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'Red' Exhibition @ The Observatory

Looking back, Monochrome has played a key role in contemporary art all across the world, from the beginning of the century with Russian artists Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko, subsequently in Europe with Yves Klein and Olivier Mosset and then to the USA with the 1986 ‘Red” exhibition curated by Bob Nickas.

‘Red - Màu Đỏ’, curated by Frederic Sanchez, is one of the first exhibitions about monochrome in Vietnam, a collective show divided in two distinct parts. The first one, on display through March 15, introduces the most radical aspects of the movement, featuring the works by Olivier Mosset, the mysterious Henry Codax and one of the few Vietnamese Monochrome painters, Vương Tử Lâm. It consists of six geometric canvasses of diverse shades of red and sizes. It draws from the key theories of abstract art and of Monochrome’s founders – exploring a colour (red) via simple  shapes which evoke pure feelings, challenging  the viewer to take the painting for what it is, disconnected from the traditional  painting’s icons and social references.

The power that the Monochrome movement has had over time goes beyond the art scene; it has been, among others, a tool to question traditional images that are used to direct people in society to follow authority. This element is one of the reasons which inspired the curator to organise the show ‘Red’ specifically in Vietnam, “it is very interesting for me to have it [the exhibition] here, because there is no background or history attached to this movement in Vietnam. While people in Europe, for instance, are familiar with this movement, here they are not; in this way they will just look at the paintings for what they are and they will have a pure reaction. I am very interested in seeing the reactions that the exhibition will create.”

The current exhibition is inspired by the famous 1986 ‘Red’ show in New York, in which a group of artists (Olivier Mosset, Philip Taaffe, Haim Steinbach, Donald Judd, Allan McCollum and many more) displayed individual pieces that were not bound by common ideas or concepts but rather created under absolute individual freedom of creativity in which the only link was the colour red. “It [colour red] belongs to Vietnamese culture and daily life, it is the colour of the national flag, symbolic of communism and therefore used as a visual aid to communicate governmental information. On the other hand, it symbolizes many ideas for the people. For example, red could be the colour of luck and happiness but also death and sorrow”, explained Sanchez. A curiosity is that the same year in which the radical ‘Red’ show was taking place in the Big Apple, Vietnam’s Đổi Mớ reforms were underway. By choosing the colour ‘red’, two art worlds and periods are therefore connected.

The second part of the exposition intentionally contrasts with the first, both in form and intent; through a mixed installation of videos and sculptures, a reflection about the colour red in Vietnam unfolds, “it is a kind of experimental documentary in which artists, poets and writers are invited to express their points of view and share their feelings and memories.” 

It strongly clashes with some of the fundamental motives of the original movement whose intentions were to eradicate established pre-conceptions about art, about artists as ‘heroes’, by bringing people back to simply approach the artworks presented to them. Over a month ago, Sanchez gave a talk at San Art about his previous curatorial projects and the upcoming ‘Red’, during the question & answer portion, some people in the audience, in an over-intellectualised manner, challenged him regarding the idea of forcing the introduction of monochrome art especially if linked to national motifs, and in doing so, going against the basic principle of monochrome. Seemingly missing the point that, through ‘Red’ the curator has actually successfully achieved two things: displaying an innovative show in Saigon and furthermore recreating the ‘art experience’ that these types of artworks establish.

Immediately after walking into the gallery area in The Observatory, the strong, distinct and dominant colour and shapes hit you with a strong power, I almost felt dizzy. Slowly after the impact, I found myself (as well as the other visitors) vivisecting each piece, noticing the different shades of the same colour, trying to find the similarities and differences among them and, moreover, attempting to figure out who painted what. It is a natural mechanism of our brain to associate, organise and link what we experience with our memory and cognitive processes, but in this case, we are forced to filter these associations as individuals, through our emotions and senses rather than as a collective.

The second part of ‘Red’ will open on Saturday, 15th of March at 6 p.m.