaos in a few other works in this exhibition of Huy An. Red velvet curtains often seen on the stage of tuồng, chèo, play, dance performance separate the main stage and the wings, now hanging outside a room like an invitation to step inside and discover. With the audio tape, Huy An recounts the journey of finding Súy Vân signature long black hair, which makes audience excited because it turned out that the hair was real, unlike what many people had thought. The makeup towel of tuồng actor Xuân Quí with patch of colors, making one wonder how many tuồng plays it had gone through, soaked in makeup and sweat of the artist. Or the mirror in Mẫn Thu’s makeup room seeing each time she transformed into Hồ Nguyệt Cô: when Mẫn Thu put on the makeup, she saw her image in the mirror, finding herself turning from a person to a fox; Hồ Nguyệt Cô, on the stage, also saw her image in the stream, seeing her humanity gradually transformed into a fox in pain.

The red velvet curtain invites you to step into the dimmed space behind

Tóc Súy Vân (Súy Vân hair)

Stepping up to the top floor, the audience will see delicate termite wings from a hầu đồng ritual at Đông Cuông Temple. Outside, a small woman dressed in vibrant costumes danced to the signature hầu đồng music. The melodies and various sounds echoed softly in the space. Termites throwed themselves into the light bulbs, now scattered on the concrete floor. Suddenly I thought, these termites were immersed in a night of cultural quintessence, like the tale of a spider spinning threads in a temple, listening to chanting day after day, then it was bestowed with enlightenment little by little without knowing it.

Xuân Quí’s makeup towel

Huy An’s exhibition brings about meticulous and marvellous perspectives. Not only the final works on display, but his stories of discovery simply themselves are already works of art.

Âm sáng, a word introduced by Huy An, conveys his senses about light and darkness as well as reflection. Light is often referred to as positive energy, so in this exhibition Huy An offers a perspective of the other side: the negative energy. Inspired by folk rituals and traditional religions of Northern Vietnam, through clever treatment of space, he created a contrast at the boundary between contemporary reality and cultural heritage – folk legends and sacred village rituals exist in the artist’s mind. Somewhere, there are still objects that seem to be no longer valid, but throughout its existence have been immersed in a long-standing culture. If we go through each layer, we will see that pricelessness and worthlessness are simply each person’s view.

Artist Mẫn Thu’s mirror in Portrait – Hồ Nguyệt

Delicate termite wings from hầu đồng ritual at night at Đông Cuông Temple

Born in 1982 in Hanoi, Nguyen Huy An is one of the most talented and creative artists of his generation. In the last decade, Huy An has participated in many art exhibitions and festivals such as Trông Trời Ngóng Thánh, Nhà Sàn Collective (2017); 14th Istanbul Biennial – SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Istanbul, Turkey (2015); Miền Méo Miệng/Contemporary Art from Vietnam, Bildmuseet … In 2010, Huy An and two other artists, Vũ Đức Toàn and Hoàng Minh Đức co-founded Phụ Lục performance group. The group has participated in many performance festivals in Vietnam, Singapore, China and Poland.

Translated by Hanoi Grapevine

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