16 January 2010, Hanoi
I am participating in this group show at the Au Co Gallery. It will be the last for me in Hanoi for a couple of months. I hope you can come by and see it.
26 Jan 2010, Hanoigrapevine reviews this show...
I’ve just discovered a really excellent and very exciting gallery.
It’s off Au Co, down lane 124 that leads past Tu Lien market and down to where the cumquat trees are being readied for Tet and to the drought riven dry reaches of the river and a temporary village on the banks full of ceramic pots which is an unmissable installation in itself… but if you go past the market you’ve gone about 20 meters too far. In the first lane to the right, on the left, is the Au Co Gallery.
It’s a large gallery space all on one level and if I was an artist wanting to exhibit this is where I’d want to be shown.
Paths of Self-Questioning, presents the work of ten good artists who loosely address that theme. The work is presented tremendously well. The space is so large that nothing is in too close a proximity to be lost as it bounces off another artist’s work and every exhibit is allowed to breathe its own air (a rare thing in our art scene).
My favorite from this well balanced show is The Pink Box by Nguyen Xuan Long. It’s a very strong and intellectual installation. It’s about the mad surfeit of news and current event overload that we digest daily as we sit in comfort in our pink tinged cloud cuckoo land. Powerful! And if you can get the gallery people to dim all the gallery lights and leave the pink box self illuminated you’ll be truly impressed.
Mind you it’s an intellectual show that has been very intelligently curated. When you enter the gallery and are confronted with the long paper and rock floor piece by Nguyen Son perfectly overlooked by the large canvas caligraphic triptych by Tran Nhat Thang you are completely won over.
The works on canvas by Vu Han Nguyen and La Nhu Lan are arresting and the three portrait faces emerging or submerging by Phuong Quoc Tri are overwhelming crowd pleasers in their almost 3D glory.
The wall lacquers by La Huy are attractive and complement the amazing ‘Carp Pondering the Moon’, lacquer on curved metal on a mirror, by that amazing Phi Phi Oanh.
Phi Phi’s statement that ‘we cannot see all we want to see even though it may be right in front of our eyes’ is literally reflected in the very strong minimalistic installation, ‘Delusion About Objectivity’ by Pham Tran Le which a lot of viewers will find challenging.
The gallery and its surrounds are super and I hope it becomes a vital part of the private gallery scene. I think it could give all the other top galleries a run for their money and I can hardly wait to see what’s on next.
Every artist and art lover should put Au Co and this show right on top of their must see list. It’s easy to find and absolutely top notch.
10 January 2010
A Lacquer Renaissance: One artist brushes the cobwebs off lacquer painting and takes a new look at an old medium.
Written by Bailey Seybolt. Photos by Aaron Joel Santos.
Source: The Word Hanoi, Monthly lifestyle print magazine, January 2010
The artist at work
Some artistic inspiration requires a visit from a muse. Other good ideas have more earthly beginnings. “I was having my coffee in a dark, very narrow, typically nameless café in Hanoi,” says artist Phi Phi Oanh. “I was aimlessly staring at the stains of humidity, dirt, and time on the other wall when it came to my mind to create a narrow space, a tunnel, reflecting the architecture of Hanoi and enigma of its charm.”
Phi Phi is no stranger to the interplay between art and daily life. Arriving in Hanoi on a Fulbright grant to study son ta (natural lacquer painting) in 2005, she became interested in pushing the boundaries of an art form considered by most to be reserved for traditional work. “There is a lot of fuss made about ‘traditional’ lacquer painting in Vietnam,” she says, “but I don’t see many artists up-keeping that tradition. I also don’t see it as being particularly old or time worn.” Instead, her work is part of an evolution in lacquer painting that will move it out of the realm of ancient vases and lacquer dragons and into more worldly subjects – the texture of a rough brick wall, the sheen of a hinge on a wooden door, and even the flash of a swimming goldfish.
“My focus is not how to continue or re-interpret a tradition,” she says. “Rather, I am interested in how the use and practice of son ta can have meaning and respond to contemporary concerns.”
