Under construction – Asian Art News – Volume 19 number 4 July/August 2009

The young Vietnamese painter and photographer Nguyen The Son looks to traditional silk painting to lend a new face to his vision of changing Hanoi. His quiet art is also informed by calligraphy and unique perspective of Hanoi.

The face of Vietnamese contemporary art changed greatly during the past two decades since the country opened up to the world. The 1980s and the 1990s saw innumerable works produced that were informed by a wide range of styles and art movements from impressionism to Socialist Realism from neo- expressionism to the School of the Ecole des Beaux –Arts de l’Indochine in 1925 in Hanoi. works such masters as Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Nguyen Sang, influenced by both western art and traditional Vietnamese motifs, were present, but the trust of new world throughout the 1990s came from artists such as Dang Xuan Hoa, Nguyen Thanh Binh, Thanh Chuong, Pham Luan, Bui Huu Hung, Pham Cam Thuong, Ha Tri Hieu, Le Quang Ha, and many others who were born between the late 1950s and the early 1970s. Their art, made in oil and acrylic on canvas color on paper, or lacquer, presented views of Vietnam that often offered bucolic glimpses of tradition through landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits that appealed to many of the stereotypical views of Vietnam among foreign collectors.

The artistic outlook and art production among the generation of artist born during the late 1970s and the 1980s has changed the tenor of the there have been many opportunities to study abroad to meet foreign artists visiting Vietnam, and to show their art at home and abroad in both gallery and museum exhibitions. Such opportunities have opened up new challenges in painting, installation art, and photography, and sculpture through which artists have come to grips with expressing their society in new ways. Although there are still many artists who make wholly idealized landscape, city crapes, and portraits, the best of the younger generation of painters has continued to explore new way of looking at their rapidly changing society. Among them is the painter and photographer Nguyen The Son, whose work bridges tradition through materials and contemporary view through his subject matter.

Nguyen The Son, who was born in 1978 in Hanoi, studied Chinese at the Hanoi  Foreign Language University and Fine Art – lacquer painting and traditional silk painting – at the Hanoi Fine Arts University, from which he graduated in 2002 and where he now teaches. In 2008, he went to Beijing for post-graduate studies at the Central Academy of Fine Art.

During the past decade, Son has produced a significant body of work that has included photographic nature studies and installations and a wide range of painting on silk using natural Chinese colors and ink. Early photographic studies included his series entitled Tree Shadows IX(2004), in the form of a traditional fan, in fine example of this series entitled Tree Shadows IX(2004), in the form of a traditional fan is fine example of this series. The image is a simple one, influenced by both photographic stillness and calligraphy. Of this series he says, “ I like simple lines. My idea is to look for the light behind darkness.” This notion applies to both his painting with multiple photographic images in an untitled series that he is developing in Beijing.” In this series of photographs,” he says, “the work is of layers of image behind me; and the one image is that on the surface of the glass.

Son’s most important recent works are three ongoing three series: Vina Tree Light Box (2007), photographs; Superconductor (2008) and New Higher Level(2009), paintings on silk, using natural colors. Son’s art is of the streets, empty of people, showing a world that is unfinished, developing in a slightly disorganized manner, touched by both the natural world and the man-made that has a hint of chaos about it. His Vina Tree works is a series of small photographs printed on transparent film. Each work has an intriguing geometrical juxtapositions of following tree branches and the rigidity of metal stanchions and concrete carrying telephone lines. Whether Son uses natural daily light or street lighting in these works. They enhance the space in which both the natural world and the man-made co-exist quite naturally. The geometry startles but so does his astute awareness of the play of light and shadow, which also informs his paintings.

The simplicity of the images that make up Vina Tree and the Superconductor series does not suggest simple experience. Rather Sons’ experience with the reality of his trees and his metal stanchion, concrete poles, cables, and junction boxes is complex, suggesting the ruthless nature of sudden change in his environment. He sees clearly that man –made geometry around him has invaded the human consciousness; it has replaced the natural world as a point of reference in life. Trees in the street are paid as little attention to among children as the metal and concrete intruders holding up the muddle of wires and cables that carry energy and communication to the city’s in habitants.

Works such as Black Squall (2006), Superconductor VI (2005), Superconductor (2007) are strong, direct images, almost visceral in their rigid attitude. It is as if they are somehow robotically alive, the tannoy hanging limply but about to come alive with the sounds of slogans the hardness of the metal’s geometry and the presence of the stanchions, like silent guards, is reinforced by the lyrical line in cables. It is here that one sees how Son has been influenced by calligraphic line and the thick black line with he draws his cables. This blackness adds to the menace of the structures. In Dark Squall the background of the house and the television antennae may be seen to extensions of one another. But there is no escaping the anonymous power such structures suggest. They do not grow like trees but their presence is as powerful.

