It has become a human habit to relate Vietnam’s big cities like Hanoi, Hue, Saigon and so on to their own attributes and iconic images. So, what reminds us of an urban center? Is it its landscape? Its historical elements? Its traditional icons? Its miniature social structure? Or anything else?
With all these elements simplified and minimized, the one thing that remains to be captured are the symbolic icons that have survived all changes over time. When separated and detached from any relation or connection, their existence becomes unique. As I start to work on my new series “Landscape of Vietnam”, I decide to choose the very unique symbolic icons of the three regions of Vietnam and reproduce them into a landscape picture based on the attributes and settings of each of the regions.
As mentioned above, I always prefer looking at those unique separated images and let them exist in a standalone format than to attach to them historical, social and/or natural factors. Doing this offers a more proactive and open direction. Instead of trying to work out the meaning of the individual images, which for me seems unnecessary as there has been a common understanding about these images, I would rather turn them into some things romantic once everything becomes independent and standalone. To start with, from one point of observation, I select a satisfactory angle to look at the pictures taken after different trips. I then select the most attributive images that people would usually relate to when they think about each of the regions. For example, for Saigon (by the way, I like this old name of the city), I choose a view angle from District 4, i.e. from the one side of the river, to look at District 1 on the other side. Blended in the overall landscape of Saigon is the image of Ben Thanh market – which for long has been considered one of the icons of the city. In some of my first paintings of Saigon landscape, I paint it on a very dark background color. I want the sky to be as black as the color of the paint used in lacquer ware, with images emerging simultaneously. These are then followed by paintings of Hue landscape, where I paint parts of the Inner Citadel with devastated walls in the far corner of the yard, and a part of Emperor Khai Dinh’s Tomb. In some other paintings, I am keen to use the blue color on the background of the Inner Citadel, the tombs, and the devastated walls… Why blue? It’s because I always find the blue enamel of typical Hue ceramics, which inspire me to paint Hue, so compelling. Finally, in my Hanoi landscape paintings, I paint the standalone, independent image of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. I want to give it an amazing appearance, just like the impression it makes on a person who has seen it for the first time.
So, when we observe a landscape from a certain angle, what is the first thing that we think of? A beautiful scene? A visual impression? Its romantic or magnificent quality?... Is it enough? Do we have a vague cognition of the landscape or the Nature, or do we not have a full understanding of it? We are then still standing outside of the landscape that we are looking at. Because it’s just a personal viewpoint, and different viewpoints can create different cognition. And is this something that I am searching for throughout my working process? How can we go deep into a landscape from a certain viewpoint based on mental shifts and not an outside-in perspective? Put in other words, how can we use our mind and consciousness to go deep into the landscape?
Going deep into a landscape and observing it from all angles entirely free my imagination, What I want now is for my landscape paintings to exist in a structural form and to pass through everything. There would no longer be elements of natural quality that would exist besides the landscape’s structure, and the landscape itself would now become a primary block of images. And the freedom achieved in terms of the structure for the landscape would become nearly absolute, as there would no longer be geographical traits or related attributes. The structure of the nature in the form of blocks now would seem to lose all its emotions, with only some small details remaining that would remind viewers of the authenticity of the landscape. The several unicorns painted in would take away the sense of tranquility and quietness that would otherwise be inherent of the landscape, leaving behind only some ambiguous anxiety.
The original images first exist like we want them to, but then are followed by a process where their identity is taken away. The structure of the landscape now becomes nothing but just some small details for identification purposes. Now I start wondering: “what would I consider a landscape really?” ...And is all that we know about the Nature still limited? Is a landscape that is left behind all changes just a moment in time as we see it, or is it forever something that we can never fully capture?
The process of going deep into a landscape with just your own perspective gradually takes away the physical shapes of the landscape from my observations. I then have more freedom in taking as many perspectives as I wish to. At this moment, what form does the landscape take for its existence? I simplify all details, so that ultimately they just exist as if they were a cohesive block. I then restructure the order of the block. Now all that’s left are just some signs for recognition and differentiation from the original image.
That’s a natural evolution. From choosing outstanding images of three different geographies in Vietnam (as mentioned in the previous part) to going deep into and through a landscape with my own personal perspective and observation, to simplification until what’s left is a geometric structure, the landscape has become more flexible in all types of space and has no reminding connections with the original image. The journey is very much like returning to the basics of natural life: Birth, Survival, and Death.
Details in my later landscape paintings are gradually taken away from their space-specific context, to a much higher level than my initial paintings. This is followed by a process where new structures of the landscape are re-developed in geometric forms. This is an interesting discovery for me during my working process. If the landscape now only exists in a geometric form, how could one define what a landscape is? Instead, one would need to observe an entire series of work. In some of my later paintings, I use a special type of acrylic colors that glow in the dark, which is called “fosforesente”. I combine that with pencil to retain the basic structures of the landscape then I develop the structures by expanding my pencil drawings based on the hints of the original landscape. Fosforesente is transparent and very hard to see in day light, therefore I use it in some of my landscape paintings. On a light-colored background, the landscape is painted with fosforesente, which makes it disappear gradually, and the remainders of the landscape are then kept with pencil… Finally, what is created is a structure that looks like an architectural design. When you look at it at night, the gently shining structure looks humble and lonesome. This is because you can only see fosforesent at night and it therefore exists for just a very short period of time. The remaining structure then becomes darker and darker, and finally disappears into the dark, just like a closed circle of life that we are naturally born to: there is birth, as is death.
Hanoi, 12 March 2013