Putting it together: Add and Subtract
Though Phi Phi mainly paints on the flat surfaces of wood and metal, her work seems almost sculptural in its many layers and textures. “Most of the innovations in lacquer painting have been stylistic innovations,” she says. “Cubism, Expressionism, and Social Realism in lacquer - these have all been through the prism of oil painting. I think lacquer can be looked at as an entirely different genre. Lacquer can be more than just a window on the world – like a painting. Its qualities suggest it fills a gap between photography, painting and sculpture,” she adds.
One of the things that sets lacquer painting apart is the process of creation. In oil painting you add paint to create a picture. In sculpture you chip away at stone to create an image. Lacquer painting is a combination of both. “Lacquer is a play of thickness,” says Phi Phi. “The image you want to keep has to be thicker.” Creating a painting can often take months, as layer upon layer of lacquer is added and then polished by both the artist and her assistants wearing rubber boots and wielding sandpaper to create a brilliant shine. “Sometimes, in big projects, you will rediscover images you forgot were even there,” says the artist. And big is exactly how to describe her most recent endeavour.
The tools: Specula
The moment of inspiration in the dusty old coffee shop has turned into Phi Phi’s most ambitious project yet: a seven-metre-long, four-metre-tall installation titled Specula. Specula is not just a large painting, but a self-contained cave-like structure. The walls and dome of the cave are made from lacquer on epoxy fiberglass composite, and the images inscribed on the wall are lit from beneath by a semi-transparent glass floor. “I use the transparency and layering ability of lacquer to create a network of images, to create an imaginary cave comprising two halves - cave interior and cave underwater joined by an arabesque arch,” she explains. The cave interior focuses on the simple lines and drawings of prehistoric man, encouraging the viewer to seek out their own meaning. “I tried to keep it simple, reduced, to allow the viewer to continue the line of the imagination, like the wonderment in looking for shapes in cloud formations or staring at the wall of the Ryo-angi gardens in Kyoto,” says Phi Phi.
The cave underwater aspect of the piece uses the natural shine of the black lacquer to play on the idea of water as a reflective surface. There is something eerie about seeing yourself reflected in what appears to be a black bottomless pool that is, in reality, completely self-contained. “In areas, I try to simulate the effect of looking through muddy water and finding that you can see only yourself in the reflection,” she says.
If there seems to be a natural theme running through her work, it’s no coincidence. One of the most important elements of lacquer painting is its connection to the natural world. Not only is the lacquer itself a natural substance produced from a tree indigenous to northern Vietnam, but the process itself can’t occur without the elements. “Lacquer depends on humidity,” adds Phi Phi. “It is the perfect marriage between environment and art because its dependency on climate to dry is a wonderful parallel to our relationship with nature and our environment.” It is an ambitious project to bring all these elements together, but the artist is fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead.
“I hope this project showcases the way traditions can crossover to different areas, and how we can see the old in a new light,” she says.
Specula opens on Dec. 4 and runs to Dec. 31 at the Hanoi City Exhibition Hall, 93 Dinh Tien Hoang,
2 January 2010
Today I dismantled Specula at the Hanoi City Exhibition Hall. Thank you to everyone who visited this month and especially to those who left me thoughtful comments and letters.
20 Dec 2009
"ASPIRATIONAL AND INSPIRATIONAL: Makeshift"
If boutique as an adjective implies intimate, luxurious, or quirky and all or any of these applied to a small space then Phi Phi Oanh’s new exhibition Make Shift at the Japan Foundation wins on all counts. If the adverbs themed, stylish and aspirational are added to Phi Phi’s boutique exhibition then it is described even more aptly.
If you visit the small gallery only to revisit or become acquainted with the super fabulous floor piece first seen at the opening of the Bui Gallery in March then you will have seen one of the best bits of art seen in Hanoi this year… or any year… lacquer on steel.
Then if you fall in love with the round steel drum lid that has been lavishly lacquered with a traditional Vietnamese meal appetizingly laid out then who can blame you! I really aspire it as an actual table piece. I’d somehow cover it with glass and use it for intimate meals… I’m all in favour of good art being put to functional uses. The small and quirky bucket installation is really delightful and the brick panels are a luxurious rendition of the plain, tatty, everyday and ordinary. Marvelous!
