Cristina NualART

Tag: Environmental Art

Artist Himiko Nguyen comes back from the dark.

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


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


‘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

   “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.”

Text and photos by Cristina Nualart.

Three weekend trilogy – art from the beach

Maintaining an art practice alongside a regular job is all the harder if you live in an exciting place -in my case Vietnam – that you just want to go and spend time discovering and exploring. Paradoxically, new experiences are a well-known stimulant of creativity. I was a little surprised with myself when 3 weekends turned into an unexpected mini art project.

I have never been very interested in painting still lives, but one idea leads to another, and I came to making some. This is why: I went to Ke Ga beach one weekend, packing the sketchbook that accumulates drawings of found stones, towels and other stuff that looks gorgeous when you are on holiday. I didn’t use it much.

FloatingBenchwThe wild landscape of eroded rocks propelled me to take hundreds of photos, and long walks. Across miles of sand, seashells and driftwood squatted between the rocks. Few artists can resist the tactile urge of holding these objects. Some were too beautiful to give back to the sea, and they came with me back to the big city. The light weight of these objects is surprising. Weekend one in this trilogy was devoted to research and to collect materials.

Looking out at my neighbour’s terrace after holding my little treasures, I saw these concrete tables and benches, of a type that I have only come across in Asia. They are not labour-intensive to produce, and they are so adapted to the climate the design is unbeatable: they never blow away or get damaged in tropical storms, they don’t harbour bacteria and they dry quickly after monsoon rains. I find their functionality and stumpy shapes very attractive. And so the next weekend, both ideas collided and I was compelled to paint a chair too heavy to move by myself on a lightweight piece of wood.

I started off with some pencil sketches, which were nice but too clean and flat. On a whim I tore them up and stuck them on card and layered them with acrylic paint. The spatula and the rough surface were good practice for painting on three-dimensional objects. The finished collage, ‘Floating Bench’, has the quietness of an empty beach, but it is both an exploration of forms in space and of tactile qualities. In any case, it is a by-product of the preparatory work of the actual painted objects.

3wkndTrilogy_BenchwI was fascinated by the perfect smoothness of this piece of balsa wood, lighter than chocolate mousse, a haptic surprise. It arrived in Saigon with other found bits that went into my carrier bag too. The second weekend in the trilogy, the wooden junk had become a portable art object, tattooed with a pencil drawing that hid under layers of paint and graphite. the restfulness of the bench is an inherent quality of the natural object. Erosion and human manipulation have intervened to show the beauty of gentle sloping lines.


A hardened sponge that must have been the bumper of a fishing boat was fragile and crumbly, but so light to the touch and nicely oval that it begged a career change. The podgy concrete table, companion to the bench, was painted onto the fragile sponge, which I coated in transparent primer to give it a bit of strength after a hard life as a tidal plaything. the finished object is still quite delicate, in contrast to the image it now transports.

One further block of wood, a heavy, triangular-sectioned stake will become the third piece in the 3D trilogy. The wooden lump lacks all of the airiness, portability and lightness of this other type of chair commonly found in Vietnam:


P.S. Post updated: in December 2011, these sketches were sold in the Arts For Mobility charity auction.

Eco art

Currently, Madrid’s Casa de America presents a group exhibition of Spanish and Latin American artists, Mientras sea posible’. The brief is not one I’ve come across elsewhere: to show humankind’s adaptability and potential for change. This topic has been explored in many a new media/digital art exhibition, but here the focus is on natural materials and homeostasis: the tendency to equilibrium between interdependent elements, in particular that of the body, or even the earth, as a unified organism.

Transforming the environment is something all of us who live in cities forget about, because the built cityscape shows change less dramatically than sites in transition from a rural to a more urbanised status. This exhibition offers no reflections on the loss of natural landscape, however, but enough on that can be found in any publication by Greenpeace España.

The questions asked by the curator have been interpreted with more references to local mythology and traditions than I would have expected, and I enjoyed that surprise.

This is Chilean artist Catalina Bauer’s contemporary rendition of quipu, an Andean accounting system. I am fascinated by how many knowledge systems exist that most Westerners like myself never hear about. It makes me question dominant paradigms, and the increasing spread of them. Will the minority ones become extinct, or preserved as a token, like older languages that carry a culture but have little use since they are only used by bilingual people who communicate mostly in their ‘stronger’ tongue? Either way, the artist is pointing to what is on the other side. It is up to us to glimpse through the grass curtain, and discover an alternative paradigm or a message on the inside vs. the outside.

