Staging and Re-staging Fragmented Realities, by Do Tuong Linh
What would be the things one carries when s/he is leaving a place? How would one comprehend that place upon returning to it? How does time play a role in this construction of one’s perception of space? For the French-Vietnamese born artist Thu Van Tran, it is in the way of extracting and assembling different pieces of memory that she tried to grapple with her own subjectivity and its expansion in various forms.
Thu Van Tran’s debut show “Xe Đạp ơi1” in Hanoi marked the artist’ first artistic engagement and exposure with her homeland country. Her works which have been exhibited widely internationally with subject matter related to the country for the first time being returned and displayed in its own context. The show takes inspiration from a love song that was memorable to the artist’s childhood within the Vietnamese community abroad. It lingers on the longing for a self-determination of one’s own identity and history as well as actively constructing another possible dualist world.
The show consists of three major works: Colors of Grey, Penetrable, and Novel without a title. On the wall lies the Colors of Grey. The fresco technique employed here is not only associated with one of the oldest painting traditions in art but is also a technique that alludes to self-destruction and re-construction. This technique might also well expressed the secret desire for immortality that human beings want to reach through arts just like the way fresco was used in churches, temples, tombs, and palaces in different civilizations. What is often said and remembered about the Vietnam war was Agent Orange. However, it is little known that the American military implemented Rainbow Herbicides (including agent orange, agent purple, agent blue, agent green, agent pink, and agent white) which has devastated many lives until today. Applying those layers of colors on the wall, the rectangle painting becomes one solid color of grey. This combination of six different colors has become its own erasure. Ironically the given name Rainbow Herbicides - which hinted to the happiness of the rainbow - was, in fact, an unerasable stain of tragic horror. It also hints to the act of covering and erasing a history that could never be undone. Traces of past phantoms will always return and haunt, similarly to the grey paint that will never achieve neutrality.
The next piece Penetrable is an invisible liquid poured on the floor that actually occupies the same proportion as the fresco Colors of Greys. It is pure latex rubber in a form that might not be familiar to many Vietnamese. During the colonial period, rubber wood grafts were planted on a massive scale by, and for, the French rubber industry in the 1920s. The white milky liquid released upon scoring is, in fact, the raw material for rubber. However this substance is not sap, it is the tree’s defense mechanism, produced to heal the scars inflicted upon it. And in Penetrable, once again this latex rubber has transformed and camouflaged in another form of white translucent on the floor. It is almost invisible like the way the past has always been wiped out, written and re-written. Could time heal all the scars or just the illusion of them? Could one still remember a penetrating trauma without the scars to remind of its existence?
The piece Novel without a title sets up like a theatrical stage. There again, lying on the this newly constructed stage, hundreds of rubber tree leaves and young branches petrified in clay like a burnt forest. As they were fired, they disappeared to leave a place of their imprint on the earth (clay). “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” as one saying goes. As we walk poignantly through what could be seen as the remaining bare bodies of human or non-human figures, we mourn for the loss as well as try to make sense of this striking reality. Those rubbers leaves and branches took their formation inspiration from Phú Riềng Đỏ (or the Red Phu Rieng) one of the former rubber plantation sites in Southern Vietnam. Its allusion to the color red not only invokes the coloration of the earth but also the historical bloody revolt by the workers during the French colonisation. Ironically those same rubber sites implemented during the French colony were then being destroyed by the massive toxic dioxin from America. It didn’t leave any space for the land’s self-revival but instead just traces of violence over centuries.
Thu Van Tran subtly guides us through her imaginative and creative world where different layers of subjectivity and objecthood are questioned, stated and re-staged. The refined and sophisticated construction of each works and its poetic resonance couldn't hide away a strong desire to unearth the naked brutal past. It urged the viewers to look beyond the surface of a phenomenon and not stop asking and provoking questions. Nevertheless, like a hymn where the Nightingale would finally start to sing behind the curtains, we are left pondering: 'We cannot choose our own histories but can we then have control of our futures?'
1 Xe đạp ơi: xe đạp means bicycle and ơi has many different connotations in Vietnamese language. It is used to get someone’s attention in a conversation or an exclamation depending on different context and intonation. It is also used as a term of affection especially to a beloved person in a sweet and endearing manner in equivalence with the term “dear” in English language.