About this blog

These texts were created in order to generate meaning and new lines of thought about the context of my work and Vietnamese natural lacquer.  An ecphrasis is a literary exercise used to describe an art object, and as an ecphrasis, I hope that words will serve to bring closer the emotional experience of lacquer painting to those who have not had the opportunity to experience its surface directly.  As painting, it is part of a history of otherness.  For me, Son ta serves as basis of analysis to take a critical inventory or interpret the past issues of identity and memory, and generate strategies of cultural identity.  In the era of globalization and virtual reality, if the qualities of territorial specificity, materiality and uniqueness hold any meaning, they are reflected in this substance.

In the context of Vietnam, I hope to create parallel readings that enrich how we may perceive this substance older than written history. Through my experiments with new materials, substrates and concepts using son ta, I want to insist on a methodological freedom that opens up new associations, connotations, and forms that make possible a polysemous type of lacquer painting on par with the richness of Vietnamese language. Vietnamese is a language made for poetry-- abundant in abstract concepts, turns of phrases, and symbolic associations-- but these qualities are not yet sufficiently reflected in lacquer as painting.  I hope that by writing a different language concept concerning lacquer to undo or erase the burden of such dualities such as traditional-contemporary, urban-folk, high-art-low-art, interior-exterior that confine creativity in the way we think about this cultural resource.  Easily lacquer Sơn Ta may be perceived as anachronistic, but its relevance for our time have not been fully explored. 

WHAT IS NATURAL SON TA LACQUER?

"...The Rhus succedanea tree is indigenous to Northern Vietnam, and its sap provides the raw material for lacquer. Historically, the local lacquer paint was used both for prosaic purposes  as a means of preserving wooden objects and furnishings from humidity and damage  as well as for creating special decorative or religious objects, sometimes enhanced with gilding or mother-of-pearl inlay. In the 1930s, following the founding of the École des Beaux-Arts d'Indochine by the French colonial government, Vietnamese artists began to experiment with using lacquer painted onto flat wooden panels as a means of modern, creative expression. One particularly important innovation at this time was a method of applying layers of lacquer paint and then rubbing back the surface with sandpaper and then burnishing it with stone. In this rubbed paint or son mai technique, the under layers of lacquer would reappear through the process of rubbing back, while the final surface would be smooth and shiny. This technique creates one of the paradoxes of Vietnamese-style lacquer art, evident in the lacquer panels of Specula: the simultaneous appearance of translucent depth and of mirror-like sheen..."  

by Phoebe Scott, Ph.D

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Temperamental to its environment, lacquer remains at the mercy of humidity, heat, time, and space. This can be demonstrated by the fact that depending on the percentage of natural humidity on a given day or place, the resin may or may not set. Even when it does, the colors may vary greatly. The artist is powerless to control completely the outcome of each image and must allow chance to play its part. To me son ta in Specula serves not only as a metaphor of trace and fossilization, but also as a direct and active witness to the immediate environment.

The resin itself, the color of dark amber or molasses, comes from the earth. As a result, the finished painting is the accumulation of time, environmental factors, state of mind and reflections of a memory that symbiotically form a single meditative image. To the touch, the surface may seem smooth and flat like a mirror, but the rich textures and deep colors beneath the surface evoke the gaze of the minds eye.

Phi Phi Oanh

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Vietnamese SƠN TA and Heterotopia

According to the text "Des espaces autres" by Michel Foucault, Heterotopia conceptualizes those spaces of alterity and marginality that exist within every society but eludes easy categorization within the accepted social order.  Cemeteries, libraries, museums, theaters, brothels, boats, are all examples of heterotopia. As spaces of otherness, Heterotopia serves as a point of inflexion between the concept of utopia and normal spaces of order that help to define the contours between them, destabilize conventional order relationships, and generate rupture between the familiar and the unknown. Features of a heterotopia include a coexistence and simultaneity of multiple temporal and spatial planes, a continual function in every society whose practices and rites and locations change according to the values of the times, and the existence of some scheme of inclusion and exclusion.

