Cristina NualART

SOME THOUGHTS ON ART, VISUAL CULTURE AND GENERAL EYE CANDY

We Are Asia – Art Stage Singapore 2014

This article was cross-posted on the Hanoi Grapevine.

marinabaysandssilouhette_cnualart‘We Are Asia’ was the title of the 4th edition of Art Stage. Of the many art fairs mushrooming all over Asia, Art Stage Singapore has probably chosen the most glamorous venue: Marina Bay Sands. Yet the 4th edition of this fair tried to counteract the elitism that the artworld sometimes lounges in.

Art Stage attempted to bridge the gap between high-brow collectors and the general public. For a commercial art fair, it offered more tours than many museums. Art stage organisers planned a strong educational programme to attract a middle class audience that might otherwise shy away from all the glitz and price tags with lots of zeros.

Many of the scheduled tours focused on the regional platforms, as they termed 8 mini-exhibitions on Southeast Asia, India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia and Central Asia. Commissioned to specialist curators, the platforms were a commercial venture (all the works were for sale) but with a clear aim to highlight regional characteristics of the art from each area.

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The platforms served also as a welcome respite from the aisles of eye-catching but barren works that populate art fairs: quirky sculptures, embroidered canvases, Manga style figures, gloss and glitter. Below is a selection of the more intellectually captivating artworks from these platforms.

From China, artist Qiu Zhijie presents a multi-artist project on fantasy sculptures, and this ink drawing:  The Politics of Laughing (detail), 2013, 145 x 220 cm. Take a moment to read some locations and wonder at the real places you would give each name to.
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Korean photographer Seung-Woo Back has done an analogue remix in Utopia, a wall-to-wall photograph framed in strips. Each strip was developed in a different country, which explains the colour variations. The cityscape of monolithic, sterile buildings is of North Korea. The cold colours and lack of people add a fearsome tint to the massive skyscrapers.
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The Australian Platform was the weakest, with inconsistent topics, quality and approaches. The only remarkable piece was this video installation called Syria. This timely piece by Lebanese-Australian Khaled Sabsabi is a remix of Damascus footage cut to move in neverending islamic patterns.
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From the Philippines, Mark Justiniani recreates traditional wooden boats, inventing a low-tech way to create optical illusions of baffling perspective and depth.
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Singaporean artist Donna Ong uses hand cut pictures from old books in her commissioned furniture lightboxes titled And We Were Like Those Who Dream. Patient handcrafting gives the objects a magical appearance that is really heart warming. The pieces work as little treasure troves, like Orhan Pamuk’s memorabilia in the Museum of Innocence.
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Taiwanese artist Tu Wei-Cheng supports in vintage furniture his optical illusions. The Emperor’s Chest is the story of how forgotten Victorian toys and other antique devices become alive again in cabinets and dressing tables. Like in The Nutcracker, once the toys are alive, they become real. The people are contemporary dancers in a multilayered cityscape, a theatre of the absurd. artstage2014_cnualart_tuweicheng

FX Harsono, from Indonesia, authored one of the most powerful artworks in the whole fair. He also uses furniture, but combines multiple message channels in the installation: from the artist’s own poetry, to LED light displays, to book covers. The Raining Bed splashes political commentary in a direct, clever and visually evocative way. The books asleep on the bed have titles like ‘The Smug General’, ‘The Rise and fall of the Great Powers’, or ‘The History of Malaysia’. The poem scrolling on the wall can be read in Indonesian and English. It says ‘In my sleep I entangled the past, at the tip of the pen history is predicted, at the tip of the gun history is deceived, at the end of the fountain history washed away.’
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Another exciting piece uses old books from the artist’s personal childhood library. Crammed with nostalgia, Haslin Ismail’s Book Land is an imaginative jungle of landscapes, adventurous people and mysterious territories waiting for a reader to discover them. The artwork appears to be a carved and folded homage to the pleasure of literature. The Malay artist, however, confesses that he hates reading, but is in awe of the power of books to fill the mind with stories and knowledge. By making books more tactile and sculptural, he controls the worry experienced by reticent readers.
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Soe Naing, from Myanmar, locked himself in a large glass box, inside which he hung daily sketches. In reference to the censorship that has vetoed so much art in his country, the viewer can barely see the sketches, as the glass is painted black. The artist, from the inside, scratches away at the black paint, from which squinting onlookers try to see the drawings. The piece is called Intermission on Stage, and it does what it says.
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The Southeast Asian platform was the largest and richest, not surprisingly since the hosting country is at the heart of the vivacious region. What was surprising was the lack of Vietnamese artists. It would be very difficult to curate a representative show that included every country, and token presences would be detrimental, but one has to wonder why no Vietnamese artist made it to the final selection.

