Take a walk down a lane of history and visit the fictional school of Alexandre d’Rhodes, the French Jesuit missionary who created today’s written script in Vietnam. See the students whose eyesight is tested with blindfold and the art of play. This is Phan Thao Nguyen’s world of creating history through fragments with a mastery of both fact and fiction in careful gestures of oil on photographic film. Similarly adept in the art of oil is Dalat-based painter Nguyen Thai Tuan, whose large-scale canvases are haunting reminders of another war-torn history, left in fragments. A cast-iron gate, sophisticated and reminiscent of French-colonial times in Vietnam is given central looming focus in his painting ‘Gate’. Conceived as part of his ‘Heritage’ series, this melancholic scene is a doorway into a Viet Nam that is left deliberately ambiguous with portent. This feeling of ambiguity is left hanging in the balance with the paintings of Nguyen Van Du, whose visits to a local abattoir just beyond Ho Chi Minh City left an indelible mark on this artists’ representation of violence. A dead and bleeding animal lies dominant in the frame, a leg strapped to a nearby wooden pole, its guts pouring onto a dimly lit interior. It is the contrast of the brushstroke that lends particular tension to the scene, its background a careful flat monochrome in tone, compared to the heavy gestural marks of paint that are so thick it gives body to the carcass. Du questions the level of deceit with which we live our consumer culture, our readiness to devour what we cannot witness in death. This presence of deceit is also alive in the photograph ‘TV Time’ by Phan Quang, whose family live under a bamboo cage. Such structures typically house chickens and roosters in Vietnam and across South East Asia, here the artist refers to humans as equal game to be monopolized, whether it is through the televised propaganda or the structures we choose as limits in our lives.
Le Hoang Bich Phuong also thinks about the mechanisms we manipulate in order to maneuver our desires in society. In ‘The Man I have Met’, a man poses with a sharp pointed beak of a bird, almost in an embarrassed state of shame or indolence. She asks whether such ‘masks’ can transform our true selves into better beings or is it all just a lie. Such a border between nature and culture, also perhaps between nature and technology is found paramount in the art of Le Phi Long. In his careful ink drawings of dismembered tree limbs of Con Gio forest (a natural reserve in Saigon), Long heals these wounds of nature with metal struts, like Band-Aids, that he paints using silver leaf. Is Long suggesting that nature can be assisted through technology? Or is he suggesting that our new nature will be dominated by the realm of machines?
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