The relationship between mind, body and the physical environment has been a constant topic inside the studios of Le Phi Long, Lai Thi Dieu Ha and Nguyen Van Du in Session 4 of ‘San Art Laboratory’.
The contemplation of this fragile relationship was evident in the photographic snapshots taken by Nguyen Van Du in his regular visits to an abattoir on the outskirts of Saigon. Above his oil-paint spattered studio floor, these pinned images of animal flesh being violently torn apart are amongst color photocopies of painted similar scenes of death by celebrated artists such as Francesco de Goya or Francis Bacon. Phi Long’s study of the history of Saigon and the crocodiles that once pervaded its swampy waters are drawn on the floor as if they are emerging from the studio walls while photographs are dispersed across tables where Phi Long is experimenting with his own body as a kind of endangered presence in amongst the pollution of a local nature reserve in Can Gio. Dieu Ha in comparison has her studio set up like a kind of doctor’s office with scientific images of human brain activity hung alongside painterly renderings of the same on glass and canvas. Ha’s fascination with the brain is connected to her experiments with psychodrama therapy, often turning her studio into a quasi-confessional space for visiting patients and scientists. This resulting exhibition features but a fraction of the wealth of research and experimentation generated by these three artists over the past six months.
During this time, Nguyen Van Du found himself transporting back to ‘San Art Laboratory’ pounds and pounds of fresh beef that would be cooked and served with his local flair and then the discussion around the table of artists would turn towards the question of violence in his work. While flavors were ironically savored, debate around how an act of violence can be painted with the immediacy of the photographic image would challenge Du and his commitment to painting. He believes painting to be the first medium in the history of art and thus wants to command its language as a tool of human documentation. His large-scale canvases, thick with gestures of oil in red and pink his brush like the knife that has killed, reveal a controlled horror in slaughter. Such tableaus remind us, ironically, that we all take part in the results of such violence on a daily basis. This dilemma of the aestheticization of violence and how our contemporary culture has near desensitized our empathy with pain and suffering has greatly influenced our respect for our environment, considering the natural world something malleable, that we think we can control. For Le Phi Long, the destruction of the land and the upheaving of ancestral communities for socio-economic progress are of particular concern. He is drawn to the myriad families from Ben Tre and surrounding provinces, arguably thought relocated to Can Gio in 1978. These families responded to a governmental reform of the countryside following the Vietnam War, urging the re-planting of thousands of mangrove seeds from the Mekong Delta to Can Gio. Long spent much time during his residency with the remaining families who struggle to eke out a living in this UNESCO natural reserve that few tourists appropriately respect. Long’s use of materials is central to this ensuing body of works, where metal is molded to wood in such a way that the metal acts like an initial band-aid to an inflicted wound by mankind, only to eventually consume its entire host. Working with sculpture, photography, performance and drawing, his practice subtly refers to the trauma of industrializing societies where systems of finance govern supreme with irreversible social and natural effects. Understanding the occurrence and effects of trauma is also of key focus in the art of Lai Thi Dieu Ha, though here her questions are anchored in the intangible world of psychology. Dieu Ha delves into the scientific categorizations, methodologies and treatment of depression and guilt that are often associated with specifc social situations. Working with industry professionals and their patients, Dieu Ha questions whether suffering is determined by human gene or social circumstance, utilizing modes of theatre, prop and the dramatization of the self that are inherent methods of psychodrama. Ha takes her performance practice one step further by delivering visualizations of her emotional experiences of observing and participating inside such a stage which includes a large-scale sculptural installation of the brain as an enveloping machine and video documentation of interviews with guest artists, patients and scientists questioning ideas of psychology and the various treatments of associated illnesses.
Essay by Zoe Butt, Curator and Executive Director, San Art