Catch it while you can. It’s as good as Christmas.
PS: purists feel free to tackle my boutiqued use of grammatical terminologies.
Not a reviewer, not a critic, “Kiếm Văn Tìm” is an interested, impartial and informed observer and connoisseur of the Hanoi art scene who offers highly opinionated remarks and is part of the long and venerable tradition of anonymous correspondents.
17 December 2009
This weekend, Saturday and Sunday, the 19-20th of December, 10:00-18:00
21/52 Pho To Ngoc Van, 7th floor walk-up, Westlake area, Hanoi
Please join me for coffee and refreshments!
17 December 2009
Exhibition: The Japan Foundation, Hanoi, 18 - 25 December 2009
27 Quang Trung
Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Tel: 3944 7419
Opening: Thu 17 Dec, 6 - 7 pm
The Japan Foundation cordially invites you to Phi Phi Oanh’s latest exhibition, entitled Make Shift. Using Vietnamese natural lacquer (son ta) as the basic raw materials, Phi Phi Oanh constructs large painting installations and spaces that reference eastern and western art history and its metaphysical intersections. ‘Make Shift’ is the result of her experiments using Vietnamese son ta baked on iron and recycled metal, an old industrial Japanese technique, making the work both innovative and environmentally friendly.
Before the opening there will be a talk on lacquer painting practice by Phi Phi Oanh and Japanese artist Ando Saeko from 4.30 – 5.30 pm at the Japan Foundation.
Japan Foundation Center for Cultural Exchange in Vietnam
09 Dec 2009
I’ve been holding off writing an opinion piece about Phi Phi Oanh’s speccy installation because I keep having new thoughts about it (all good) and keep wanting to revisit it (and it gets even better each time).
Specula (singular = speculum) are medical instruments used to open body cavities or orifices for careful inspection. They are intended to provide direct vision of area of interest and can have inbuilt illumination to make investigation easier.
Phi Phi has given the term a poetic and artistic licence and has created a long and wonderful, softly illuminated cavern that viewers can wander through and explore. The illumination is provided through a floor of thick, opaque panes of glass gridded into squares. The cavern walls are large, lushly lacquered fiber-glass panels.
As I wander through the arched corridor I am reminded of many evocative places. At times I am in Sydney or London in a passageway leading to an underground train; I’m in the cool cistern beneath the streets of Istanbul; I’m in a disused railway tunnel carved through rock walls or walled with mossy, damp bricks; I’m staring up at the curved and tessellated roof of an old mosque; I’m in an abandoned mine shaft with streaks of semi precious minerals seaming the walls; I’m in an archaeological dig, ancient, fossilized artefacts glinting among smooth rocks; I’m in the future and observing a Planet of the Apes or The Road scenario of a ruined earth as it existed before a cataclysmic devastation; I’m in the apse of a shimmering cathedral; I’m in new places each time I view the installation. It’s a cavity of fantasy and suspense.
The subtle and diffused lighting makes you wander slowly and peer carefully into the layers of lacquer for the wonders that were either deliberately imposed by the artist or that magically appeared as the layers of lacquer were applied and rubbed back.
The artist has a recent history of pushing the boundaries of lacquer painting. A couple of years ago her boxes at the Art Museum in Hanoi were stunning. This year her floor piece of lacquer on metal was the attention grabber at the opening of the Bui Gallery. And now she’s done it again, using traditional lacquer in ways that puts that medium well and truly into a modern focus.
In Copenhagen this week a group of famous, contemporary artists have installed new art works that in some way reflect on, or comment on, humans and their effect on the planet’s fragile environment. Phi Phi Oanh’s Specula would have no difficulty in holding its own there. In fact it would be a stand out. She is obviously an artist who will have a successful international future.
Specula is installed at the Hanoi City Exhibition Hall. It’s a noisy space that thunders and blarts with passing traffic and somehow this mix of fumes and noise doesn’t detract from the magic of the piece, even adding to its layers of meaning… though on one visit I wore ear plugs to imagine what it would be like installed in a deathly quiet gallery. It is such a wonderful piece of art that it would be at home in an open air place as well as indoors and I could see it re-commissioned as a permanent entrance to a theatre, a hotel feature, a restaurant. It definitely belongs on display in a world class Museum of Modern Art.