An open and enigmatic concept, heterotopia incites the questioning of power structures through spaces of alterity that make visible the borders, limits, dissonances, isolations, instabilities and accumulations sometimes unapparent within a society.  For this reason, in the last few decades the concept of heterotopia been used as multifaceted and transversal framework through which to elucidate points of criticism in disciplines such as urban planning, architecture, and sociology. In the contemporary arts, heterotopia has been broadly interpreted to include discourses between the center and the periphery, in the creation of new “spaces” of reality, and even to be considered that any act or work of art as heterotopia in itself. Its relevance encircles the impulse of our times to understand the structures of the power, create multidimensional readings that value diversity, and break with the logic of convention and function. In Black Box and Specula, I explore the properties that constitute a place of heterotopia creating moments and specific experiences tied to geographic location that allow us to face and confront our own otherness.

To me the concept of Heterotopia also serves as a rhetorical trope to introduce the temporal, contradictory and enigmatic qualities of Vietnamese son ta and call attention to its qualities of alterity in order to break down fixed ideas about what we think we know about medium and this substance particular.  Vietnamese lacquer, usually misconceived simply as a traditional painting medium, is a rich area for creative practice and the study of visual culture.  But a sanding away of preconceived categories must happen in order to create the circumstance of openness and receptivity-- precursors for understanding its relevance in the present. 

Heterochrono: Lacquer and time

A quality that characterizes heterotopia is the simultaneous clash of different temporal experiences in a singular space. To illustrate, Foucault gives the example of a cemetery as a physical place whose relevance is reserved by its function for a future time after death. A burial ground accumulates temporal experiences of the past, future and present and collides with the reality of our experience of daily life. 

To me, the history of the son ta is full of these contrapositions and accumulations of time.  The production of a work in lacquer, its history, and how we experience a lacquer object carries this constant collision of the past against our temporality and historical moment. As a cultural artifact, it is more akin to a fossil, a memory that contains in its strata a register of the age, humidity conditions, geographical location, the form of its cultural thought, and the imprint of the hand that produced it.  Any object protected by son ta natural lacquer is coated, layer-by-layer with the resin extracted from the earth. Drying depends on the conditions of atmospheric moisture and climate. The lacquer records these conditions through the colors and its transparency when dried, but it is the sanding and polishing, an act of destruction and sculpting, which creates the image or final object. The surface of the image seems delicate and controlled, contradicting the physical, sometimes violent process of its creation. Sweat and heat emanating from the hand gives shine to the surface, bestowing the object a quality of being that seems to transcend time. The resulting object is agency or technology that extends of the physical body of the artisan through time and space through touch. The physical encounter with a utilitarian object of lacquer is an embrace from the hands in the past to the present, a corporeal confrontation of several temporary planes in one space. It is a tactile memory.

 

Chinese Western Han Dynasty (202 BC–9 AD), dated 2nd century BC. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lacquerware_bowl,_Western_Han_Dynasty.JPG

Chinese Western Han Dynasty (202 BC–9 AD), dated 2nd century BC.

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lacquerware_bowl,_Western_Han_Dynasty.JPG

Lacquer object as real memory

In a conference about lacquer in Asia organized by the Hubei Art Museum during the international triennial of lacquer in Wuhan in 2010, Professor of art history Pi Dao Jian of the Guangzhou University narrated his experience as the chief archeologist during the excavation of the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng dated from the warring states period (around 450 b.c. and discovered in 1978.  After over 2,500 years, Dr. Pi was the first person to touch these objects extracted from chests containing several hundreds of lacquered objects.  He recounted the moment when he beheld the lacquer objects in his hands he was overwrought by a physical emotion of contact, of holding the past through these physical objects that survived intact still shiny and lustrous as if they had been deposited there the previous day.

While it is true that while Professor Pi and the team of archaeologists were already in a space of heterotopia, the decisive revelation of the heterotopia is the the physical encounter with a being outside of our time and culture. In this case, the lacquer bowl belonging to the Marquis de Yi was a conductive material making visceral the experience of heterochrona or temporal multiplicity.

It is an example of what the historian Pierre Nora refers to with "real memory" in his essay "Historic places", to explain the difference between memory embedded in gestures and cultural habits, techniques and rituals transmitted through “non-oral traditions, in the self-knowledge of the body, not studied reflections and deeply rooted memories" to contrast historical memory transformed into a subject matter, "voluntary and deliberate, a duty, not spontaneous, psychological, individual, and subjective, no longer social, collective, and total”.

