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An Artist’s Role in Debate at Vo Tran Chau’s Solo Exhibition on Heritage

Located at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in District 2, “Leaf Picking in the Ancient Forest” is artist Vo Tran Chau’s largest solo exhibition to date, and is currently on view from February 14 to April 26.  

The exhibition features a series of hanging mosaics, each comprising myriad fabric squares of discarded garments, which were found in nameless containers around Saigon’s docks. By pixelating archival images into graphs, Chau stitches individual squares together in a color-coded arrangement to reconstruct the subjects of the selected photos.

With the aim of binding threads of “personal history” within the found clothing, Chau re-imagines the “collective memory” of Vietnamese architectural sites and cultural symbols. Skillfully interweaving textile and photography, she blurs the boundaries between what is visible and what is recognizable.    

Co-curated by Le Thuan Uyen and Van Do, with a faint sound add-in by Nhung Nguyen, the whole experience brings exhibit-goers into a capsule that travels back and forth in time.

A close-up of 'Black & White.'

Meandering Around a Forest of the Pixelated Past

On the opening night, it was not difficult to spot well-dressed art aficionados socializing and occasionally clinking wine glasses. Valentine’s Day seemed like a remote land to those who came. Or, perhaps art appreciation was romantic enough to compensate for a night of love. 

The conversations grew inaudible as I approached the entrance of the exhibition.

Through the door, I was promptly confronted by the vibrant patchwork of four suspended textile pieces: 'Black & White,' 'Red,' 'Yellow' and 'Blue.' Neatly sewn together, fabric units with different patterns and colors suggested an impression of quilt art. The “Big Four,” as I called them, were installed to simulate a breathing "chamber," with its walls swinging lightly according to the airflow.

I tried to fathom the abstract textile motifs with a close-up inspection. But all that came to mind was sheer admiration for the artist’s handiwork. 

Left with confusion and curiosity, I moved on.

The "breathing chamber."

Walking deeper into the “forest,” the exhibition opened into an ample space from which one could observe every artwork in just a 180-degree rotation of head. To the left of the colossal “breathing chamber” was a hanging arc of five smaller pieces, surrounding the viewers. The furthest left corner linked to a three-walled room that displayed ten wooden-framed mosaics and a humble seating area showcasing Chau’s research process.

As I stood encircled by these works, it suddenly hit me: Distance is the key to viewing Chau’s pixelated works. To wit, the closer you get to a mosaic, the more its details enlarge, while the farther you move back, the better you recognize the overall picture, hence the ample space.

Here and there I started to see the Saigon Tax Trade Center, which was last seen in reality before its closure in September 2014, a blue-ish scene of a ship anchored at a port, which indicated the Ba Son Shipyard and its disputed destruction in 2016, and an image of the iconic Saigon tram.

Pixelated images of old artifacts of Saigon.

The “Big Four,” however, still puzzled me as I decoded their visual content from afar. Later, thanks to archival images and historical context on Chau’s website, the subjects in question came to light:

Red depicts Phu Lam Weaving Mill in 1936 — the very first textile factory in South Vietnam. Blue refers to an image of the inauguration of the March 8th Weaving Mill in Hanoi with the attendance of President Ho Chi Minh (March 1965). Black and White features an interior view of the only textile factory in Central Vietnam, Phu Phong Silk Weaving Mill (photographed between 1919 – 1925). Yellow depicts Nam Dinh Textile Garment Factory in the north of Vietnam. Founded by the French in 1898, the factory was once Indochina’s largest. Formerly a symbol of pride for the residents of Nam Dinh, the factory was destroyed in 2016 to make way for a new urban development. The image in Yellow was photographed in 2016, right before the factory’s demolition.

The exhibition space.

Standing in the middle of the “forest,” I pulled out my phone to snap some pictures.

On a side note, the exhibition map read: “Quick fact! Try looking at the artwork through the camera on your phone for a different experience.” 

Foreseeing such habitual behavior of exhibit-goers, Chau deployed technology as a means of projecting and reading art. It “reflected the way in which the majority of humanity today reads History,” noted the curatorial text.   

And as the night progressed, it was time to leave. 

Unlike some arduous contemporary art exhibitions I had been to, “Leaf Picking in the Ancient Forest” ended as a peaceful journey that explored the multi-dimensional aspects of sustainability: cultural heritage and preservation, globalization, the fashion industry and its circulation, environmental issues, and technological application.

Another Visit, Another View: Past, Present or Future?

On a Saturday afternoon, I revisited The Factory to attend a discourse between Vo Tran Chau and her research partner, Tran Quang Duc, the author of the ambitious book Ngàn Năm Áo Mũ and an independent researcher of Sino-Nôm and Eastern culture.

During the talk, Chau looked back on her artistic career with second-hand clothing, while Duc introduced his research approach and conception of history, which had resonated deeply with the artist’s intentions since their first encounter in 2015.  

An archival image of the Nam Dinh Textile Garment Factory. Photo via Chau's website.

Their practices in regard to heritage preservation were set on the common ground of storytelling. For Chau, she took the standpoint of a neutral “observer” instead of “manipulating the viewers” through her art. Similarly, Duc considered himself an unbiased “narrator” of the past in lieu of intentionally “honoring” it or “directing one’s emotions.”

They also believe in the concept of “impermanence,” where everything is subject to change, destruction and revival. Being aware of and accepting it meant one would be more likely to appreciate what still existed and live more fully in the present, according to Chau. 

But as the 21st-century sentiment on cultural identities rises, where changes that threaten the existence of heritage would receive backlash from the public and experts alike, there raises the question of an artist’s role:

Is it too safe to take the position of an impartial “observer” or a disinterested “storyteller,” especially with such a thought-provoking and change-making medium of contemporary art at hand?

Vo Tran Chau in conversation with Tran Quang Duc at The Factory on February 22.

“Even though Chau claims to be a mere storyteller, there is a hint of sorrow in her works. With her regret for the lost cultural symbols, she somehow triggers a nostalgic feeling in the visitors. Because without all this heritage, our collective memories would be lost,” explained Duc.

“I believe it is the desire of all the people in this room to preserve heritage. But in this exhibition, I just want to go against the tide on this matter, where I step back to have an objective and broader viewpoint,” the artist added.   

When the discussion finally ended, I wondered about the correlation between past, present and future.

As an artist, a researcher, or a citizen, what time should we live in?

And more importantly, what time should we stand for?

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