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

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.

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.



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

Lacquer as a form of exchange


Sơn Ta, is a resinous substance extracted from the Rhus Sucedanea tree native to North Viet Nam that has been processed for thousands of years in the same artisanal manner.  Traditionally, this resin was used as a protective covering of wood and everyday objects to decorate and protect them from the changes in temperature, humidity, termites and other insects. In the realm of the spiritual, Buddhist temples also used lacquer as the binding agent for polychrome wood sculptures representing Buddhas or deities. The use of gold leaf and silver bathed in the lacquer gives the icons a powerful symbolism and mystical a light. 

In the Dau temple in Northern Vietnam, there are even two examples of mummified monks whose bodies were covered in lacquer after having achieved the maximum level of purity and being.  Similarly in Japan existed the ritual of Sokushinbutsu, a practice of self-mummification through a slow suicide over the period of many years consisting in a strict diet of nuts and grains finally culminating in the steady ingestion of natural Lacquer Urushi tea to dehydrate the body and protect it from microbes that break down the body after death.  After death, Urushi works on the body from the inside preserving it as a living record of one who has endured the difficult process to enlightenment in a final act of self-denial.  

Above: a photograph of the late Pham Hung Thong, head of the Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues with the mummy statue of Zen master Vu Khac Minh in 1983. The photograph was in the pagoda and photographed by Dan Ton.   Source: http://www.vietnamheritage.com.vn/pages/en/1111115245875-Archaeology-meets-Zen.html  

Above: a photograph of the late Pham Hung Thong, head of the Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues with the mummy statue of Zen master Vu Khac Minh in 1983. The photograph was in the pagoda and photographed by Dan Ton. 

Source: http://www.vietnamheritage.com.vn/pages/en/1111115245875-Archaeology-meets-Zen.html

Because of state control over its production and careful recordkeeping and the high aesthetic value placed upon lacquerware as national and state treasures, lacquerware objects trace a trail of commerce, trade and power that exist long after empires and records have vanished.  Unearthed from tombs dating from the Han Dynasty, at the base of each lacquered treasure found, is an inscription citing the date and names of the imperial workshop responsible for each phase of production that demonstrate state control over production as well as the nature of assembly production during that period.  Lacquered objects of these royal guilds and workshops have been found in as far as North Korea and Japan, showing the existence of an extensive network of trade and relations throughout the region.

Along these channels of commerce and exchange, lacquer objects and statues trace another type of exchange as conductors of knowledge and beliefs bringing Buddhism from India all the way to Japan.  Objects and ideas move back and forth across borders from east to west and back.  During Yuan Dynasty in China or what was known as the High Middle Ages in Europe, technologies invented in China such as the compass, printing press or gunpowder found its way to Europe through the silk trade route.  Enroute the silk trade from East Asia through the Byzantine empire through to Europe, might it be possible that the early Christian paintings of oil on wood board, with its layered transparencies and gilding be adaptations of natural lacquer with linseed oil substituting the unavailable lacquer trees? I am not tracing a specific chronological trajectory of influence in the art historical sense, but rather I suggest in thinking about historical images in terms of a geneology of essences and textures, a family of pictorial cultures and qualities that would trace Van Eyck’s oil paintings back through the panel icons of the Byzantine Empire right to the objects found in the tomb of the Marquis de Zhi.   

History is necessarily tied to a temporality, order, progress, and the relationships among them.  In this sense, lacquer objects are not a type of historical record but rather an image of a type of memory or a physical gesture. As memory, particular characteristics of lacquer - its textures, colors, brightness, shine- allow us to trace relations of similarities to artifacts and vestiges outside of its cultural territory.  For example, to suggest that the lacquer is the aesthetic origin of the first oil paintings on wood opens up a space to re-imagine another past, one more diverse and connected through sensations and images. This allows us to be aware of the vestiges of acculturation and socio-cultural exchanges lost between continents and territories when defined only by their military and ideological history.  These objects are material evidence of a similarity of the small and minor art lost in exchange and unwritten into the grand historical narratives that still persist today.