Argentinian artist Ana Gallardo uses a Mexican tradition as a source of inspiration for her installation. The religious rituals of pilgrims to Oaxaca’s Virgen de Juquila are re-enacted by visitors to this space. Viewers, like pilgrims, may give material form to their wishes, out of mud, and leave them en route to the sanctuary, which is here reduced in size so it looks like a room-sized train-set. Because of the miniature landscape feel, it bears similarities with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s now defunct Hell, but made by a younger sibling. Gallardo asks us to make a wish for our own old age, so a resonance of proximity to death is inferred too. However, this is a home-made and interactive kind of artwork which grants hope, and sees people united in good will rather than a bloodbath. Believer or not, making mudcakes is a pastime that kept me happy for hours as a child, and I therefore wholeheartedly recommend it. Even if your wishes don’t come true, it will do you good.

Catalina León is another Argetinian artist, whose curtains of fallen and falling leaves give no indication of their origin or intention. By way of an artist statement, Catalina says only: ‘May nothing trouble you, may nothing frighten you, everything passes’. Such buddhist-style wisdom fits in well with the calm beauty of the piece, but leaves you wondering if you are indeed feeling cheated out of a deep theory for the artwork. Of course I had enjoyed in the work of the other artists learning about legends and stories new to me, here I get no such education. But the cascading sheets of leaf-shaped blankets filling the space with a warm foresty smell, carefully made of hand-stitched leaves, provoke plenty of imaginings of tribal crafts and the cloak of nature to keep one satisfied.

How to make art with toxic waste: Richard Wilson’s 20:50

RW_2050_photocristinanualartSUV’s may be going down, but oil is back in fashion. Richard Wilson’s installation is on show for the third time in London, in a Saatchi space, at Saatchi’s third gallery, now in Chelsea. I feel very lucky to have seen the ‘indoor oil slick’ twice before, both in its setting on Boundary Road, and then in the Southbank Saatchi gallery. See how it looked there.

The first time round, I saw it first in 1993, this artwork blew my young mind. The disused factory in St John’s Wood, as I recall the experience, was an enormous white void, so big it was almost empty, but dotted with ideas (bizarre artworks made of frozen blood, etc.) that made me smile. When I hit the 20:50 room, however, the smile turned to O for awe. It was stunning!!! A gigantic upside down mirror, room-size, made of slick, black oil. Nobody around. Just white walls, light-filled windows, and ‘glass’. But without the glass. Phenomenal. No other installation quite moves me in the same way.

The second time I had the beautiful experience was a decade later,  in the County Hall venue in London’s Southbank. Wood-panelled walls and a delightfully warm and old-fashioned interior throughout, the building did ‘upgrade’, for want of a better expression, the status of the artworks, meaning it felt in places like a historical museum, far different from the gianourmous white cube premises of the nineties. 20:50 in a wood-panelled room veered on the sublime, except that as with all things in life, the first time has the most impact. But don’t get me wrong, the Southbank version of an oil-filled lounge is nothing short of exquisite. That’s how astonishing this piece is.

Now it’s on view, as in it’s infancy (thanks go to Matt’s gallery for taking the primordial risk of enabling this work in the 80’s, but I didn’t see 20:50 then, so can’t comment on the original setting), in a barren white room. It would be fine, if you could actually experience it. However, the gallery has halved the sensation by prohibiting the public from walking down the slope. Ridiculous health & safety regulations are alleged, unsurprisingly. Gosh, won’t we laugh at ourselves in the future knowing how much we let policy overtake our common sense and innate sense of survival. I mean, how many people do you know who really want to bathe in disused machine oil? Surely even the free-radicals in deep-fried oil don’t age the skin that badly! I must add, though, that the public must take some responsibility for this unfortunate barrier (and be pretty dumb/disrespectful too) because visitors had thrown in coins and other objects (including socks, I am told by Saatchi staff!) leading to the artwork having to be drained (and barricaded…).

Still, half the sensation is nonetheless a massive endorphin rush. Pay your respects to the oil, rewards await.


Unless otherwise specified, text and images © 2017 Cristina Nualart

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

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