Cristina NualART

SOME THOUGHTS ON ART, VISUAL CULTURE AND GENERAL EYE CANDY

Making progress with my Saigon rubble mosaic

Today I got another 25 kilos of tile cement, and 5 or 6 more bags full of rubble from the eviction zone of what was previously the lively community of Thu Thiem, District 2, HCMC. I use the rubble to slowly build this 3 metre long mosaic on a wall in Binh Thanh district. Since it’s weekend work only, it’s going to take a few more months…

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Possibly the favourite of my photos of Saigon so far…

I was crossing the road at a wild intersection, and turned around as a precautionary measure (checking for traffic coming from all directions). I stopped right between two busy roads, thanking the moon for having my camera with me.

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Digger exposes French beauty

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The last grass-roots cafe on Ho Cong Rua, a roundabout in central Saigon, has been demolished. It was the cafe where I used to stand every morning waiting for the bus. The cafe from which I got an insight into the lives of the disabled girl selling newspapers, the vendor with the soya milk cart, the women doing exercise in the midst of traffic, and the men sitting down and drinking coffee endlessly. Researcher Erik Harms did some interesting sociological writing on the ups and downs of ‘plastic stool’ outdoor cafes on this crossroads, and the influx of the newer, wealthier models taking over.

One thing of old beauty does stand out now, though. The wonderful old French water tower is now clearly visible, guarded by a puppy and a man in a hammock. Grass roots.

Taipei Art Photo: the newest art fair model

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Taiwan, a little island that is the third richest country in Asia, last week hosted its first art photography fair in the spacious Expo Dome in central Taipei. Chuan Hui-hua is the director of Taiwan’s first specialist art photography gallery, and the man behind Taipei Art Photo. The focus was slightly different to other art fairs that prioritise the art dealers. Galleries and publishers were present at TAP, but the aim of this fair was to give the individual creators their own spaces. Most booths were a mini solo exhibition of a single photographer, although some galleries showed works from their stable of artists.

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Hand made photography books and rare editions could be handled with cotton gloves in a special section for this purpose. 50 artists from 14 countries showed their work in booths or display cases, or during presentations and talks. Below I introduce some of my favourites.

Ajay Kumar Sharma is a painter and experimental artist that came from India to show his hand-made photos on rugged Fabriano paper. He uses a little-known process called Van Dyck brown, similar to gum bichromate, to create sepia images that feel 100 years old, but are presented in highly contemporary ways. The simple framing of many photos to create a wall-size image, unframedphotos that hang diagonally or purposefully leaving out one part of a multiple image make it impossible for us to confuse these artworks with antiques.

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Nick Veasy makes stricking black and white X-ray photos, which are more laborious to make than one might think. See what Nick thinks about X-ray radiation and how as he makes these works in his TED talk.

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Emma Hack is partly responsible for the fair’s music. Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know was heard often, because she is the photographer that painted Wally and Kimbra in the much-shared music video.

 

From Taiwan, Huang Wen-Yung overlaps or juxtaposes photographs that have a grungey tint. The beautiful pieces come in varied formats. They are not abstracts, but nonetheless delight with the powerful shapes.

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Hsu Yi-Tzu is a young Taiwanese artist who answers to Cathy. I found her art project fascinating. She takes old family negatives from her childhood, and stores in glass jars, where they decompose as the photographic gelatin peels off the film. These bottles end up as little sculptures, perfectly displayed and lit. The ‘rusty’ looking negatives generate a 2D photographic image, invariably dark and textured like the earth seen from space. Some digital manipulation adds enough information to completely mislead the viewers. The large prints with selected boxed areas are reminiscent of mapping software, speaking of the place in the big world that each person can get lost in.

 

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Japanese photographer Kento Morikawa sits in front of her silver gelatin prints of botanical gardens, hanging low because she wants the low light to fall vertically, recreating the feeling of walking under cherry trees.

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Ting Ting Chen, from Taiwan, showed photographs that require a close look. The 2 metre long Lambda prints of close-ups of piles of negatives have titles like I am a housewife and I would have to give birth to a male baby so my mother would be happy.

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The fair will run again next year, so look out for it art photography is something you enjoy. It’s a friendly event!

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Art shop in Taipei

taipeiartshop_cnualartLast week I participated in Taipei Art Photo 2013. Read about the fair here.

While I was in the calm and down to earth capital of Taiwan, I went to buy some art supplies. The shops near the National University are full of calligraphy brushes, hand made paper and other gems.

10 things you should know about Vietnamese Art

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, September 2013, pp. 76-79.

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1 Ceramics

ceramics_hcmc_historymuseumAncient civilizations of the Red River Valley, in the clay-rich north of Vietnam, learnt from China how to fire pottery. Khmer and Champa ceramics also influenced Vietnamese craftspeople. After the Chinese domination of Vietnam ended, during the Ly and Tran dynasties, Vietnam created the most sophisticated ceramics of Southeast Asia. In the 14th century, Japanese tea masters treasured their Vietnamese imports. European merchants traded vases from Bat Trang, a pottery village near Hanoi. But history praises and then dismisses. By the early 20th century this was all forgotten and Vietnamese ceramics were written off as provincial. But in 1997, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese ceramics dating back 500 years were found in a shipwreck off Hoi An, history paid attention again. Vietnamese ceramics really are special. Distinctive patterns include combinations of dragons and flowers, a duo not seen in Chinese pieces.

