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.