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:,_Western_Han_Dynasty.JPG

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


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   

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


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.




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.