Where the Superconductor series deals with open structures and the environment, Son’s New High Level series with closed structures, buildings under construction. Here there is not the fluid geometry of branches and cables, but the harsh line of walls contrasted with the following line and mass of plastic coverings, which are reminiscent of Christi and Jean Claude’s temporarily covered installations. Such structures are common enough sight in any major city’s construction projects but we don’t see them as artworks or connect them to the reality of art that enhances our visual consciousness. It takes the artist to do so, to point up the inherent power and beauty of the quotidian world, to reinforce the notion that art is present everywhere in our lives if only we would look. Being aware of this contributes significantly to our whole consciousness of life and its challenges, from the physical to the spiritual even.

The flow of the plastic that partially covers the building in the Under Construction (2007) highlights the soft flowing line and the straight lines of the structures. This play of geometry is so important so Son in these covered works since they speak to the elegance of humankind’s ingenuity and the incidental beauty of a city under construction. New Higher Level II (2007) with its bamboo and net-draped awnings mostly hidden by the rust- colored cover ing down the front suggest s a ship at rest and about tobe refitted. The tree in the foreground adds a natural geometric line. Other works such as New Higher Level I,III and IV (all 2007) contain elements of construction in progress and wrapping. These are surprisingly meditative works.

Son’s paintings are devoid of people, and human presence is only hinted are when we see houses in the background or a church or a train bridge. Yet, even with no people present, humanity is also implied by the structures themselves: someone designed them, someone built them. And even without people there are no feelings of sadness, which is perhaps due in part to Son’s choice of warm pastoral colors for New High Level and the backgrounds to Superconductor in which his black calligraphic cables and stanchions exist. The warm colors temper the austerity of each scene.

Son prepares his work on silk carefully, taking a lot of pictures for memory. I use a lot of calligraphic motion. I am concerned with movement and fast drawing. I want to see the process of the city. These are moments.” Such carefully structured works are not devoid of spontaneity: it is there in the following cables and in the covering of his buildings. The pins around the edges of the Superconductor and New high level are added to suggest lightness. As Son says:” the pins are like small electric lights. But it also suggests something that is unfinished, incomplete, under construction.” And there also slogans that appear to add lightness.” I use slogan in humorous way. They are elements of the cityscape are for the future. Socialism is not now, it might be the future.”

Nguyen The Son is a constant observer of his world. He is always aware of opportunities for installation and painting. For his Tree Shadow series, for example, he wandered the quiet Hanoi streets at night looking at the shadows and the light and the forms of the leaves that changed with every visit, like the changing of a person ‘s shadow. These experiences he has noted , made him think “ a human’s life is also like a tree. After each difficult challenge in life, it is growing up with it’s own new energy. Life goes on, most of the time people never pay attention to the leaves’ shadows on the roads…we forget the meaning of our existence in this life.” Son’s experiences as he walks the streets observing the changes around him add depth to his New High Level and Super Conductor series.

Son’s line in these series in freer than that which he sees in Chinese traditional painting. The character of his line, he says, is Vietnamese is rather than Chinese.” Chinese artists are very patient in doing detailed work. Chinese artist want to follow, they are much more group-oriented than Vietnamese artists,” he says .”I am interested in the contemporary world as Chinese artists who are looking back at traditional painting for inspiration and influence for their experience for their experience in the real world. This attitude, but not their art, has been an influence on me.”

For many people in the West it is difficult to understand the pull of tradition in art as they are now overtaken by the digital world. The tradition of painting on silk was still significant for a good many artists in Vietnam not so long ago, but with more and more outside influences there are now few artists painting on silk. The younger generation tends to think the use of silk old-fashioned. Lacquer painting, however, is one tradition that remains popular. This is perhaps because it reflects something more of the cultural tradition that foreigners expect when they thinks of Vietnamese art.

For Son, however, silk is vital and is modern. He uses Vietnamese silk rather than Chinese silk which “ gives my work a different texture. Chinese silk is finer; Vietnamese silk is rougher. The weft of Vietnamese silk is thicker and holds the ink and colors and allows for a texture that Chinese ink for black lines and natural pigments,” he says,” I think that it is more difficult to use silk than oil on canvas because you can’t change any mistake that you might make. You can’t over-paint or remove the natural colors as you would with oil paint.

When I studied traditional silk painting, it was an important traditional silk painting, it was an important tradition for me. Now the challenge is to develop silk painting into a new medium to represent the world today. One view of people is that silk painting is smooth, soft, romantic, and only good for sentimental images, that it is not suitable for contemporary subjects. But I want to try to change this view and opinion through my work.

Nguyen The Son faces his challenges with a twinkle in his eye. But he looks at Vietnamese contemporary art with a critical one.” Often I feel that much of Vietnamese art is concerned with the past, a sentimental or romantic vision that has become a symbol of luxury decoration for modern accommodation and is easy to sell. But there is another vision in Vietnamese art and much of it is like a dream of the future. I feel that a lot of artists here ignore the reality of present-day society because the market drives their art. For myself, I had to decide early on whether or not to make art that was easy to sell. I decided not to. If I wanted to make money, I can something else.”

Ian findlay- Brown


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