Natural lacquer, a substance before writing, has value as history as memory of the gesture in haptic collectivity.  It is gesture, heat and sweat of a body pressed into material and form.

Tracing the history of lacquer as carrier material, a palimpsest of textures, scents and expressions from another time, may allow us to enter into kind of interpretive relationship and dialogue with the past, not simply as an object of classification and study, but as a receptiveness to be communicated to by an object outside of our own historical cultural horizon, its otherness, in a process of understanding the present.

When one thinks of the effect of time on organic matter, the mind evokes a patina of cracks, wrinkles, dust, nothingness that follow a pattern of decay observable in the natural world.  But these artifacts of lacquer from the tomb of the Marquis de Zi comes down to us through time, lustrous and smooth, belying their millennial age, disrupting and destabilizing our notion of time and permanence. 

 

  

Lacquer box in the shape of a mandarin duck excavated from the tomb of Marquis of Yi.   SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian, 1 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), p. 152. and http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/archae/tmarlacq.htm  

Lacquer box in the shape of a mandarin duck excavated from the tomb of Marquis of Yi.  

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian, 1 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), p. 152. and http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/archae/tmarlacq.htm

 

Why son ta is important to my creative practice

This quality of timelessness of natural lacquer suggests a continuity between the past, present and future.

This is a material quality of perception I particularly value in relation to the contemporary world where high speed technologies and information bytes have replaced the physicality of remembering while the throw-away commodity culture, capitalism, and propels towards shorter consumption cycles and superficial relationships with our objects and resources.

This attitude called progress constantly, at will, erases and replaces what came before, and understands the present as a continuous break that interrupts the process of memory and instills the anxiety of permanent crisis. Perhaps this quality of time, continuity, and fixed concentration is important to me for the similar ruptures in my own personal history.

I was born in Houston in 1979 to Vietnamese parents, and the year 2004 embarked my relationship with Viet Nam and my first encounter with the natural lacquer. Immediately son ta became a means to facilitate my socio-cultural integration as well as a lens through which to understand the cultural readings of this totally new, but deeply familiar society.

The Enigma of Son Ta

When I started learning about son ta, l began by collecting myths and popular sayings about this medium related to its mysterious and paradoxical qualities and uses that lends itself to such mystical and/or enigmatic connotations. For example, as a process, son mai lacquer constitutes two equally important phases of production—the building up of lacquer paint and then the sanding away to create the final image--showing how construction and destruction are necessary parts of creation.  The final image is a synthesis of both phases, equally beholding traces of both parts, yet it is already something else, something more complete than the sum of its parts, but never revealing the method of its production.  Another curious attribute of son ta is its symbiosis to the rainy and wet local environment since it requires extremely high humidity in order for it to dry.  While working, a current of cold dry air blowing across the surface can render the resin defective, causing it to stay permanently moist and sticky.  Another, bizarre quality is that it only produces allergic reaction only to certain people, generating popular superstitions about it.  Other seductive pictorial attributes include its color and its use of precious metals.  The amber colored translucency of the resin, layered between textures of gold leaf and silver leaf, endows lacquered objects with a special inner light. 

 

Learning techniques

The lacquer technique was transmitted orally through families in the craft villages or from teachers to pupils in schools and workshops. In recent decades in North Vietnam, the University of Fine Arts and Industrial Design College in Hanoi have been in charge as the custodians of the official technique of lacquer, but books about its history and technique number less than a dozen. The lack of written texts, the control of the content of lacquer paintings in the decades prior to Doi Moi suggests a certain historical possessiveness of the technology of lacquer, not only in Vietnam but in other Asian countries, having evidence dating from the Han period in China of royal decrees issuing state control over the extension of the lacquer trade, production and commerce. The collection of anecdotes surrounding this substance are either of a mystical or political in nature signaling definite inside and an outside of a controlled production system. 

My start in Vietnamese lacquer was full of trial, error, and kinesthetic learning.  In retrospect, this type of learning through interpretation and misinterpretation enabled me to see the substance as a substance with its own properties and not articulated through language or other cultural concepts.  As such, from early on in my learning I began to create my own metaphors to explain the process of lacquer image.  One example is to liken the process of creating a lacquer painting to the formation of long-term memory.  One requires 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.

