Images of Black Box



Nora Taylor, Ph.D, Alsdorf Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Author of Painters in Hanoi, An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art (Hawaii, 2007)

Since lacquer painting was introduced as a fine art medium in Hanoi at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d'Indochine in the first quarter of the 20th century, it lost it some of its ancient purpose as a protector of the material and spiritual world. The resinous substance or son ta tapped from the Rhus Succedanea trees native to Vietnam, thrives in hot, humid climates and was long used to adorn temple sculpture to protect it from worms and termites. It also anointed the bodies of deceased monks in some practices to preserve them for all eternity.

Modern painters used the medium like oil and created landscapes and portraits using wooden boards as canvases. While certainly the result produced an original and interesting hybrid form of painting, the original meaning of the medium itself was lost in the process. Phi Phi Oanh's Black Box in many ways have revived some of the earlier associations made between lacquer and the eternal, or the sublime.

Sublime was the first adjective that came to my mind when I saw Phi Phis finished boxes. Not in its colloquial sense but in its association with Kantian philosophy, literature and aesthetics. For one, it recalls Immanuel Kants definition of the world beyond human imagination. For another, it reminded me of the French literature scholar, Richard Kleins book Cigarettes are Sublime, that assigns Kants definition to the dark forces that humans find so attractive and appealing. A third association is the sublime of philosophical journals that equate the word with the quest for an ultimate truth beyond the scope of human existence. And lastly, is the term art historians use to describe works of art that defy ordinary beauty. 

The sublime nature of Phi Phi's piece touches on all four definitions but I am particularly fixated on her daring embrace of death as a theme. By death, I do not mean the end to all things living and she herself would probably prefer not to use that word at all, but death as an evocation, a reflection of ones life. The gloss off the lacquer acts as a mirror, a mirror onto life around us. Her skilled drawing technique aptly depicts elements of life that are also transitory. The suggestion is subtle. The blackness of the lacquer on her boxes is brilliant and not morbid. The paintings are celebratory, they include feasts, flowers, falling leaves, motorcycles, air, water. They glow with light instead of darkness. They are alive and sensually evocative. And yet, they are still about death but a sublime death, an after-life or an eternal life beyond the human world.




Black Box is a stroll through memories of scenes so commonplace and recurring they are overlooked in our everyday lives. Yet over time, the sum of these instants forms the structure for the collective impression of an experience: a place, a culture, a period in one’s life. The painted images of Black Box are like “decisive moments” of the city of Hanoi, freeze-frame images telling of the aftermath of daily life, portrayed in lacquered hyper-saturation and elevated to the drama of baroque tableaus.

Black Box first marks the themes that have resonated in my work such as the idea of art as a womb or harbor of collective memory. The bases of these large-scale boxes resemble treasure chests which act as vessels for valuable mementos or sarcophagi suspended between the ancient past and constant present. The images depicted on the box lids echo this indeterminate perception of time. The sixteen lacquered wooden boxes are arranged as a composition of visual fragments that allows the spectator to experience the space, by weaving through the boxes without any preordained direction, not as narrative whole but as a fracture-- alluding to dream analysis and the search for meaning through free association. This effect is intensified by the constantly shifting effect of light on the lacquer surface to drastically alter their appearance, making it impossible to take in entirely in a single glance.

A metaphor for the process of embedding memories and fossilization, the medium of lacquer involves applying multiple coats of semi-transparent organic resin to a wooden surface, then sanding and polishing it to bring about the final image. Each stage of this labor-intensive and introspective process leaves vestiges that trace the experiences and changes that occurred in both the artist and the surrounding environment during the creation of the piece. A memory is formed in similar additive and subtractive processes, not only being influenced by the event itself, but also by external factors when those memories are recalled. To the touch, the surface may seem smooth and flat like a mirror, but the rich textures and inner radiance evoke the mind’s eye gazing upon a memory.

Mysterious and sensual, the lacquer resin has unique characteristics that make it incomparable to any other image-creating medium. Temperamental to its environment, lacquer remains at the mercy of humidity, heat, time, and space to influence how it sets and the colors of the palette. The artist is powerless to control completely the outcome of each image and must allow chance to play its part. Thus, this body of work serves not only as a metaphor of memory formation, but also as a direct and active witness to one’s immediate environment.

Phi Phi Oanh, Hanoi July 2007

Details of Black Box paintings