The present site is great because it is so close to the passing parade of pedestrians and it’s wonderful to lean into the shadows and watch the effect it has on casual viewers. It’s always good to have impressive art removed from the eloquent and rarified air of art galleries and museums so that the public can interact with it… and in this case through it.
Phi Phi has worked on this large architectural piece with a group of dedicated assistants ranging from structural engineers to lacquer mixers and they must all have big smiles of accomplishment on their faces as they see the results of their labour. It is the top of the pops in solo art exhibitions this year in Hanoi and is a fabulous way to visually complete the first decade of the new century.
Keep your eyes attuned to the Grapevine because I hear that Phi Phi will have a further exhibition this month of her recent work (17 Dec, Japan Foundation, details coming soon) and if she has another Open Studio before she leaves us and heads to Europe in the new year, don’t miss it. If you have the chance to purchase any of her work think of it as a real investment.
As you can see I’m one of her biggest fans and my reference to her earlier this year as a new Yoko Ono still holds fast.
Thanks to the American Embassy for being instrumental in sponsoring this massive and massively important art work.
SPECULA is glowing spectacularly until Dec 31.
December 4, 2009
Thank you everyone for coming and making it a lovely opening...
Some words from the US Embassador...
"...The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi is proud to sponsor the exhibition of Phi Phi Oanh’s Specula. In addition to sponsoring this show, we proudly display of some of her paintings within the Embassy collection here in Hanoi. Not only works of great beauty, Phi Phi’s work embodies an open and forward thinking approach essential to today's interconnected world.
Born in Houston, Texas, Phi Phi Oanh came to Vietnam for the first time in 2004 after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship to study the traditional art techniques of Vietnam. Based on her research, she has developed her own unique way of working with lacquer, one that combines traditional Vietnamese techniques with Western themes and influences.
The crossover ability showcased in Specula highlights the best of cultural exchange between the US and Vietnam and the success of the Fulbright Program. I hope that you will enjoy Specula and let art inspire you to discover new ways of how we can grow closer as people through a variety of mediums..."
Michael W. Michalak
Embassador of the United States of America in Vietnam, 2009
1 December 2009
After two very long years, I have finally finished Specula. The opening is next Friday, the 4th of December at 5 pm at the Hanoi City Exhibition Hall on 93 Dinh Tien Hoang. For all those in the area, I hope you can join me!
29 November 2009
Hi Phi Phi thank you for your time, I know you are busy preparing two shows this December. Could you briefly talk to us about this work, how it came about and how it is specifically related to Vietnam?
Once while having my coffee in a dark, very narrow, typically nameless café in Hanoi, I was aimlessly staring at the stains of humidity, dirt, and time on the other wall when it came to my mind to create a narrow space, a tunnel, reflecting the architecture of Hanoi and enigma of its charm.
In my last work, Black Box, I started to experiment with using lacquer in a large-scale installation of composition. This time, while still using lacquer, I wanted to try to create a space that evokes time and reflection. I use lacquer's ability to embody essences and textures of hard surfaces solid matter to create the interior of a cave. Through the configuration, Specula reveals son ta's potential to relate to architecture, mural painting, sculpture, and contemporary arts.
What does the name Specula mean?
A speculum is a medical instrument used to examine internal bodily cavities. The act of entering into this tunnel-like structure to probe, examine, to see, is an implied comparison to the action of the speculum. The interior of the cave draws a parallel to the interior of self, to create a space of reflection. Incidentally, speculum is also the Latin word for mirror, another useful parallel to the surface of the imaginary cave.
Could you talk about the images in this body of work?
Specula is not a big painting or a mural in the traditional sense. I use the transparency and layering ability of lacquer to create a network of images to create an imaginary cave comprising of two halves--cave interior and cave underwater joined by an arabesque arch.
