BackArts & Culture » Music & Art » Art Exhibition 'Ngẫu Biến' Invites Viewers to Find Their Own Meaning

Art Exhibition 'Ngẫu Biến' Invites Viewers to Find Their Own Meaning

“When you write, you go inside yourself, when you paint, you go outside,” said poet and painter ng. anhan.

I first met ng. anhanh, or Nguyễn Thanh Anh, via her writing. Several years ago I was introduced to her bilingual book of poems, such a nuisance, and during our wide-reaching conversation about literature and poetry, visual art never came up. But It wasn’t a surprise to see recent social media posts announcing her painting exhibitions, as creativities frequently overlap and her confessional, form-defying poems contain stark images that reveal an appreciation of stirring visuals. The book even features various paintings and visuals opposite the poems. But the creative processes are different and she explained that while writing is a mental effort akin to therapy, painting is a more free, and freeing, act of expression. 

Hồng Lĩnh and her husband Lê Triều Điển, two talented artists who in addition to creating their own brilliant work, generously serve Saigon’s artistic community as elder statesmen of sorts alerted me of the ongoing show “Ngẫu Biến.” Held at REI Art Space in District 3, the exhibition pairs Hồng Lĩnh’s sculptures and paintings with ng. anhanh’s mixed-media paintings.

The center of the sleek, bright gallery’s large front room is occupied by Hồng Lĩnh’s (born Phạm Thị Quý) expressive pottery which explores the raw beauty and complexities of humanity and the natural world. The ceramics celebrate the human role in the creation of tactical objects via the pronounced inexactitudes and imperfections of basic shapes, calling attention to not just the hands that created the vases, but our entire species’ role in shaping the world around us. The frequent plant and animal motifs in turn remind us of nature's impact in shaping human society. Knowing her vast experience with pottery and her ability to craft flawlessly precise pieces, coupled with her life experiences in rural areas during impoverished, bloody time periods makes me appreciate all the more her gift to imbue the works with a tender, blemished sincerity. 

On either side of the works, the walls are filled with ng. anhanh’s colorful paintings. Lacking titles or explanatory information, the paintings invite guests to find their own meanings and identify the emotions or associations the works inspire in them. “The artist is the first audience. After that, the works belong to others,” ng. anhanh told me as we strolled around the gallery last week. She intends her work to arrive unencumbered by any expectations or details she might offer and appreciates the idea that if 10 different people were looking at a particular piece, she would hear 10 different interpretations of it. Where I see a depiction of the foreboding serenity that only blooms during evenings in childhood , someone else might think about the biological insurgencies that predicate an illness, while ng. anhanh would be able to recall the likely very different moods and thoughts that compelled her to create it over the course of one or two days. None of the ideas would be incorrect. 

This lack of singular meaning is also why ng. anhanh gravitates toward abstract art, despite it not being a particularly popular style with a long tradition in Vietnam. Undefined scenes and objects allow her to capture and evoke ineffable emotions. And it all begins with color. “The color lets you in and guides you; it helps you when you’re lost,” she noted.

A self-taught artist, ng. anhanh learns about different methods and maneuvers via online videos and articles. She had ample time to explore during the pandemic lockdowns when she moved to a quiet, spacious home in District 9. But the current collection of twenty-or-so paintings, taken from a larger selection featured at the previous solo exhibition, “Làm Màu,” represents her forays with giấy dó. The shift to traditional handmade paper was at first a matter of logistics. The large canvases she had been painting on didn’t fit well inside the apartment she moved to once her son’s in-person school resumed post-pandemic. The paper, however, could be easily worked on and stored.

Giấy dó holds, absorbs and bleeds acrylics, ink, and watercolors differently and the series on display represents her ongoing experiments to coax colors in exciting directions. With the exception of the first watercolor-only work, the scenes rely on a variety of mediums as well as methods of applying the color, including brushes, stamps and pouring the paints. “Each drawing is also a test to conquer the material,” she notes in the introduction to the exhibit.

Poetry connects ng. anhanh and Hồng Lĩnh but manifests itself differently in their visual work. Rather than remove language altogether, including painting titles, Hồng Lĩnh’s abstract paintings forefront lines of original poetry in bold brush strokes. While poetry is forever open to interpretation, the verses orient audiences and cast specific imagined images and ideas across the abstract backdrops. Situated at the far end of the gallery, the works comingles reading and gazing. One can admire the colorful, human script as visual objects or take it in as language whose meaning is at play with the background. For example, the poem ‘Tìm gió / gió bay / tìm trăng / trăng lăn / tìm em / em dã / ra di’ invites new associations of longing and separation when scrawled across a geometric assemblage that resembles rural landscapes when seen from above.

Language and image overlap most overtly in ‘Alphabet Yoga,’ a large piece on the gallery’s back wall. Hồng Lĩnh shaped all 26 letters of the Roman alphabet out of ceramics in the form of female figures bending, stretching and contorting. Of the piece, she writes: “When my bare hands touch the gentle earth, the feeling is in reminiscence of my mother, of the early memory of language. It sparks my interest in letters. The alphabet is human’s inception of forming sentences, stories, and emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Letters, in that way, has metamorphosed away from their original meaning and to human nature itself.”

The piece thus blurs distinctions between language, body and art. The same physical bodies needed to spread color across paper independent of particular meaning create the letters whose primary purpose is to convey meaning. Hồng Lĩnh then masterfully inverts the process, turning the bodies themselves into the building blocks used to create strings of language, such as the poems on the adjacent walls. It is easy to separate rational thinking, physical forms and genres of art, but Alphabet Yoga allows us to recognize how interconnected they all are. 

Hồng Lĩnh (far right) and ng. anhanh at “Ngẫu Biến” with their husbands, Lê Triều Điển (far left) and writer and artist Bùi Chát.

The gallery introduction to “Ngẫu Biến” notes: “The streaks of color, brush strokes that seem to change with each heartbeat are trembling with sadness, fresh and sparkling with happiness overflowing in the mind. Words are no longer words, poetry is no longer poetry, the language of characters is mixed with visual language, colors and lines are sublimated emotions in each work.”  

Applicable in different ways to both Hồng Lĩnh and ng. anhanh’s works in the gallery, the description’s emphasis on the role of the emotion, as opposed to specific meaning, is comforting for someone like myself who can at times feel intimidated by art that strays outside of obvious boundaries lineated by rules and literalisms. It would be counter-productive to offer any more of my own responses to the work or provide more background of the artists and their biographies and processes. Instead, you should view it yourself, whether in person at this exhibit, via photos here or at the artists’ future events.

The co-exhibition “Ngẫu Biến” is on display at REI Art Space, 371/4 Hai Bà Trưng, D3, HCMC, from May 13 to June 11. More information is available here

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