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

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.