However, Cuc gallery from Hanoi was the first Vietnamese gallery to participate in Art Stage. The booth featured abstracts by Nguyen Trung and Duong Thuy Lieu and figure paintings by Do Hoang Tuong and Ly Tran Quynh Giang.

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Another Vietnamese artist, Nguyen The Dung, is represented by Hong Kong based AP gallery.
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Mylyn Nguyen is an Australian artist of Vietnamese heritage. She filled the Brenda May gallery booth with environmental concerns, buzzing around in an installation of minute paper bees, some with micro houses on their backs.
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Photography had a strong presence across many of the booths in Art Stage. Photographs with manipulated, collaged or threaded interventions are testament of the medium’s evolution in the Fine Art sphere, and amongst art buyers in Asia.

In all, the fair was a successful event for the participants, and a welcome art experience for the general public. It was not packed with striking new discoveries, but it offered sufficient new ideas to keep regular art fair goers on their toes. And the mission to engage a wider audience with thematic tours is something more in the art establishment should consider doing.

 

 

A galloping year

Word Vietnam magazine commissioned me to create this illustration to celebrate the start of the new Chinese year of the horse. I wish you all a free rein year!

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Vietnam’s 2013 art scene ends with a bang: Tiffany Chung

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, January 2014, p.16.

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In Vietnam, it is rare to see exhibitions of the most prominent Vietnamese artists. The stars of the country’s artworld are in high demand in art fairs, biennials and museums of other parts of the globe. In her career spanning little over a decade, Tiffany has, on average, exhibited 1 solo show and 2 groups shows every year, and participated in 1 biennial or triennial every 2 years. Her art has travelled from cities across the US, to Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East.

The last time Tiffany’s paintings and sculptures were shown in Vietnam was 5 years ago, at Galerie Quynh, HCMC, where her new show An Archeology Project for Future Remembrance can be seen until 10 January 2014.

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This exhibition is possibly the first in Vietnam that shows the type of interdisciplinary research that is making waves in intellectual circles. At some point in the second half of the 20th century, the modernist admiration for the instinctual genius of the artist gave way to a trend for intelligent artworks that demonstrated the artist’s ability to articulate theories and illustrate concepts. Saigon resident Tiffany Chung’s brainpower seems to be switched onto hyperactive all the time.

Tiffany speaks with energy and sharp insight. Her research is a solid back up for her unapologetic opinions. For a long time, she has been a good friend of Erik Harms, assistant professor of Anthropoly at Yale. In the Dong Khoi space, the collaboration between the artist and the anthropologist is presented linearly. Excerpts from Erik Harms next book are glossy art objects. Selected passages of colonialist propaganda and historical descriptions of Saigon are also readable art. But the research is not just text, it is drawn into the maps and crafted into the sculptures.

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The drawings on vellum paper, velvety and translucent, are based on historical maps or futuristic maps projecting urban plans of areas yet to be built. The gleeful layers of the drawing, minute doodley patterns in pretty colours, deceive us into thinking they are imaginative fabrications. Their hidden research tells other stories. The maps – a trademark of her art practice – critique the political decisions that shape borders, lead to wars, construct artificial communities or displace people. The six map drawings in this show are specifically about areas in South Vietnam, mostly referencing the forced evictions of people who lived on land the government wants to turn into a fancy financial district. The 3 channel video art also comments on that issue.

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 The gem of the exhibition is the hanging installation Stored in a jar: monsoon, drowning fish, color of water, and the floating world. The piece was commissioned by the Singapore Biennale in 2011. On glass puddles, dozens of miniature houses, houseboats and boats are aligned with neat gardens reminiscent of a middle-class American suburb.

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Detailed architectural models are inspired by traditional Asian design and materials. Rather than glorifying colonial architecture, Tiffany’s art admires older vernacular architecture. Not for sentimental reasons, however. The design of her mini housing project is informed by in depth research, adapting ideas from all over the region, from Japan to Thailand as well as Vietnam, and crafting the models with cutting-edge technology. The modern and the traditional coexist.

The overall magical appearance of this calming and poised artwork is a plan for a portable model of sustainable urbanism. Wooden houses, some on stilts, have solar panels and rainwater collectors. One of Tiffany’s pet topics is climate change. The evidence, she illustrates, is that the Mekong region will be in knee-deep trouble in coming decades. Floods will increase their devastating capacity, so we should prepare for it. Perhaps creating floating communities.

