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



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.