Written with photos by Lê Thu Trang
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“Khải” in Sino-Vietnamese means a “welcome beginning of something new”. The name of the exhibition conveys the artists’ message on creating a new beginning for the use of traditional techniques.
The exhibition is taking place at Manzi Exhibition Space, No. 2, Hàng Bún Alley, Hanoi, from 22 May to 03 Jun 2020.
Using materials and processes in making handcrafted textiles in Vietnam, the designers created two fresh and modern works on the tradition that have existed for hundreds of years.
Presenting Vietnam in London
The project, based on research by Dr. Marta Gasparin from University of Leicester School of Business (UK), focuses on innovation in the direction of Slow Design in economies in transition. It studied the ethnography of designers in Vietnam to understand their design process, from which Slow Design driven Innovation proposes an alternative economic system by reorganizing the role and strategic positioning of various factors such as managers, designers, craftsmen… in the contemporary industry, while honoring the value of nature and people. This model can help minimize the exploitation of natural resources, and more than that, offer high quality products and services with increased durability thanks to local traditional crafts and techniques.
On that premise, British curator Claire Driscoll – co-founder of the art & design studio Work Room Four in Hanoi collaborated with three Vietnamese designers – Thảo Vũ, Giang Nguyễn and Lê Thanh Tùng – in this project. This is also Vietnam’s first project to participate in the London Design Biennale. In the 2018 exhibition under the theme “Emotional States”, the installation work Khải was a representation of Vietnam among a diverse array of emotional and expressive states from more than 40 countries and cities that were brought to London – one of the biggest creative centers in the world.
“The participating designers in both Hanoi and Saigon followed a rigorous work process to ensure the progress and quality of the final work” – said Ms. Claire Driscoll, curator for “Khải”. Bringing the work from Vietnam to the London Design Biennale 2018 and back in early 2020 for exhibition is a long journey for each artist themself.
Diverse forms of new designs.
The installation exhibition consists of two art works, the first is the impressive “The Lab”, measuring at 2 meters tall and about 1 meter in radius, at the center of the exhibition space. Right in the middle is a pool of indigo – a substance used in the natural dyeing techniques of Vietnamese ethnic groups. Suspended above are various details in the traditional weaving-dyeing process, such as leaves and flowers used for dyeing or post-processing powders in test tubes of different shapes and sizes, imitating a modern experiment. With its eye-catching colors and balanced composition, the work brings about a sense of harmony. On the other hand, the contrast between the round shapes of the indigo pool, the test tubes and the vertical, diagonal bars, as well as the juxtaposition of strong, rigid materials and soft, fluttering fabrics creates an interesting complexity.
The second installation is “The Study”. Continuing on the basis of the techniques presented in the previous installation, this work employs a completely different format – interactive video. Naturally dyed fabric hung in layers, acting as a veil that separated the room from the space outside and at the same time, a projection screen on which the video shows the traditional dyeing processes used to create the fabric. The circular arrangement and color in this work is also echoing the indigo pool in “The Lab”, creating a thematic connection.
Images are alternated with paragraphs of studies on Vietnamese language and writing, especially on its diacritics and the tonal uniqueness. The central device plays the audio and allows the viewers to change the projected image. Standing here, one has a feeling of being both the subject capable of influencing the process with tactile interaction and the object surrounded by various emotional states of images and sounds.
All based on traditional materials, the forms created can be extremely diverse. Exhibition “Khải”, presented in two very different formats but connected and united as one single work, has proven this point.
A new life for tradition
The idea of reconstructing the natural dyeing process in the form of a modern artificial laboratory is an effort in creativity and innovation to integrate traditional techniques in modern “textile design”. This connects closely with the works of Thảo Vũ – one of the three artists participating in the project. She is the founder of Kilomet 109, a sustainable fashion brand that uses organic textiles and traditional plant dyeing techniques – a typical model of “slow design”. Kilomet 109 works directly with local artisans to grow, spin, weave, dye and print fabrics for its own designs, seeking to elevate traditional textile manufacturing to a modern high-end fashion sector. Exhibition “Khải” is a visual statement of practical interventions similar to the work of Thảo Vũ, aiming towards preserving traditions and sustainable development, as well as creating great value.
Other than that, Vietnam’s characteristics such as dyed fabric and Vietnamese language are combined, felt through different senses and conveyed a cultural message. The project’s curator – Ms. Claire Driscoll said that Vietnam’s participation in the London Design Biennale could contribute to the reintroduction of Vietnam to the world, going beyond the images of war that were associated with the country for more than half a century, to reposition Vietnam with its original cultural values and uniqueness in new creations.
According to the research of Dr. Marta Gasparin and her colleagues at INCITE, Vietnam is an interesting case because the country’s development implies the correlation between rapid change and sustainability concerns stemming from the interest in development pace. In this context, handcrafted techniques emerged as a way to determine identity and culture. Their nature is sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and is a rural activity that requires skill and diligence. To maintain the crafts and bring Vietnamese craftsmanship to the world, methods of reorganizing nature need pioneering designers. Changes were recognized: traditional crafts start to appear in new products, in new locations, interacting with new audiences around the globe. This shift may contribute to a bigger change in the scale and structure of economic systems.