SEE BLACK BOX

 

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Black Box and work on memory space

This metaphor of process and memory was presented in Black Box, my first work in this medium, and is the culmination of a learning process with the tradition of lacquer painting in Vietnam.  Black Box takes a hybrid view of the major historical forms of son ta—as utilitarian art, funerary element, social realism, nationalism and propaganda—but moving away from its traditional forms of representation, translating its scale, and adapting it to my own experience with painting.  As such, Black Box is a self-conscious reflection of the medium before its own history.  On another more personal level, it was also a way of creating a polysemous space of memory in Vietnamese society that celebrates diversity of interpretation through a poetic that combines the mimesis of the familiar with the timeless quality of lacquer painting.

“And I come to the broad plains and spacious palaces of my memory, holding the treasure of innumerable images, brought there from every sort of thing impinging on the senses. In it is stored all those things the senses have taken in, and which may have been enlarged, diminished, or otherwise varied by thought—all those things that have been turned over to its keeping and laid up, which have not yet been swallowed up by forgetfulness and buried. When I enter there, I ask what I wish to be brought forth. Some things instantly come; others take longer to find; they are fetched, as it were, out of some more inward receptacle.  Other memories tumble out in hordes, even though only one thing is desired and requested; they all rush out altogether as if to say, ‘Is it perchance one of these?’ These I brush aside with the hand of my heart, from the face of remembrance, until what I wished for is unveiled, and comes into sight, out of its secret place. Other things come up readily, in unbroken order, as they are called for; those in front making way for those following; and as they make way, they are hidden from sight, ready to come back when I will.“
St. Augustine, "Confessions", 400 BCE

Written in the year 400 ad, this very phenomenological description of the process of memory captures the spirit of viewing and wandering around through the 16 chests of Black Box.  These lacquered boxes are deposits for memories suspended between the distant past and the present when they were created.  The image arrangement of Black Box is composed of visual fragments that are random without apparent chronological or geographical order-- as though one were inside of a fractured memory.   Each box creates a space within a space, and the interior of the boxes are hermetically closed, removed from the sight, as though containing something of such value that it must remain guarded from the public eye.  The covers of the chests are lacquer paintings reflecting different moments in the collective experience of the Hanoi of 2007.  They are images of instances and customs so common they are not distinguished by or tied to gender, class, or age.  Above all they are not didactic representations.  Together they form a field of experiential memories to which San Agustin refers. 

The lacquered chests are shown in dim but focused lighting.  The surface gives off a mirror-like shine reflecting the life around it that contrasts with the painted image underneath appearing to come through the inside of the surface as though it were a projection though layers of rich textures and profound colors.  This is an effect particular to son mai painting conducive to evoking the mind’s eye gazing upon a memory. 

Black Box is not a cemetery as in the explicit meaning of heterotopia, but rather it is like an imaginary depository to safeguard memories and intimacies that cannot be legitimately or officially commemorated. This may be anything from embodiments of prosaic customs so mundane they are almost forgotten until they are finally gone. These leftovers are the nature morte of our epoch.  Black Box may also be a place for such catastrophic memories as those missing or invisible bodies, the true losers of multiple wars and political conflicts. They are of my grandfather, my cousins and countless family members on both sides of a circumstantial human and political geography.  As a collection of fixed images without a body to generate new experiences, Black Box is their portrait. Maybe Black Box is just a place for the retention of memories, customs and practices that already have no place in the rapid modernization and digitalization of this society, or is simply a space to be aware of sensations, essences and manifestations that exist at the limit of words. Above all, as a space of heterotopia, Black Box is intended to be a space of solemnity, secrets and silences within other spaces, with a life of its own, closed upon itself but open at the same time, inconceivably familiar-- a deposit for memories outside of the doctrines and the didactic disciplining of our time.

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Palimpsest

A second characteristic of a heterotopia is something that serves a specific unchanging function within society but which spatial location and rituals change most radically in relation to the ideologies or dominant values of each age.  Examples of such spaces of heterotopia are cemeteries, brothels, or prisons.  These institutions function in all societies in diverse forms, however, their design, location and practice depend on its relation to the moral and social order of the disciplining power in each era.  It is through the changing locations and habits of use of these places of anomaly or “periphery” that gives shape to the center, the legal and "normal".

