Pathways into Sculpture in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City
7 April 2021
Within / Between / Beneath / Upon (13 March–6 June 2021), the latest group exhibition at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City, is a clear attempt to tear away from stereotypes of sculpture in Vietnam.
Thảo Nguyên Phan, Magical Bow (lacquered time) (2019), placed in conversation with sculptures by Điềm Phùng Thị. Exhibition view: Within / Between / Beneath / Upon, The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City (13 March–6 June 2021). Courtesy The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.
Whether religious statues in temples and pagodas, or grand monuments dripping in socialist style, statues erected throughout the country tend to function as reminders of power and control, and it is through this lens that the medium is often considered.
Curated by Vân Đỗ and Bill Nguyễn, Within / Between / Beneath / Upon features a mix of 11 works by Thảo Nguyên Phan, Lê Hiền Minh, and Richard Streitmatter-Trần. The exhibition also includes a display dedicated to the late sculptor Điềm Phùng Thị, who passed away in 2002, presented in dialogue with Phan's work.
Điềm Phùng Thị's sculptures shown in Within / Between / Beneath / Upon stretch from 1965 to 1973, and recall the feminine world of craft and folktales.
Having abandoned her work as a dentist in Paris at 39 to study with the sculptor Antoniucci Volti, Điềm Phùng Thị created what French critic Raymond Cogniat described as her 'alphabet', using entwined configurations of metal, wood, marble, and fabric to make seven distinct shapes that recur throughout her sculptures.
Điềm Phùng Thị's sculptures appear in the exhibition on a structural wall that is shaped, from above, like the number seven, designed by Phan to hold Điềm Phùng Thị's sculptures.
Further works by Phan pay homage to Điềm Phùng Thị's style in form and content, as seen in Magical Bow (lacquered time) (2019), a work of 11 crossbows made of wood with lacquer inlay that float above the gallery floor.
Phan's Magical Bow was inspired by a Vietnamese folktale that she read as a child. Within the lacquer inlay of some of the bows, are words and phrases from texts by Vietnamese catechist Bento Thiện and other Jesuits, such as Aforma do Baupstimo emlingoa Tumkinica.
The title is the diving board from which to jump: a framework that turns the physical space into a realm of memory, history, culture, and geography.
Sitting alongside Phan's work are three sculptures from Lê Hiền Minh's 'The Gods of Expectation (Divine Cycle, Divine Constant, Divine Source), no. 1' (2021)—a series of statues of female Buddhas and Vietnamese goddesses (from the folk religion Đạo Mẫu) sitting atop a washing machine, dishwasher, and Vietnamese-style bed, all connected with a series of pipes and covered in Dó paper.
With pen and paper next to the work, a sign from Lê Hiền Minh asks visitors to answer five questions: Who is woman? / What is woman? / Where is woman? / Why is woman? / When is woman?
'For weeks I searched for the right questions. But somehow nothing felt right. In the end I chose five very simple questions, which could be translated into many different languages,' said Lê Hiền Minh.
In an attempt to challenge gender stereotypes, Lê Hiền Minh affirms the power of language, and the role that language plays in modes of domination.
As curator Bill Nguyễn explains, by creating an interactive element, Lê Hiền Minh changes the perspective of the exhibition itself. 'Viewers leave their thoughts behind and turn the exhibition into a living thing, which is a different way of thinking about sculpture.'
Across the show, materials vary, moving from Lê Hiền Minh's Dó paper sculptures, to the industrial foam that Richard Streitmatter-Trần used to make Light Heavies (2021), a futuristic interpretation of a Cham-inspired temple turned oozing and bulbous.
Born in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, and raised in America, the sculptor—who is now based in Ho Chi Minh City—instinctively uses his memories of nostalgia for his hometown and other regions in Vietnam.
In works such as Ascension (2021), a suite of three clay sculptures referencing the ruins at Persepolis and placed atop iron beams, the artist combines ancient and contemporary subject matter and materials interwoven with Hindu-Buddhist aesthetics.
Though he finds inspiration throughout different periods of history, Streitmatter-Trần often focuses on fragile materials that will likely not stand the test of time.
In Heaven's Roof (2021), for instance, the sculptor uses edible rice paper to recreate a rooftop modelled on the tiles from the entrance to his home, allowing the delicate material to weather changes in temperature, humidity, and light.
Petrifoot (2020–2021), a foot carved from a limestone slab that might not look out of place on the stairs of a temple, has been left to the elements so that moss and lichens are free to occupy its surface.
Often, Streitmatter-Trần will leave hollow spaces in his work to evoke feelings of emptiness, which became the inspiration for the inclusion of the word 'between' in the exhibition's title. As Bill Nguyễn notes, 'It was also the anchor that helped us find the backbone of the exhibition.'
The title is the diving board from which to jump: a framework that turns the physical space into a realm of memory, history, culture, and geography.—[O]