The interior half reflects some elements of prehistoric cave paintings where Paleolithic people added marks on natural rock formations to insinuate forms and volumes of bisons. When painting, I let the lacquer suggest the volumes and I added the lines accordingly. I tried to keep it simple, reduced, to allow the viewer to continue the line of the imagination, like the wonderment in looking for shapes in cloud formations or staring at the wall of the Ryo-angi gardens in Kyoto.
In the other half, the cave underwater, I play with the ebony of lacquer, the shimmer of the metals and its translucent character to give the flat cave an illusion of deep negative space and water. In different areas, I simulate the effect of looking through muddy water and finding that you can see only yourself in the reflection. On this side, I also introduce elements of Vietnamese mythology like the carp contemplating the moon, and the metamorphosis of a school of fish into a wall of bricks, or the vistas of distant mountains from the Chinese ink tradition that become the top of a pool.
The two walls bleed into an arabesque pattern taking up more than half of the curved ceiling. When I was in Spain I spent some time looking at the mosques in Andalucia. I love Islamic architecture and design. To me, Islamic design and its relationship to mathematics, order and chaos, and spirituality through harmony is very sophisticated. This is seen through its patternwork. Like everyone else , I imagine, I am fascinated by the point where art, religion, science, intersect with the question of existence. For my arabesque pattern I used the recently discovered and endlessly fascinating Penrose tile as the grid for a simple but random pattern involving stars and kites, some of the oldest symbols.
When discussing Specula, it is equally important to talk about the set design--- the physical relationship between the body and the work. These are aesthetic lessons in the tradition of modernist sculptors such as James Turrell, Anish Kapoor or Richard Serra, but also of the entrances of old Buddhist temples and even funhouse mirrors in carnival halls. Specula is a multilayered installation with many elements at play. First there is the discovery of exterior-interior, then once inside there is the claustrophobic experience of the shape of the structure on the body, then the play of moving shadows on the wall and the visual illusion of vibration and texture of the lacquer caused by the changing focus of matte and shine of the surface.
Where do you think Specula stands in relation to the tradition of lacquer?
There is much discussion about traditional lacquer painting in Vietnam, but I don't see many artists up-keeping that tradition. Considering that lacquer as a painting medium is an innovation of the 20th century, I also don't see it that old enough to have such a rigid tradition. To me, what is considered the traditional lacquer painting technique does not sufficiently account for the creative accident, expressive mark making, process orientation, inter-disciplinary practice-- elements all inherent to the medium. Instead, I see Vietnamese son ta as a contemporary art medium that is still evolving, and I'm proud to be a part in that evolution. In fact, I propose a renaissance in son ta!
In Specula and in my last exhibit Black Box, my focus is not the tradition of lacquer in Vietnam. Rather I am interested in of how the use and practice of son ta can have meaning and respond to our contemporary concerns. For example, lacquer has inherent qualities that make it particularly important today such as
-it is a natural resource that locally available
-it is a process-oriented medium that requires two essential steps for the creation of an image-- the addition of lacquer and the subtraction through sanding. This process is repeated many times throughout creating a painting paving the way for deliberate reflection.
-is the perfect marriage between environment with art because its dependency on available humidity and climate to dry is a wonderful parallel to our relationship with nature and our environment
-it can crossover to other interdisciplinary art practices, as seen here, with installation, architecture, etc
-as medium it is relatively unexplored
-It has the additional qualities of matte and shine, depth, deep but transparent blacks, transparency and translucency that other painting mediums (such as oil) do not have. This is the main reason why I think Vietnamese lacquer painting has the potential to contribute to painting history.
In a sense, son ta painting should be viewed as an entirely separate category of painting. There is nothing else like it, but up to now it has only been seen through the prism of oil painting and other painting mediums. Working in son ta, thinking about son ta, seeing son ta, I am convinced we should have an entirely different point of departure.
What is a typical day studio?
In my studio, working hours are a constant 8-6, but it is never routine and no two days are ever alike. When I started working on large compositions in lacquer, I realized that it is not a solitary individual practice but rather a team effort. I like to refer to my studio as a renaissance studio because while everyone has their role, there is a sense of an ongoing learning process, experimentation and discovery.
