Just below the surface

Art October 13, 2017 01:00


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Hanoi-based artist Bui Thanh Tam brings his doeeyes figures back to Ho Chi Minh City for his second solo exhibition, “Abandoned by Heaven”, at Craig Thomas Gallery continuing until November 2.

The figures, who project an air of innocence and a pollyanish sense of contentment, look to be in the midst of living happy and prosperous lives, but there is something amiss lying just underneath the surface of the paintings. The most easily distinguishable signal is given in the form of the twisted branches of the peach blossom trees featured in many of the paintings. They are in full bloom, which brings associations of spring and renewal, but the unnatural positions of the branches suggest a conscious contortion that has distorted what was once beautiful and pure. 


Tam chooses to use Dong Ho folk paintings in the background of many of his works as an overarching symbolic representation of traditional Vietnamese culture. The traditional themes of these paintings include good luck signs, historical figures, folk allegories and popular stories. The compositions tend to reflect the lifestyles and concerns of a rural people living in close commune with nature. Most commonly associated with Tet, Dong Ho paintings have long been used in Vietnam by craftspeople to express their concerns about social, political and cultural issues. As a metaphor for cultural loss, Tam’s choice of these paintings is an apt one. Once produced by hundreds of craftspeople in a number of villages of Northern Vietnam, the practice has all but died out. 


While Tam’s is an essentially conservative vision, his work should not be viewed as an indictment of Western culture, which he calls “civilised, progressive and compelling.” Rather, the artist is disturbed by the less positive side effects of Vietnam’s modernisation including the rampant consumerism and narcissism the process has engendered. 

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