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. 

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