More recently, international art collections are buying some of the ceramic pieces created with tradition and wit by contemporary artist Bui Cong Khanh.

From 2012, Truong Sa island boasts a national record: the largest ceramic mosaic, a giant Vietnamese flag. Designed by artist Nguyen Thu Thuy, the 310.000 piece mosaic weights 3.5 tons. At 25 metres in length, it is so big it can be seen on satellite images.

2 Dong Ho woodcuts

Folk art has been celebrated as testament that the masses, not the ruling elite, are the makers of national culture. Historian Tran Quoc Vuong claims that ‘all the characteristics and superiority of Vietnamese culture are crystallized in the culture of villages’. Clans around Dong Ho village, in Northern Vietnam, made the village famous centuries ago for its woodcuts, a hand-made precursor to photocopies. An artisan carves lines onto a flat block of wood, covers it with ink and prints onto paper. Rustic pictures of proverbs, ritual ceremonies or daily scenes were displayed on walls. Some images symbolised good fortune or guarded the house, other prints alluded to social injustice. Smaller, joss-paper pictures of houses or vehicles are burnt as offerings.

3 Indochina Fine Arts School

Art, you might think, would offer some therapeutic solace when your country is experiencing a traumatic confrontation with an invading culture. In colonial times, artist To Ngoc Van, one of the ‘Four Masters’ of Vietnamese painting, wasn’t merely consoled by art. He saw art as an active instrument of change. Art, he felt, was a journey into new ways of understanding. His colleague Nguyen Gia Tri, like many of the poets and writers in 1930s Vietnam, wanted to ‘wash the eyes of the public, to enable them to see in brighter, clearer, newer ways’. Art enabled new ideas to be integrated with the old ones, and to extract the best of both worlds.

The Indochina Fine Arts School, inaugurated in 1925, married French liberalism and Vietnamese traditionalism, and gave birth to Vietnamese modern art. The two French founders, Tardieu and Inguimberty, strongly encouraged their art students to preserve their heritage by adapting local traditions. The school operated for only 20 years, but with irrevocable influence. For some time, this influence was a bone of contention, due to resentment towards French occupation. Now the institution is accepted as the catalyst of the nation’s modern art. The School’s graduates are highly revered artists who have put Vietnamese art on the international art market.

4 Lacquer

Laksa, a Sanskrit term meaning a hundred thousand, is where out word ‘lacquer’ derives from. Gum lacquer is a sticky substance secreted by insects. Obviously you’d need a hundred thousand or more to get any useful quantity of the gum. But in Vietnam the lacquer is plant-based, secreted by one of several varieties of native trees. The genuine product is a treacle-thick sap used to make wood waterproof. The urban myth is that the ubiquitous shiny vases and decorative paintings sold in every tourist shop across the country are ‘lacquer’. They are made with polyurethane resin, a toxic chemical compound that should not be used to serve food in.

Since Asian prehistory, lacquer was a resistant and decorative way to preserve wooden objects. Temples and palaces gleamed with the luster of lacquer, encrusted with mother of pearl or gold leaf patterns, captivating intrepid traders from the West. In the 1600s, ‘Chinese varnish’ became so popular with European high society that a fake lacquer was invented in Italy.

Whilst Japan and China argue over who developed the finest lacquerware, Vietnam turned lacquer into a Fine Art. After seeing the rich, glossy colours of the lacquered altar of the Temple of Literature, the art teacher of the Indochina Fine Arts School suggested to his students that they should try to paint with lacquer. They did. Traditional lacquerware technique met modern art, and history was made. Less than a century later, Vietnamese art is famous more than anything for its lacquer paintings, and Nguyen Gia Tri is the most respected lacquer painter.

nguyengiatri_lacquerCentral, South and North Spring Garden (1988) by Nguyen Gia Tri.
Lacquer on wood, 200×540 cm. Collection of the HCMC Fine Arts Museum. 


5 Silk Painting

The fragility of fine silk probably means that considerable silk paintings have been lost since the technique was adopted from China around the 3rd century. Vietnamese silk painting had its heyday in the 1920s, when misty, soft, images were created by Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984), ironically, because he wasn’t doing so well at mastering oil paint. After he exhibited his lyrical silk art in Paris in 1931, his career took off and he became an international sensation from Milan to Tokyo. As the master of Vietnamese silk painting, his success continues. Earlier this year one of his works fetched record prices ($380.000) at an art auction in Hong Kong.

The delicate art of silk painting is used with reinvigorated panache by contemporary Vietnamese artists Le Hoang Bich Phuong and Bui Tien Tuan, among others.