-Nguyen Anh Ngoc, Hanoi, November 2009
1 December 2009
"Some notes on Specula for Phi Phi Oanh"
by Quang Viet, author of Vietnamese Lacquer Painting and journalist at the Hanoi Fine Arts Publishing House
The works created with son ta, a traditional medium in Vietnam, by Oanh Phi Phi always reveal innovation, large scale composition, a deep sense of belief, ambition, hard work and great effort.
The surface of this cavernous passageway, Specula, encompasses 63m2 of surface area of lacquer painting. She paints like an archeologist, but one that searches for the things that concern our contemporary life. Her method is one of deep self-reflection distilled from a life as permanent nomad from one land and one culture to another and from east to west.
A truly international contemporary artist, her body of work, especially Specula, often possesses unexpected compositional arrangements with carefully ensconced meanings touching on wider universal concepts. Yet at the same time, these works are approachable, rich in thought and overflowing with introspection. With her refined skill Phi Phi Oanh has transmogrified son mai and its substrates to embody the subject itself while keeping a spiritual and ritualistic manner of expression.
Oanh Phi Phi once mentioned there should be another Renaissance period in lacquer painting. With this important work, Specula, she is has become a catalyst in that second Renaissance.
Quang Viet, Hanoi November 2009
Một ghi chú về “Specula” dành cho Oanh Phi Phi
Quang Việt viết
Các tác phẩm bằng chất liệu sơn mài “truyền thống” của Phi Phi Oanh bao giờ cũng là sự biểu hiện của cái mới, cái quy
mô, của niềm tin, khát vọng, của lao động và của nghị lực.
Trên bề mặt của một “đường hầm”, “Specula”, rộng tới 63m2 – chị vẽ như một nhà khảo cổ, nhưng lại đi tìm thông tin ở ngay trong lòng thời đại mình đang sống – một lối tự nghiệm, như là kết quả kết tinh của một quá trình “du cư” liên tục, từ miền đất – nền văn hoá này sang miền đất – nền văn hoá khác, từ Đông sang Tây.
Là một nghệ sĩ “đúng nghĩa” quốc tế và đương đại, các tác phẩm của chị, đặc biệt “Specula” thông qua cái vẻ bên ngoài đột nhiên dị biệt, thường khéo ẩn chứa, ở bên trong, những “phổ niệm” (universaux), dễ đọc và dễ gần gũi, giàu chất suy tưởng và dạt dào nội tâm. Bằng một tay nghề đã đạt đến trình độ Phi Phi Oanh, quả thực, đã đưa được “sơn mài” vào một khúc diễn biến lạ lùng, nơi mà bản thân chất sơn và thức hình bất thường của nền đế (support) - dường như đã thực sự hoá thân thành những đề tài, những motif mang tính tâm linh (spirituel) và lễ nghi (rituel) của chính tác phẩm.
Phi Phi Oanh, nếu như chị đã từng nói về “lần phục hưng thứ hai của sơn ta” - thì với tác phẩm quan trọng này - “Specula” - chị có thể đã là một trong số những tác nhân cho lần phục hưng thứ hai ấy.
Quang Việt, tác giả cuốn sách “Hội họa sơn mài Việt Nam”, Nhà xuất bản Mỹ thuật
Photographer Aaron Joel Santos visits Phi Phi's Studio. To see the atmospheric fotos he took of the creative process of Specula please follow the link to his blog From Swerve of Shore:
Inspired by the artist Carl Andre’s idea of emplacement and sculptural relativity, I reject the puritanism of the minimalist style by introducing a narrative element to portray the time worn patterns all too familiar in old Hanoi buildings.
Dramatic lighting, the golden properties of lacquer and the density of iron give the cadastre a transcendental weight.
Some reviews and articles about the show...
from the Hanoi Grapevine...
"...Phi Phi Oanh’s post modern floor tile lacquer work was the best work on show and I certainly hope that she is given a whole gallery re-exhibition of those boxes we saw in the Art Museum a couple of years ago….and of course any new work she has. I can’t help but compare her with Yoko Ono and I think she could be even better..."
from Bao Tien Phong Online