This exhibition review was published in the August 2013 issue of Word Vietnam magazine.
Artist Le Hien Minh’s use of Vietnamese dó paper
‘I don’t know how to use a drill, I don’t know how to cut wood,’ says the artist who refuses to call herself a sculptor because she doesn’t know how to use workshop machinery. And yet Le Hien Minh’s exhibition is full of surprising 3D objects.
Le Hien Minh labels ‘real’ sculpture as a noisy activity requiring power tools. Her artwork consists mostly of squashing paper softened with glue into shapes. It can be done quietly, with no tools except her hands. But this simple activity makes her partly responsible for keeping afloat the few Northern villages that still handcraft dó paper, a thin, soft paper made from tree bark.
Over five hundred kilos of traditional Vietnamese dó paper were needed to make one of the installations here. One thousand hand-made dictionaries in a neat labyrinth cover the floor of the largest room at the back of the 1930’s building.
Dictionaries were the tools of Minh’s father, a linguist. Her father passed away ten years ago, but the exhibition title, Dó10, refers to the ten years that Minh has been creating art using dó paper. After training in lacquer painting in Saigon, Minh studied art in America. Far away from family, Minh received a surprise parcel containing some dó paper. Her mother’s gift was more influential than either of them might have guessed at the time. Minh felt immediately connected to her homeland’s traditional paper, and started painting on it.
A few more experiments resulted in the first sculptures, and she’s never looked back. ‘I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have dó paper,’ she reflects.
Each finished sculpture is put outside to dry and to age. The weathering effects of sun, humidity and wind change their surface. After a few months, the paper objects look like ceramics, stones or other treasures unearthed from the dusty depths of history.
This process gives a solid, weighty appearance to the hollow art objects. The weight is also psychological. She laments that women carry a heavy load in life. ‘Do we have to carry that much weight with us? We don’t know! We’re always asking ourselves,’ she exclaims, pointing to the sculpture of a woman floored by her struggle with ropes hanging down on her.
Weight doesn’t floor Minh, though. She sometimes wonders if, being a woman, she carries too much baggage, but as a feminist, she looks for balance. The underlying concept for all her artwork, she shares, is looking for balance. Not just the balance of a fair society, but internal balance as a person, and balance with nature. Minh makes work that will return to earth. ‘The paper will disintegrate and disappear, like me. Accept and make peace with nature.’
Hanoi-born artist Le Hien Minh exhibited at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum (20-25 July 2013). Some of the artworks in this show have appeared in previous exhibitions in Hanoi, HCMC, Korea and the US.