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.

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.



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. 


SPECULA, notes

Starting from my first exhibition Black Box, I started to think of the contact point with lacquer as a “field of experience” as opposed to a representational type of painting or sculpture.  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 images 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, and in a certain sense modeled upon thought habits leading up to the original.  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 of immanence, the recognition for son ta to be a substance as an image of its own substance-ness (as opposed to transcendence) allows for a breaking away from a type of image making whose thought patterns are pre-established in other categorical and dual forms.  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 its ability to transmutate into distilled essences of basic matter unfolding into a series of memetic 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 symbolic cave is constructed with pigments of oxidation, water, precious metals, resin from Earth, establishing a parallel becoming 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.

With respect to the body and the spectator, Specula echoes a desire for this vital reverberation.  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 this imaginary womb.  The name Specula declares that it is not an object of artistic contemplation, nor an open and public space available to the viewer in any light, time or context, but rather this work is about the act of prospecting, the act 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 understood through the slow intense looking at the sum of its parts.

Specula as an image is the result of the accumulation of time, environmental factors, moods and reflections and gestures symbiotically 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.  In the momentary simultaneous contradiction between the essential and the illusory, the object and its space, optical textures and tactile smoothness, being and nonbeing, lies a philosophical reflection of Chan Buddhism that calls upon a collected mind gathered upon the conscious awareness of perception and present, dissipating the metaphysical division between form and matter, the individual and their environment.


The art object

From the Tao Te Ching:

We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space

that makes it livable.

We work with being,

but non-being is what we use. 


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 when we have appealed to philosophy and art in order to deal with the reality of our temporality.  From sources as diverse as the cave paintings of Altamira, Plato’s allegory of the cave, the Scrovegni Chapel, Buddhist temples, patterns of mathematical tesselations such as the Penrose tiling or sophisticated Islamic geometric systems, these pluri-cultural and spacial references create a complex syncretic system of signs to extend the possibility of this poetic reverberation regardless of the cultural background of each viewer.  Specula is the space, instrument, and mirror that emphasizes art as a shared, empirical, corporeal and experiential philosophy that tries to incite a leap beyond the domestic and everyday.