Võ Thuỷ Tiên and Oanh Phi Phi at The Factory

Female Vietnamese artists exhibiting in Ho Chi Minh City
By A&M

Võ Thuỷ Tiên, ‘Worship’, 2017-18, triptych, inkjet print on paper, edition of 3 + 2 artist’s proofs. Image courtesy of The Factory.

Võ Thuỷ Tiên, ‘Worship’, 2017-18, triptych, inkjet print on paper, edition of 3 + 2 artist’s proofs. Image courtesy of The Factory.

‘My Marriage’ by Võ Thuỷ Tiên and ‘Interface’ by Oanh Phi Phi are concurrently running at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City from 10 May to 21 July 2019.

‘My Marriage’ is the first exhibition in this year’s edition of ‘Materialise’, a programme initiated by The Factory two years ago, as part of its bid to provide the space and opportunity for Vietnamese artists to showcase their work in their home country and to encourage experimentation. In a highly symbolic body of work, Võ Thuỷ Tiên explores through photography, sculpture and moving image the lived reality of love and relationships through unexpectedly humorous juxtapositions of objects one would find in a domestic setting, such as broken eggs with a high chair ‘Son’, or halved papayas with unpeeled bananas in ‘Worship’.

Oanh Phi Phi, ‘Palimpsest’, 2011-present, light projections using handcrafted ‘Lacquerscope’ projectors composed of glass, sơn ta resin, pigment, aluminum, inox, cork, aramid fiber, plastic; gold, silver and aluminum leaf; steel. 6 components, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of The Factory.

Oanh Phi Phi, ‘Palimpsest’, 2011-present, light projections using handcrafted ‘Lacquerscope’ projectors composed of glass, sơn ta resin, pigment, aluminum, inox, cork, aramid fiber, plastic; gold, silver and aluminum leaf; steel. 6 components, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of The Factory.

‘Interface’ presents the two interactive pictorial installations. In ‘Specula’, the audience is invited to walk through a dome-shaped tunnel made of skin-like lacquer. It is part of Oanh Phi Phi’s agenda to advance the use of lacquer, a national art form in Vietnam, on her own terms, and harness the medium’s untapped potential. And in ‘Palimpsest’, visitors can appraise up close small lacquer paintings on glass, akin to microscope slides, which are simultaneously magnified by projectors onto a wall.

We speak with both artists to find out more about the concepts and intentions behind their respective works on display, and what it means to exhibit at home in Vietnam.

This sounds like a very personal exhibition about universal experiences. What do you wish for the audience to take away from it?
Võ Thuỷ Tiên (VTT): It is precisely because of the personal aspect and theme of the exhibition that I did not anticipate any expectations from the audience. If anything, I hope that my story and the space of my exhibition can give the audience an opportunity to reflect upon their own personal experiences and stories.

Võ Thuỷ Tiên, ‘Son’, 2018, inkjet print on paper, edition of 3 + 2 artist’s proofs. Image courtesy of The Factory.

Võ Thuỷ Tiên, ‘Son’, 2018, inkjet print on paper, edition of 3 + 2 artist’s proofs. Image courtesy of The Factory.

What does it mean for you to exhibit under the “Materialise” programme? Why has it been difficult for Vietnamese artists to exhibit in their home country, and why is it important for you and for other artists to do so?
VTT: I’m not sure if it’s difficult for other artists to exhibit in Vietnam, so I cannot provide a singular accurate answer for the latter part of the question. Personally, I’m still trying to better understand the way the local art scene works, including how art spaces and galleries organise exhibitions; how they present artworks to the public and promote them to collectors etc. Generally, there is little information on art and the way this field is perceived here is, to a certain extent, still narrow-minded. From what I can see, the older generation of artists, most of whom are supported by the government, is still tied to conventionally accepted themes. Their voices are one-sided. While those from the younger generation, who are constantly experimenting with new forms of expression and engaging in relevant social issues, are less likely to have their voices heard and their works introduced to the public. If I have to submit my works for an exhibition license, it’s very likely that the officials would respond that they are not artistic or beautiful enough to be considered artworks. People’s definition of art can still be very conservative.

Exhibition programmes like ‘Materialise’ are formal and open-ended, critical and stimulating; they encourage us to keep pushing our artistic ideas and experimentations further. ‘Materialise’ is sort of a ‘social sculpture’ which helps to create social change through working with artists. This is also why it’s important for us artists to exhibit and have our voices heard here at home, to contribute to the wave of changes that is taking place between the old and the new, with the hope that one day Vietnam can grasp and accept new values.

Installation view of ‘My Marriage’. Image courtesy of The Factory.