This characteristic of heterotopia, as both a constant and variable allows us to trace and compare the epistemic breaks between different social regimes.

An ancient city like Hanoi with its intermittent wars of territory and rebellion, its agrarian economy and values and oral traditions, and the abrupt change of written language from Han Nom to Quốc Ngữ, has left many voids in recorded history.  The social uses of space throughout the city have changed through the ages leaving ambiguous traces for historiography other than as archeological sites.  Hanoi and its streets is a substrate of homes as commerces built upon foundations of other homes upon commerce and family altars, all the way through time.  In a millennial city like Hanoi, except for the few clearly marked spaces clearly dedicated to the operation of the state, what space is not a Heterotopia?  In other words, in a place where every space is saturated with memory without a continuous record, what can be used as a constant in order to reference and compare cultural and ideological changes? Belonging to its territory, Son ta has been used throughout ancient history in a multiplicity of forms up to the present, and has marked on its body in each form of every major dialectical change in this society.

During the feudal period lacquer was used as a protective and decorative skin for wooden objects in temples or for everyday use.  During the colonial period, son ta was introduced as a image making medium as the concept of beaux arts and artistic authorship was introduced to Vietnam.  During the revolutionary period as painting, this medium was charged with nationalism and propaganda.  In the present day, after Doi Moi coinciding with international postmodernism, is a liminal period of changes in form and reflections on its own history.  

With its qualities related to time, its many layers of building up (or construction) to the sanding away (or erosion), I liken Vietnamese son ta to a type of palimpsest, an ancient tablet or manuscript which preserves traces of writing that has been erased or written upon-- both being relevant vestiges and testimonies of another time that is barely discernable and entirely open to interpretation.

Source: Plate XII. ''The S.S. Teacher's Edition: The Holy Bible.'' New York: Henry Frowde, Publisher to the University of Oxford, 1896. {{PD-US}} and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_ephremi.jpg

Source: Plate XII. ''The S.S. Teacher's Edition: The Holy Bible.'' New York: Henry Frowde, Publisher to the University of Oxford, 1896. {{PD-US}} and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_ephremi.jpg

Lacquer as a form of exchange

LACQUER AS HISTORY AND MEMORY

Sơn Ta, is a resinous substance extracted from the Rhus Sucedanea tree native to North Viet Nam that has been processed for thousands of years in the same artisanal manner.  Traditionally, this resin was used as a protective covering of wood and everyday objects to decorate and protect them from the changes in temperature, humidity, termites and other insects. In the realm of the spiritual, Buddhist temples also used lacquer as the binding agent for polychrome wood sculptures representing Buddhas or deities. The use of gold leaf and silver bathed in the lacquer gives the icons a powerful symbolism and mystical a light. 

In the Dau temple in Northern Vietnam, there are even two examples of mummified monks whose bodies were covered in lacquer after having achieved the maximum level of purity and being.  Similarly in Japan existed the ritual of Sokushinbutsu, a practice of self-mummification through a slow suicide over the period of many years consisting in a strict diet of nuts and grains finally culminating in the steady ingestion of natural Lacquer Urushi tea to dehydrate the body and protect it from microbes that break down the body after death.  After death, Urushi works on the body from the inside preserving it as a living record of one who has endured the difficult process to enlightenment in a final act of self-denial.  

Above: a photograph of the late Pham Hung Thong, head of the Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues with the mummy statue of Zen master Vu Khac Minh in 1983. The photograph was in the pagoda and photographed by Dan Ton.  Source: http://www.vietnamheritage.com.vn/pages/en/1111115245875-Archaeology-meets-Zen.html  

Above: a photograph of the late Pham Hung Thong, head of the Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues with the mummy statue of Zen master Vu Khac Minh in 1983. The photograph was in the pagoda and photographed by Dan Ton. 

Source: http://www.vietnamheritage.com.vn/pages/en/1111115245875-Archaeology-meets-Zen.html
 

Because of state control over its production and careful recordkeeping and the high aesthetic value placed upon lacquerware as national and state treasures, lacquerware objects trace a trail of commerce, trade and power that exist long after empires and records have vanished.  Unearthed from tombs dating from the Han Dynasty, at the base of each lacquered treasure found, is an inscription citing the date and names of the imperial workshop responsible for each phase of production that demonstrate state control over production as well as the nature of assembly production during that period.  Lacquered objects of these royal guilds and workshops have been found in as far as North Korea and Japan, showing the existence of an extensive network of trade and relations throughout the region.

