The Enigma of Son Ta

When I started learning about son ta, l began by collecting myths and popular sayings about this medium related to its mysterious and paradoxical qualities and uses that lends itself to such mystical and/or enigmatic connotations. For example, as a process, son mai lacquer constitutes two equally important phases of production—the building up of lacquer paint and then the sanding away to create the final image--showing how construction and destruction are necessary parts of creation.  The final image is a synthesis of both phases, equally beholding traces of both parts, yet it is already something else, something more complete than the sum of its parts, but never revealing the method of its production.  Another curious attribute of son ta is its symbiosis to the rainy and wet local environment since it requires extremely high humidity in order for it to dry.  While working, a current of cold dry air blowing across the surface can render the resin defective, causing it to stay permanently moist and sticky.  Another, bizarre quality is that it only produces allergic reaction only to certain people, generating popular superstitions about it.  Other seductive pictorial attributes include its color and its use of precious metals.  The amber colored translucency of the resin, layered between textures of gold leaf and silver leaf, endows lacquered objects with a special inner light. 


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.