Installation view of ‘My Marriage’. Image courtesy of The Factory.

Could you talk about one of the works on display in more detail from the conception process to its final form? This could be a work that is most significant to you in the show or perhaps one that was the most challenging to realise.
VTT: I would like to talk about the series ‘Broken’ & ‘Fixed’ which, for me, has more Yin energy and is the most ‘muted’ work in this exhibition. At the beginning I was thinking about two separate ideas. The first one deals with the concept of the repetitive circle of endless boredom, which I imagined would be visualised through documentary-style images taken with my iPhone. The second looks at jealousy, which would take the form of conceptual photography.

I don’t feel comfortable at all talking about jealousy here because it is directly about me. It exposes an ugly side of me and a memory which I’m not so fond of: a time when my husband and I fought about a third person. I ended up throwing and smashing bowls and plates everywhere. But then I realised that there existed a connection between these two ideas. It is often the boredom and the repetitiveness of marriage that leads to other external concerns and interests besides your partner, from which jealousy is fueled and then explodes. Hence the saying ‘Chán cơm, thèm phở’, which directly translates in English as ‘bored of rice, hungry for noodle’, which indicates that one partner is bored of the other, and thus seeks a third person.

Boredom as the foundation of jealousy, why not? Right? With this series, I combined conceptual and documentary-style photography, using my iPhone to both take pictures and film moments of chinaware getting smashed. Organically, an urge to mend the fragments and to heal the broken pieces of the chinaware emerged. That was how ‘Fixed’ was given birth to, in the form of sculptural objects. Together, ‘Broken’ and ‘Fixed’ reveal the multifaceted nature and complexity of a normal everyday issue which any couple would understand and experience.

Oanh Phi Phi, ‘Specula’, 2007- 2009, Pictorial installation of sơn ta resin with pigment, gold, silver and aluminium leaf on fiberglass, reinforced epoxy composite board, with steel structure and glass flooring. Multiple components: installed dimensions 720 x 270 x 390cm (variable). Image courtesy of The Factory.

Oanh Phi Phi, ‘Specula’, 2007- 2009, Pictorial installation of sơn ta resin with pigment, gold, silver and aluminium leaf on fiberglass, reinforced epoxy composite board, with steel structure and glass flooring. Multiple components: installed dimensions 720 x 270 x 390cm (variable). Image courtesy of The Factory.

How do "Specula" and "Palimpsest" relate to each other? What do you wish for the audience to take away from interacting with the immersive installations?
Oanh Phi Phi (OPP): “Specula” is a lacquered tunnel-like space representing the interior of an imaginary cave through which the spectator can walk. ‘Palimpsest’ consists of a set of “Lacquerscopes”, or machines that project the shadows of small lacquer paintings on glass onto a large screen.  These two works, though seemly unrelated, are both about shifting scale and intention. ‘Specula’ scales up traditional “easel”-sized lacquer painting to create a physical space and explore different types of imagery using the richness of lacquer. The other work, ‘Palimpsest’, confuses the scale and definition of lacquer painting by locating it in the glass slide, on the screen, and through the Lacquerscope apparatus. These two works are both statements about sơn mài, or lacquer, and make a good introduction to the type of work I do.

I would like to give the audience a different immersive way to experience lacquer painting. In our image-rich era, we often digest images quickly for content and move on.  I would like the viewer to experience being inside a space designed to slow down the gaze and created without a specific agenda or didactic lesson in mind.  Ideally, the audience will reclaim the experience of sight and being in the moment.

You've exhibited in various parts of the world, most recently with FOST at Art Basel Hong Kong, but this is your first solo show in Ho Chi Minh City. What does it mean for you to be exhibit in your home country
OPP: It is very meaningful to exhibit here in Ho Chi Minh City.  When I exhibit abroad, even though I am disinclined to do so, I am often put into an “ambassadorial” role to represent lacquer painting in Vietnam and introduce audiences to the uniqueness of the medium and its history.  Here in Vietnam, I am presenting my work to a community of people who care deeply and actively participate in the “project” of lacquer painting so the reception is both more enthusiastic and more critical.  This motivates me to be more rigorous.

In your artistic practice, you have consistently challenged traditional notions of lacquer. What's next in your experimentation with the medium?
OPP: I have some projects that have deeply interested me but have been on the back burner for some time.  Finally now I want to take free time to cultivate them.  One project concerns ceiling frescos another specifically explore the traditional forms of sơn mài in Vietnam.  Luckily, lacquer paintings are more interesting to see than to describe!


’My Marriage’ and ‘Interface’ are on view at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, from 10 May to 21 July 2019.