Along these channels of commerce and exchange, lacquer objects and statues trace another type of exchange as conductors of knowledge and beliefs bringing Buddhism from India all the way to Japan.  Objects and ideas move back and forth across borders from east to west and back.  During Yuan Dynasty in China or what was known as the High Middle Ages in Europe, technologies invented in China such as the compass, printing press or gunpowder found its way to Europe through the silk trade route.  Enroute the silk trade from East Asia through the Byzantine empire through to Europe, might it be possible that the early Christian paintings of oil on wood board, with its layered transparencies and gilding be adaptations of natural lacquer with linseed oil substituting the unavailable lacquer trees? I am not tracing a specific chronological trajectory of influence in the art historical sense, but rather I suggest in thinking about historical images in terms of a geneology of essences and textures, a family of pictorial cultures and qualities that would trace Van Eyck’s oil paintings back through the panel icons of the Byzantine Empire right to the objects found in the tomb of the Marquis de Zhi.   

History is necessarily tied to a temporality, order, progress, and the relationships among them.  In this sense, lacquer objects are not a type of historical record but rather an image of a type of memory or a physical gesture. As memory, particular characteristics of lacquer - its textures, colors, brightness, shine- allow us to trace relations of similarities to artifacts and vestiges outside of its cultural territory.  For example, to suggest that the lacquer is the aesthetic origin of the first oil paintings on wood opens up a space to re-imagine another past, one more diverse and connected through sensations and images. This allows us to be aware of the vestiges of acculturation and socio-cultural exchanges lost between continents and territories when defined only by their military and ideological history.  These objects are material evidence of a similarity of the small and minor art lost in exchange and unwritten into the grand historical narratives that still persist today. 

 

TRACING ANOTHER HISTORICAL ITINERARY THROUGH A GENEOLOGY OF SURFACE TEXTURES AND AESTHETIC QUALITIES OF ARTIFACTS

History is necessarily tied to a temporary order, progress, and the relationships among them.  In this sense, lacquer objects are not a type of historical record but rather an image of a type of memory or a physical gesture. As memory, particular characteristics of lacquer - its textures, colors, brightness, shine- allow us to trace relations of similarities to artifacts and vestiges outside of its cultural territory.  For example, to suggest that the lacquer is the aesthetic origin of the first oil paintings on wood opens up a space to re-imagine another past, one more diverse and connected through images and sensations. This allows us to be aware of the vestiges of acculturation and socio-cultural exchanges lost between continents and territories when defined only by their military and ideological history.  These objects are material evidence of a similarity of the small and minor art lost in exchange and unwritten into the grand historical narratives that still persist today... 

The end of the century 19th and early 20th century occur marked changes in Vietnamese society that have left its imprint on the use of lacquer Sơn Ta to the present. In a fact that could be considered paradoxical, because it would have meant a reverse adaptation or even a territorialization of the entire history and content of oil painting to Vietnamese lacquer. In Viet Nam, under the direction of the L’Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts of L'Indochine formed under the colonial government, the first generation of students began using lacquer as a pictorial medium of self-expression, serving this time as a conductor of the modernist styles from Europe towards the Vietnamese society. The Vietnamese painters of this school pioneered pictorial techniques of lacquer merging ancient techniques of village crafts with the expressive ideals of French romanticism and modernism to create a truly hybrid art for its time constituting a deterritorialization of son ta lacquer but also a reterritorialization of oil painting.   In this same period the name "Son Mai" or "sanding painting" from Son Ta (our painting) was also introduced to distinguish the new pictorial Vietnamese natural lacquer technique from the other oil paintings that came from abroad.