6 Soldier Artists

In 1950 a new art school was set up in Viet Bac, the Resistance Zone, to train artists who could produce easy to understand visual messages to unite the people into rising up against colonial rule. Artists were seen as the soldiers of the front that was the cultural battlefield. Some of them also fought in combat, as well as recording the revolution’s progress in a pre-gadget age. The art school was spearheaded by To Ngoc Van, the artist whose education at the Indochina Fine Arts School had made him see art as an instrument of change. He died before the 1954 victory of  Dien Bien Phu. The Resistance Class operated for 5 years, flourishing due to its isolation from the outside world and the fervour of its mission.

7 Propaganda Art

National art workers were recruited by the Ministry of Information in 1957 to make ‘real art’. Their propaganda posters were bright, original and direct, just what is needed to motivate and persuade effectively. Images of brave, defiant and hard-working people were painted with tempera on paper, and sometimes copied by amateurs to disseminate them on walls and bridges all over the country. The ‘scientific, national and popular’ style that could ‘portray the truth’, was officially defined as Socialist Realism, since its debut in the International Fine Arts Exhibition of 1958.

At present there are fewer than 10 full-time propaganda artists left in Vietnam. One still active is Luang Anh Dung, who says he loves the job he has been doing for 30 years, because it has the power to help people understand government policies. In post-reform Vietnam, his images show not only the soldiers and farmers that inspired previous generations; now we see computer programmers and office workers as symbols of development and economic growth.

Digitally printed images, sadly, loose the charisma that made the original hand painted propaganda posters become collectors items.


8 Abstract Art

Vietnamese paintings of the 1930s frequently show 19th century European techniques. But flashes of Picasso’s influence made it into some works inclined towards new ways of expressing reality.  Ta Ty (1922-2004) had been a Revolutionary artist, but has become better known for experimenting with non-representational art. By chance, he was able to see a French magazine with pictures of European Avant-Garde art. He must have been jolted, but he relished the intellectual aspect of trying to understand these paintings. Curious to explore, he tried it for himself.

In Hanoi, a 1951 solo exhibition of Ta Ty’s cubist paintings caused some controversy, as you might expect if you show pictures that people don’t understand. Party Secretary Truong Chinh fiercely opposed the new painting styles. Despite the critique, Ta Ty, was keen to investigate the potential of these breakthrough artistic ideas, and by the 1960s, he was making abstract art. Few other Vietnamese artists have become abstract painters, perhaps disappointed that abstract art was banned from national exhibitions until 1990. All over the world, abstract art has been accused of evil wrongdoings by detractors who like to know what they are looking at.

Aside from the artist’s estate, some of the few remaining works by Ta Ty in Vietnam can be found at Tu Do gallery, 53 Ho Tung Mau, District 1, HCMC.

taty_hcmc_fineartsmuseumGrowing (1972) by Ta Ty. Oil on canvas, 170×320 cm.
Collection of the HCMC Fine Arts Museum. 

 

9 Dinh Q. Le

‘Culture is a basic need’, declares the cover of the Prince Claus Fund brochure. In 2010, the Dutch foundation awarded a generous prize to artist Dinh Q. Le, for ‘exploring different constructions of reality, providing inspiration and practical opportunities for young artists, and for advancing free thought and contemporary visual expression’. Le’s artworks have challenged dominant American perceptions of the Vietnam War, by showing the damage done to Vietnam.

As a child, this artist from Ha Tien learnt from his aunt how to weave grass mats. As a university student in the US, he used that same weaving technique with large photographs, some of which are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Le was the first Vietnamese artist to have a solo show in that seminal institution. Dinh Q. Le is also co-founder of the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts in the US, and San Art, in HCMC.


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Dinh Q Le receives the
Prince Claus Award
in Saigon in 2011.

10 Art Residencies in Vietnam

Artist-in-residence programmes are cultural exchange initiatives. A number of institutions all over the world fund artist residencies, giving artists anything from a small room to a several thousand dollars to buy art materials. They give creative practitioners the opportunity to work with other people, develop new art projects and share their ideas within a new community. Vietnamese artists have been invited, over the years, to work in other countries, from Japan to Germany, for a few weeks or months at a time.

But since May 2012, a residency programme exists in Vietnam: San Art Laboratory, in HCMC. Focusing on the talent in home territories (as yet, the programme does not fund international artists), it provides studio space, a stipend and a whole lot of expert artistic support to young Vietnamese artists. Six artists have benefited so far, and two more are currently starting their residency. The public gets access to Open Studios, artist talks and exhibitions, and the artists get everything they need to concentrate on their art for some months. Culture is shared!

 

Text and photos by Cristina Nualart

 

Saigon snapshot

Things that the streets of Saigon has in abundance: sunshine, motorbikes, electricity cables and fresh drinks in plastic cups (coffee and fruit/veg juices)

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Photo © Cristina Nualart 2013

Happy Independence Day, Vietnam

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A rainstorm covered central Saigon in grey mist, but luckily, it dispelled quickly and I took this photo. The building with the Vietnamese flag in lights is not even finished yet, but the construction can carry on beneath the neon. Have a nice weekend, people in Vietnam!

Unless otherwise specified, text and images © 2014 Cristina Nualart

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



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