Level after level… to new higher levels – Hanoigrapevine 26Oct2009


I really enjoy the latest exhibition at Art Vietnam. The verb tense is correct as the pieces on show by Nguyen The Son are all around you as you wander Hanoi’s bursting, bustling streets.

Like so many Westerners I’ve long been fascinated by Hanoi’s skeletal street poles that collect the noodle strands of electric wires into bunches of dried arrangements surmounted by loudspeakers. A few Vietnamese artists seem to be able to effectively portray these wonderful street features and Son’s Super Conductor series, that seemed to have been ongoing since 2006, stand out from the crowd along with the fossilized towers of Vung Van Thao and the brilliant installation that was on a flat roof at L’Espace when it launched its new premises in Trang Tien.

Son’s are on silk, using inks and dyes. The triptych, Super Conductor XV, with what I call symbolic curly Chinese clouds hovering over a traditional roof skyline and dominated by silhouettes of the poles will immediately grab your attention as you enter the gallery and lead you from a relatively recent past into a skyrocketing present. Other paintings in the series gradually coalesce into now as they are gradually juxtaposed with the present, up-thrusting, under construction, city skyline that seems to sprout new cultivars every time you look around.

I really like the way Son has mounted his work. The taughtly stretched silks float in front of raw masonite and the as you gaze at them they begin to have a subtle contemplatory feel as you see through them into darker depths. The stretcher edges are studded with colored plastic pins that I like to think of as electric insulators and others may see as accoutrements from some architect’s drawing board… a great touch.

The exhibition takes its name from Son’s New Higher Ground series. These complementary pieces feature the plastic/nylon sheeting that shrouds (or perhaps I could say, swaddles) all new constructions and deconstructions in the city. These shrouds (if you are bemoaning a death of the old and traditional) or swaddling cloths (if you are amazed at the flurry and birth of the almost phallic new) have also excited my creative eye every time I’m in the streets and alleys, and Son has managed to somehow personify them.

At times the red, white and blue cloth bellies and curves like chiffons worn by sinuous and sexy dancers, at other times it is caught in folds and drapes as if in the hands of a fashion designer swathing a tall tailor’s dummy. In some work the drapes are dun and grayish (if this was a western artist I’d say, as if in mourning) In others the fabric allows glimpses into the haphazard and fragile bones of the new skyscrapers. The glimpses are into shadowy places that perhaps hint at unsettling and scary visions of just what’s going on in this never ending, whirly-burly phase in the city’s history.

Whatever the interpretations you give it (new higher level may be linked to Buddhism or even a new higher level of socialist consciousness), I like mine and I liked wandering the two floors of the exhibition with my favorite work being the New Higher Level X that welcomes you into its folds as you enter level two.  Some canny buyer has already snatched up New Higher Level X1 as it proclaims its dancing dominance over the heads of helmeted xe may drivers at street level and is perfectly positioned just as you leave level 1 for a new level higher.

When you visit Son’s exhibition make sure you see the other spaces on interconnecting levels and in particular seek out the large, delightful gouache on paper by Nguyen Nghia Cuong – The Piano, and on level three be mesmerized by some of the Reflections by Le Thua Tien.

This is an exhibition in which and with which most will really engage on a variety of levels, with the most usual being delight.

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