 

Invented traditions current possibilities

During the French-Indochina war of independence between the years 1946 until 1954, revolutionary and nationalist artists propelled a series of discussions to determine the focus of culture and the arts for an independent Viet Nam.  It was a decisive moment in the crystallization of the national identity, and Vietnamese Sơn Ta again played an affirmative role in cultural life as an artistic tool in the service of propaganda.  This time the content of the lacquer image was controlled under the ideological paradigm of socialist realism.  Taking cues from the figurative movement and social realism in the Soviet Union at this time, the images produced during this period are markedly nationalist, clearly coded, and celebratory of the Communist Party and the proletarian struggle. As an indigenous resource native to the northern territory, the uniqueness of Son Mai painting was particularly important to reinforce a policy of local identity.  As such, the pictorial techniques innovated by the first generation of lacquer painters were fixed into an official canon, consecrated and legitimized by the art institutions belonging to the state and thus constituting an invented tradition.  Despite the ancient use of son ta lacquer in Viet Nam and its diverse applications, "truyền thống sơn mai " or "traditional sanded lacquer", refers exclusively to the manner of figurative representation of images with lacquer on plywood board and the painting techniques developed in the first half of the 20th century. The symbolic and revered place given to lacquer painting as artistic canon of Viet Nam instilled a sense of uniqueness and continuity with the past, but required rigid control and immutability of tradition in order to be maintained.

By end of the 1980s, the Communist Government introduced a major overhaul in economic policy and aperture to the global market that also brought about a loosening of social control on the arts.  This period Post Doi Moi is liminal period of great changes in the nature of production, consumer values, rapid globalization and technological advancement that calls to question the nature of identity and a reassessment of the recent past.  This in-between stage in which order is fluctuating is also a critical and pivotal age, and one that incites questioning and creative strategies leading up to the restructuring of paradigms.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Vietnamese son ta became a means of representation when it became lacquer painting.  Sơn mai painting is hybridization in true form, one that joins Vietnamese lacquer to a wider geneology of painting with its roots in European romanticism, but also it is an entire history of pictorial representation “becoming” lacquer. This is not just its becoming a mere collection of optical styles and art object.  Rather, painting throughout the 20th century from modernism up to our contemporary period has gone on an ontological search of itself, questioning and expanding into many forms aligned with different modes of philosophical thought and inquiry, with its own readings into critical theory, identity politics and/or visual culture. That is, painting, or the image is now an assembly of meaning with the cognitive faculties to order signs, perspectives, take part in a thought relationship between subject and object, content and representation, as well as attend to the particular will of the individual and his or her relation with the environment.  

Correspondingly, I would also suggest the development of a broader more intertextual-like strategy of approaching son mai now with acquired faculties, as a lens through which to see and order meaning as well as a rich area of artistic research.  It is no longer a traditional craft as a fixed legacy to be protected but rather can be a challenging and malleable image of the times.  This constitutes a categorical change, and one that relates this substance to relevant questions about, environment, identity and experience, memory, the nature of territory. 

 

TOWARDS THE FUTURE, STRATEGIES OF IDENTITY AND REPRESENTATION

The abrupt and violent socio-political changes in the last two hundred years have demonstrated with the transient and relational nature of culture and how it is conditioned by the language of power, production and (most currently) mass media and technology.  

Contemporary art is a broad category of creative production encompassing countless practices marked by two clear impulses. The first focuses on locating, uncovering, critiquing, or subverting the epistemological and ideological foundations of our context, its institutions and conventions and our relationship with the environment that surround  us.  The second impulse is a heightened historical consciousness of the conditions, means and production of art.  My motivation to use lacquer as the subject matter in my practice contains the impulse to analyze how the concept of identity is created and justified through geographical territories, its indigenous materials, languages, and to explore the mechanisms that convert these cultural lessons into absolute truths.  With the changing relations of human geography, blurred borders and hybrid identities, how do we “become” local?  What models from the past are still salient for today?  Sơn Ta to me is a substance that embodies symbolic territory, the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of what is autochthonous or local. 

In my work, the fact of that Sơn Ta is a medium has a marked designation of origin is no longer used to to demarcate a politico-cultural difference but rather as a medium to compare, discuss and contribute from a self-aware, polysemic and cross-cultural perspective.  I think of the Sơn Ta as personal tool to transform thought habits about a fixed notion what is Vietnamese, Vietnamese art, and creating meaning and value to the things we have by transforming a local resource into cultural heritage.  As an agent for change, it is visibly eloquent medium to articulate a process of moving beyond from its colonial and revolutionary roots towards a more transcultural perspective.   Facing the new global reality, the use of Sơn Ta is my way of negotiating between the extremes of global homogenization and territorial localism.