In Vietnamese, the word for “Peculiar Pavilion”, “Kỳ lâu”, is composed of two words: “Lâu”, an open structure often erected in the middle of a lake for sightseeing purposes. The word “Kỳ” has several meanings, here are some of them:
Kỳ: a board game in which each of two opponents has a certain number of pieces, competing to either capture the most important piece of the other (chess, Chinese chess) or to occupy the most territory on the board (no)
Kỳ: strange, peculiar
Sàn Art and Manzi are pleased to announce ‘Lingering at the Peculiar Pavilion’, the first solo exhibition by artist Võ Trân Châu.
Since the 6-month long residency at Sàn Art Laboratory in mid-2015, Trân Châu has been tracing a few amongst the descendants of the Nguyễn dynasty (1802-2945) to create ‘Water-image’. This work remakes Long cổn, the emperor’s ritual garment, by sowing together patches of the descendants’ clothing. Continuing this research, linking the past historical context with the present, Trân Châu develops a body of work consisting of embroidered paintings, fabric sculptures, and a unique form of mosaic tapestry/painting not often seen in Vietnam. This solo exhibition creates an illusory space between forgetting and remembering, between current affairs and autobiographical elements, to create discourse on the psychology of our very era that seems to embody a recurrent uneasiness, looping between the past and future.
The Nguyễn court was erected in Hue. Geographically speaking, the city lies in the central of Vietnam today. In the exhibition, Trân Châu guides viewers on an imaginary excursion to an alternative Hue city, where selective symbols earn new narratives. It starts from ‘Giải Trãi’, a mythical animal that embodies court justice. First made into a statue resembling an antelope by emperor Minh Mang (1791-1841), this animal gains yet a different look for, in the exhibition, its skin is patched with various square pieces of fabric cut out from the used clothing of the Nguyễn’s descendants. It looks more like a dog that quizzes its own ability to differentiate between right and wrong. This patching technique is employed with the next artworks. ‘Long Tinh Kỳ (Dragon Star Flag)’, recreates a flag that symbolises the foundation of Nguyễn dynasty; here it is hung under a heavy wooden bar, reciting the French occupation and the subsequent period that has divided Vietnam into three parts (1858-1885). Viewers will see ‘Ngọ Môn’ (Meridian Gate) with its center passageway meant only for the emperor and his entourage to enter the inner citadel. Although embedded in Hue’s logo, the gate in Tran Chau’s work with its soft, fuzzy shades of green and grey does not reminisce of an historic monument but rather the cheesy performances held each year in Hue to celebrate the city’s heritage. This is also where the last emperor Bảo Đại (1913-1997) has had to lower the monarchy’s flag for the revolutionists to raise their bright red flag. ‘Ngọ Môn’ can be read in parallel with ‘Ngẫu cảm (Spontaneous Feelings)’ as endings, the former for an era and the latter for a person. ‘Ngẫu cảm (Spontaneous Feelings)’ depicts a simple grave of emperor Bảo Đại in France, hinting on the burying of a part of history that has existed with the person now six feet under. The two works “Portrait no.12″ and “Portrait no.13″ directs the imaginary excursion to the royal father and son, Khải Định (1885-1925) and Bảo Đại. Aside from the “basterdized” style of dressing that was heavily criticized during his reign, Khải Định’s heritage includes a tomb in the unique style of converging old and new, East and West. His portrait is embroidered in a blurry shade of yellow, which according to Tran Chau, “adheres to the artistic temperament of the emperor”. Bảo Đại is more well-known as “the last emperor” and also as an elegant person with a beautiful queen. His portrait is done in the shades of blue jeans, pieced together from fragments of clothing belonging to descendants of the Nguyễn dynasty not including his own offspring. By pixelating the kings’ photographs and then laboriously reconstructing them with another material, Tran Chau creates two “new” versions of them, inviting the viewers to think about alternative pasts for them as well as what they represent. The character’s undefined gaze also invites the viewers to look into themselves in the present. Are they honest representations of themselves? In the confusion of current time, how do they interpret today’s affairs?
‘Khuyết (The Thing That’s Not There)’ is also a suggestion. This work of embroidered silk depicts Long cổn spreading its arm in mid-space, lacking its adornments of dragons and phoenix while reflecting on water a shadow that differs considerably from itself. Borrowing the style of the ritual outfit from the Ming dynasty (China, 1368-1644), a reign that exerted strong influence on court wear of countries such as Vietnam, Korea, or Japan, Trân Châu alludes to a strategic game between Vietnam and many other opponents that has dragged on for thousands of years and still hovers on the geography of Vietnam. “Khuyet” paves the way for “Water-image” in the form of Long cổn suspended on top of a black pond, isolated, in silence. This is Trân Châu’s imagination of what the position of the emperors of the Nguyễn dynasty was like during a century of turmoil. “Water-image” is created from sowing together pieces of clothing of the Nguyễn descendants, who are like portraits without numbers. The tremendous effort of those currently in power has and continues to erase these people’s past, rendering their images blurry and patchwork-like, akin to their family history. In a way, their story reflects society: that same blurriness unfortunately coincides with contemporary culture as some things (tangible or not) are packed with a “heritage” label and others tremble and shiver under uncertain, unappreciative hands. The exhibition ends here, but the strategic game displayed at this Peculiar Pavilion is open to people to play/compete. Tran Chau’s move is “breaking the structure of the material […] to create a new material to observe and touch upon the depth of individual stories as well as the multiple angles of history”. What about yours?
(adapted from Bích Trà’s introductory text for the exhibition)
 the designated garment for the emperor when making offerings to the heavens, wishing for peace
 In 1922, during Khai Dinh’s trip to Marseille to attend a fair, the intellectual Phan Chau Trinh wrote the emperor a letter with a list of suggestions including a passage on outfit. An excerpt: “Your highness has created a new style of outfit to wear to court. This outfit keeps the old style on the upper half, but the sleeves and cuffs are covered in colorful gemstones, neither the style of the West, neither the style of the East, then on your crown there are bright embroideries of dragons and phoenix.” (“Letter of seven points” (Thu That Dieu), Phan Chau Trinh, Anh Minh Publications, 1958)
 From the artist’s statement, 2015
image courtesy Manzi Art Space