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Artist Himiko Nguyen comes back from the dark.

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, December 2013, pp. 98-99.

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Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko's artwork in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

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‘What are you doing?’ asked elder sister.
‘I’m looking for hell’, answered Be Chinh, the little girl who was digging up the earth with a knife. In My Tho, her hometown in the Mekong Delta, her family called the youngest sibling Baby Nine. Hoang, her real name, found hell much later, in Saigon, but she is climbing out of it admirably well.

Last year, a friend called me with bad news. A local newspaper had reported that Hoang, popularly known as Himiko, was in a coma following a road accident. The cause of the accident varies with the source. Depending on the newspaper, the friend, or the day you ask Himiko herself, it either involved alcohol (although several of her friends report that she doesn’t drink), or someone who drove into her while she stood on a pavement, or that she lost control of a friend’s powerful motorbike that she’d borrowed.

Whatever happened, it led to grave head injuries. Surgeons cut out a piece of her cranium to minimise the damage of brain swelling. She was in a very dangerous coma for days. Weeks later, conscious again, she started a visual diary on Facebook. The unflinching photos of stitches and scars are not for the faint hearted. They are testament to the highly skilled medical team, who grafted back the part of the skull bone they had frozen.

Himiko says her life turned into a Korean film: following a dramatic accident, the protagonist breaks up with their lover, and it all ends in tears.

Storms of tears flowed. Not from pain. ‘After the accident I was always crying loudly and having tantrums, like a 5 year old child,’ she laughs. ‘People who are broken in the head come back as children.’ The thirtysomething artist chuckles, ‘I think now I’m 13.’

Himiko’s grin turns into an intense expression. She explains that researching brain injuries has helped her understand the changes caused by the accident, the recovery process, and the split from her former partner. She raves about Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk on brain science.

In less than a year, her recovery has been remarkable. ‘I didn’t die because before I had done yoga training 3 or 4 days a week,’ she says beaming. Himiko tackled her rehabilitation like a steamroller, but acknowledges the care she received. She’s particularly grateful to the free acupuncture treatment a volunteer gave her, to reduce the facial paralysis.

Concussion can affect language skills. The first time I saw Himiko after the accident she told me she wanted to practice English, because her Vietnamese had become childish. This is coming from someone who studied Russian, and who worked as a translator in Japan to save money to study art.

‘My family do not understand about art. My family is very poor, we couldn’t all study at university,’ says the ninth sibling who started making origami art for friends’ birthdays, since she could not afford to buy gifts. She put herself through university and saw her art prices rise to the top of her cohort. ‘5 years and beginning’ was Himiko’s university thesis, finished in 2005 after 5 years at art school. She’s now onto another beginning, one in which she wears hats more than she used to. But inside her head, I imagine fireworks. Her ambitions and artistic ideas must flash around at strobe speed.

Himiko continues to make art from her ‘Old Dreams’ studio in central HCMC. Any artwork she sells is funding her dreams, new or old. Excited about her next project, a further development of a photographic series titled ‘Come Out’, Himiko emails curators at luxury hotels, takes calls from galleries, and receives private collectors. ‘She is a true artist. She has given up everything for art,’ applauds one of these private collectors, who has known Himiko since the start of her art career.

Her career started only two months after graduating, when she opened the first ‘Himiko café’. It was in the living room of a shared house. ‘I thought of opening a café because Vietnamese people always go in cafes, they don’t want to go in galleries and museums. They don’t know museums,’ Himiko analyses.

Saigon was a different place in 2005. There were hardly any galleries. Himiko’s success was to find a way to show art that suited the local mindset. Her determination to have more than the one exhibition a year she might get if she relied on other art spaces sparked it off. She knew the strengths and weaknesses of local artists.  ‘If artists want to exhibit in San Art [which didn’t exist at the time] or Galerie Quynh, they need to write a proposal and this is difficult. With Himiko they got a yes. I understand them.’ Her low bureaucracy approach gave opportunities to many, and the rotating exhibitions made the café a more interesting place to go.

At first, she says, customers didn’t care about the artwork. People came because word of mouth rated hers as one of the top cafes in HCMC. Himiko makes it sound like it was easy, but organising exhibitions with young artists had its challenges. ‘Saigon artists want to be free,’ Himiko observes. ‘They cannot keep time. The exhibition is always installed one week after the deadline.’ She learnt to wait until the artwork was actually on the walls before informing the newspapers about the exhibition opening.

The grass roots, low-fi approach might suggest a somewhat provincial art style. Not Himiko’s. Far from it. Her artwork is in two important collections of Vietnamese art.

