Dialogue between Artist Hà Mạnh Thắng and Doctor Nora Taylor before solo exhibition Ethereal Places

At Hà Mạnh Thắng Studio, Westlake, Hanoi. July 2023

Hà Mạnh Thắng: I think, people have the best feeling when they are in a little cold space, close to nature, quiet and clean. If the studio is too cluttered, the artist will lose the necessary sensitivity and intuition. As artists, in addition to seeing the colors on the palette and looking at our works, we need to be attentive to other senses.

Nora Taylor: Your paintings have a very good balance between the right color, texture, and air. They seem to breathe a little, with the layers appearing not too thick. It’s like a little bit of air coming into the works. It’s nice.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: If understood in terms of physics, when painting is like breathing, the feeling of the artist must be very comfortable and pleasant. Painting is not about thick or thin, colorful or not, but the state itself will determine the final result.

Nora Taylor: Young artists today, they seem to want to be inspired by the city or contemporary life, or technology. But you seem interested in other ideas, not necessary ancient, but those that have existed for a long time. So what do you think about the difference between you and some others artists?

Hà Mạnh Thắng: Sometimes, the term "contemporary" is a trap. It narrows the ability to connect with the entire outside world. When information is shared so quickly, it feels like “oh the world is so narrow”. There is indeed a gap between Asia and Europe. There are mysteries of history, of time that, without a certain understanding, we do not fully know, who or what we really are today.

Nora Taylor: The idea of mystery is very interesting. Because maybe some artists want everything to be clear, legible, without any ambiguity. When the audience looks at the work, the message is very clear. But I think, artworks are interesting when the message is not so clear.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: The word “clear,” or clarity, is sometimes a state of being present in a moment. From the perspective of East Asians, we can think of one’s entire presence on this earth. From cave drawings and from the first images of human activities, then to the civilizations we created, the image becomes richer.

Nora Taylor: In some Chinese ancient paintings we can find humans relationship to nature, and they always show humans as very small while nature is so much bigger. The world is changing so fast that the human have to think of their imprint on this earth.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: That's what I want to do: to focus on nature, the universe, and to understand myself. In Asian art, the activities that occur in the journey of life and history can fall under the word “landscape”. So the title of my exhibition this time at VCCA is called Ethereal Places.

Nora Taylor: I find it interesting to think about what a landscape is. Can we think of landscape as something that exists just naturally, or is landscape the way humans frame nature and put a life around it, remake it or create something new, plant a tree, or a garden in it. It may mean both a way of looking and and a way of creating something. 

What are these Ethereal Places that you refer to? I like the title Ethereal Places because it evokes a feeling of movement or a fleeting moment, if you change, it changes, maybe the world stays fixed in one place and humans move within it; the world changes and our perception changes too.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: There is a poem I like very much by the poet of the Tang Dynasty, Li Bai, Waking from a stupor on a spring day. The poem evokes a spring scene to talk about people's hearts. The first two sentences are:" Life is but an overwhelming dream, Why then should we make it difficult.” Li Bai thinks that the journey of human life is like a whole landscape, everything that happens in each stage of each person is like different layers of scenes.

So the scene is actually happening in front of our eyes, is it the scenery that we see, we can observe? What is landscape?

Nora Taylor: Art is not only about perception, but also about our feelings when we find ourselves in a particular place. I think it is the relationship between what we see and what we think, between our eyes and our mind. It is hard to tell what is reality. I think it’s important for you to think about landscape when looking at your paintings because they are not just abstract, they are actually rooted in something real.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: The landscape that I paint, is like my worldview. It helps me understand and connect with each part of the world I've traveled through, with the history of these countries, and who I really am.

Nora Taylor: There is art history, the history of art that generates new art and is all about the art, and then there is the history of the world and the history of nature, both should intersect. 

You could bring art into that world, and bring that world into your art. I think of artists sometimes as translators. You translate the world into the language of art. People maybe don’t always understand, but maybe they do understand what connection you are making with something outside of the world of art.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: Sometimes my friends come to visit me, they ask, besides working, what is my daily hobby? I love listening to music and reading ancient poetry (gushi). Gushi contains all the messages sent in the human perspective hundreds of years ago. The time, the era, the eyes are different, but I believe, somewhere, the feelings are the same. Gushi allows me to travel through time and history, including watching the landscape.

Nora Taylor: Things and time can pass, but humans remain human, and we can always learn from different time.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: I think Nora you have mentioned an important concept: Time. 

Nora Taylor: I guess time is very important for you because you have ancient things around you. 

Hà Mạnh Thắng: That's how I can connect with intervals, layers of time in the past. How I read and understand history and memory through antiquities. Landscape is the same. In the landscape there is time, history and memory.

Nora Taylor: Like when we were talking about the word “clear.” Time is also an important but multifaceted concept. Time is very abstract in some ways, between then and now is hard to grasp but one that can be captured it, or put a frame on it whether you are talking about dreams, memory, the hours on a clock or other images of time

Hà Mạnh Thắng: Time for me is like going back to many different scenes, each object is an antique in my studio. Which leads me to a question I always wondered: what is homeland (quê hương)?

Nora Taylor: Quê hương is also an interesting concept. In Vietnamese, it has the word “hươngg”, like perfume, essence or smell, is very different from the English word homeland, because that word may not convey feelings, or memory.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: We can see our homeland differently, like traveling to different places, shifting different landscapes to different time periods. And I want to go back to what we originally said with the words "clear" or "time". Those things, as Asians call them, worldview, is a great landscape.

Nora Taylor: Tell me about the new works.

Hà Mạnh Thắng: There will be 10 different landscape paintings I use in the form of an ancient stele, in the skylight space of VCCA. The audience will see two sides of the work change as natural light shifts over time.

Nora Taylor: People might think of an installation as one or several objects, but in this case the painting is a part of an installation. It’s interesting that you want the viewer to experience time and place with your works. The last exhibition was also in a special place, not just a gallery.

I think it offers the viewer a different way of looking at art other than just something against the wall in the way that one has to move around the painting and experience the light coming in. It’s good for the viewers to “see” in two meanings of the word: to look and experience, examine and imagine while reflecting on what is “clear.”

*Ha Manh Thang’s solo exhibition “Kia Non Non Nuoc Nuoc May May”, by Galerie Quynh, from Dec 20th 2022 to 18th Feb 2023, at P’Artie Art Space, 29-31 Ton That Thiep Str., D1, HCMC, Vietnam.