Specula 2007-2009

Photo credit: Matthew Dakin


PHOEBE SCOTT, November 2009

"Reflection does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the worlds basis; it steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire; it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice; it alone is consciousness of the world because it reveals that world as strange and paradoxical."

  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 'Phenomenology of Percepcion'



When the philosopher Merleau-Ponty wrote the above passage, he was writing of the process called the reduction; a kind of concerted meditative exercise where the philosopher would attempt to overcome all pre-suppositions about the world and its arrangement, and experience being-in-the-world as a stream of unmediated perception and sensation. Merleau-Ponty writes of the world being revealed as strange and paradoxical, meaning that once our conventional mode of perception is suspended, we are filled with a new wonder at the external world. For phenomenological philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, the primary source of knowledge did not come from an abstract and detached mind, but from the experience of being in a human body, in the world. To me, Phi Phi Oanh's installation Specula is deeply conducive to the aims of the phenomenological reduction: its insistence on embodied sensation, conscious awareness of perception and the experience of being flooded with wonder.

The structure of Specula is that of a corridor with a curved apse, lit through frosted glass from below. The entire interior of Specula is painted in lacquer. As the viewers move through the passageway, waiting until their eyes adjust to the dim light, they can watch how their own shadows and motions reveal and conceal different aspects of the lacquer panels. Like many lacquer paintings, the panels of Specula cannot be comprehended in a single glance, as different effects of light can drastically change their appearance. Light can bounce off the high surface sheen  the mirror-like quality to which the word specula refers  or can penetrate through the multiple layers of lacquer to show the glowing depths of colour, or can strike on an area of gold or metal inlay, revealing sudden brilliance. To view the work in its completeness, the viewer has to attempt to slow down their perceptions, opening themselves up to a process of discovery and experience...


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Specula, moves son mai from two dimensional wall painting to an architectural space that also asks the question of what could the image of lacquer be upon itself when unmediated through the experience of other image making mediums like oil painting or photography.  After Doi Moi the innovations of lacquer art in Vietnam are for the most part stylistic, modeled after the successive modernist changes in painting throughout the 20th century embedding the thought habits of the original within them.  Specula adopts another strategy treating son ta as a substance and son mai as a process whose inherent qualities folds into its own image, one that neither depends on an object nor belong to a subject.  This approach, the recognition for son ta to be a substance as an image of its own substance-ness allows for a breaking away from a type of image making whose thought patterns are pre-established or in constant contention with its own past.  As such an image, Specula contains no tension within itself, there is no otherness, or contradiction.  It is in itself, of itself. 

Specula is an observation of son ta’s ability to transmutate into distilled essences of basic matter unfolding into a series of mimetic forms—stone, bricks, water— that suggests the interior of a cave.  The metamorphosis that converts the lacquer in stone, in moss, in crystalline water, is not an optical representation of nature like those Baroque paintings in trompe-l'oeil.  Rather, this cave of the imagination is constructed with oxides, water, precious metals, resin from the earth-- establishing a parallel with the natural matter of a cave. Layer by layer, as if condensing the slow process of geological formation based on sedimentation and erosion through the painting and sanding, the image of its own materiality emerges.

As a type of theatre, the word Specula refers to the medical instrument used to perform examinations of bodily cavities, in the act analogous to the viewer penetrating the evocative space of an imaginary womb.  Its name declares that this is not an object of artistic contemplation nor is it an public space available to the viewer in any light, time or context.  Rather this is about the act of prospecting, of looking with an intense and concentrated gaze at something that cannot be taken in at once as a whole in its entirety, but only through the slow examining of the sum of its parts.

Specula as an image is the result of the accumulation of time, environmental factors, moods and reflections and gestures transformed into a type of mirror. To the touch, the surface is cool and smooth as a mirror, contradicting the rich textures and deep colors beneath the surface plane giving a simultaneous perception of the essential and the illusory, evoking a mental image, beyond the optical.  This is the material quality for which son ta lacquer is a good conductor for reflection-- in creating the momentary simultaneous contradiction between the essential and the illusory, the object and its space, optical textures and tactile smoothness

Recurring throughout many cultures and eras, the cave is an enclosure for intimate thought.  Specula contains traces of moments in the history of human representation where we have appealed to fantasy and art in order to deal with the reality of our temporality.  Drawing from sources as diverse as the cave paintings of Altamira, Plato’s allegory of the cave, the Scrovegni Chapel, Buddhist temples, patterns of mathematical tessellations such as the Penrose tiling or sophisticated Islamic geometric systems, these pluri-cultural and spacial references extend the possibility of interpretation of multiple meanings.  Specula is space, instrument, and mirror that wants to incite a leap beyond the domestic and everyday. 

Phi Phi Oanh


Specula at the Singapore Art Museum for the Singapore Biennale, SBTV interview.

Published on May 21, 2014

Interview with Singapore Biennale 2013 artist Nguyen Oanh Phi Phi from Vietnam.

Get to know the artists and curators in this 45-part series of fresh, fun short films that feature their practice and the

process behind their SB2013 artworks.