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Exploring the Human Condition Through a Fusion of the Familiar and the Strange

In his most recent exhibition, "Paradise Lost", Hoi An-based artist Hoang Thanh Vinh Phong offers a menacing interpretation of day-to-day life. In a selection of seven works of art spanning multiple media formats, Phong delves into the identity of humans who have become indiscernible from the existence of everything around them. Mundane objects are bent out of shape to mystify life as we know it, and the silhouette of man is merely suggested, rather than explicitly displayed.

“The name of the exhibition is meant to evoke a sense of loss,” Phong tells Saigoneer via email. “It could be nostalgia, grief, the loss of one’s childhood and youth, or simply losing one’s way in life," he explains in Vietnamese.

"Paradise Lost" begins with 'Absurd Existence', a suspended jackfruit wood sculpture of an eagle clasping a toy excavator in its claws. The eagle, as seen in the top photo, eerily lacks in color and distinguishing features, save for the rolled bank notes discreetly inserted across its wingspan, contradicting the child-like red-and-blue toy in its grasp.

Nearby, on the wall, is a series of incredibly life-like wooden sculptures in the form of three mattresses. 'The Three Portraits', as they are named, challenge the viewer’s understanding of what a portrait should be: the human profiles in question can only be inferred through the creases on each lacquer-painted sheet. The presence of any human relationship is open to interpretation.

In Phong’s manipulation of the intricate link between a person’s life and their belongings, a mattress is arguably one of the most appropriate items to represent identity; it bears witness to a significant portion of a person’s history and sees them at their loneliest and most vulnerable. 

The mattresses thus make another appearance, this time personified and distorted beyond their regular forms. Lying on top of one another, they separate two sculptures of a married couple. The heads of the couple have been replaced with household items, pushing them further into nameless monotony, their happily-ever-after now marred by a humdrum existence. Near the feet of the female figure, their wedding photo slants forward, facing the ground.

In the exhibition handout, Phong sheds light on the rationale behind choosing some of the media employed in this collection. For instance, the mattresses in 'The Three Portraits' were fashioned out of wood and lacquer instead of canvas and paint, so as to give them the dimensions needed to imitate actual mattresses. 

“An ordinary object that is beautifully made, but does not stand within its typical function, can be considered an artwork,” Phong elaborates.

In another piece, a real-life urinal intertwines with a copper sculpture of a man. In choosing such materials, the artist means to emphasize the object as the focus, demoting the human to a mere frame. 

According to Phong, this amalgamation of objects and humans is a common theme among his work. 

“I want the artworks to speak for a collective larger than themselves,” Phong explains. “The replacement of the human face with objects serves as both an erasure and an amplification of the human identity.” 

Grim as it may seem, "Paradise Lost" is not meant to only portray the sinister side of life. “The artworks also embody resurrection and hope,” says the Quang Tri native. “I want viewers to see themselves in these faceless figures, reflect on their past, and move on to a better life.” 


Paradise Lost is on display at The Factory Contemporary Arts Center from September 29 to November 26. 

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