One day the authorities came to close down the alternative art space they had kept a eye on. The culprit was nude photography, too risqué for millennial Vietnam. But Himiko café was reborn a second time in a different location. It lasted some years before the same thing happened again. She opened a third, but was unable to keep it following her accident. She is now waiting for an investor to help her set up a new café. She ploughed money from her art sales in the cafes. Now Himiko owes nothing, but is back at square one.

It shouldn’t be a problem for her to begin again. ‘If you believe in good you get good energy,’ she says. Before the accident she got on with her life and didn’t think much about others. Now the sound of an ambulance makes her take stock. ‘Before [the accident] I didn’t care,’ she says, explaining how positive thinking gives strength, ‘but now I care.’

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Follow Himiko’s writings on http://himikocafe.blogspot.com/

   “I am a sculptor. I don’t know about Picasso and Van Gogh.
I don’t know about History painting. I make the art I like.”
Himiko

Text and photos by Cristina Nualart.

Ha-ha! A graffiti artist’s magical trip to Saigon

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, December 2013, p.16.

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How do you explain your job to people? In a recent interview, a non-starving artist based in South East Asia said he is ‘a dancing poodle for the 1%’.  Another artist, Ha-ha has a business card that says he is an ‘alien theorist’. Being an artist has its perks.

Ha-ha believes that aliens can help us achieve solar consciousness, which is a step above from planetary consciousness, which is what we would achieve if we connected with trees, fish and all living beings on earth. Connection is a word Ha-ha uses a lot, both in relation to technology, and, I infer, a metaphysical form of bonding with others. Think Avatar, but without the Smurf blue.

haha_by_cnualart4Aliens are just like us’, says this graffiti artist. On his first visit to Vietnam, Ha-ha talked extensively about collective consciousness, archetypes, alternative realities, and other uncommon phenomena. I should have asked him if he has met many aliens, but my mind was clouded with visions of Age of Aquarius predictions.  I learnt, for example, that since Disney has acquired Star Wars, future episodes of the series will become a form mind control.

The original Star Wars film, Ha-ha believes, is a veritable encyclopedia of archetypes. After seeing the film in childhood, he began to draw pictures of spaceships and of Darth Vader, whom he thought was a good character, not an evil one. Prophetic…

The nickname Ha-ha comes from another media character: a boy in The Simpsons series who bleats ‘ha-ha’ when he hits other kids.

Ha-ha’s real name, Regan Tamanui, rings of his Maori ancestry. Fed magic mushroom soup by his grandmother from the age of 5, Ha-ha decided early on that he was going to be an artist. His career started taking off in his 20s, after he moved to Australia. There he joined the first group of Stuckists that formed outside of England. The Stuckists advocated for a return to good, old fashioned painting. Ha-ha made oil paintings.

The he tried spray-paint, and things took a turn for the better. He is now ranked as one of the world’s most influential street artists. He doesn’t say ‘street art’ though, he deplores that elitist way of referring to graffiti.

His artistic trademark is to merge two separate stencil portraits, overlapping two faces. These stencil fusions began as a way to illustrate archetypes. The bond in relationships  -between couples, people and robots, people and animals-  is an archetype. The pair is more than the sum of its part. This unity, easy for all of us to understand, is a small-scale version of collective consciousness. Ha-ha hopes we will elevate and ‘connect to a higher consciousness. Hopefully it will be a love consciousness.’

haha_by_cnualart5Acetate is Ha-ha’s tool. The artist cuts the transparent film into templates for spray-painting. For some portraits, he needs to cuts over 60 sheets of acetate to get all the detail. The front of his sketchbook is tattooed with rows of numbers. They’re not numerological charts. He notes how many metres of acetate he gets through, and how many cuts he makes. It’s a trick to keep focused. Ha-ha practices art as a form of meditation.

In October 2013, Ha-ha was invited, quite spontaneously, to be the first artist in residence at Saigon Outcast. It was quick and easy to bring him over from Singapore, where he was exhibiting, to live and work in one of the shipping containers overlooking a wasteland in District 2 for a month. Ha-ha enjoyed his first visit to Vietnam, and devoted himself to creating a series of portraits of Ho Chi Minh. The works, sprayed on walls or on paper, show the figurehead of a young man, or as the unmistakable legendary president.

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‘With the internet, and the global collective consciousness, we are manifesting this god, a god that is there and has answers for us. If you want something, you can just, like, order a pizza online, and it gets delivered in 20 minutes.’

 

 Text and photos by Cristina Nualart

 

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.

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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