[Wr] [AiV] My little manifesto

Major thanks to Kaitlin Pomerantz for clearing a lot of shit out of my draft.


H40.4Flea farm
H40.4 [flea farm], 1.4×1.78m (57x72in), graphite, acrylic and masking tape on bristol paper, 2018

In my long-term drawing project titled My Land, I design a framework to spatially organize my ethical choices. Through drawing, as an intuitive archival tool tied to my formal training, I symbolize and classify ethical inheritances from cultural environments rooted in my history. Each drawing is inspired by a personal ethical question, for example, about the distribution of resources or gender roles. Then the drawing raises more ethical questions and more drawings. Ethics has been my tool to survive and navigate this today’s world of globalization.

The project’s framework shares its form with a process flow diagram. I start from an 8-by-8 grid, one axis is signed from 1 to 8, the other A to H. The grid functions as the permanent primary unit. Each subsequent and adjacent drawing is a portal to the next layers. The drawings continue to multiply according to these rule-based systems. The more the project evolves, the more a branch is likely to become either complex or abandoned. I name each drawing after its address in the framework so that I can track its location.

The drawing space is also a thinking place, where I visualize ethical ideas by designing various structures and algebraic rules. I make use of invented sets of icons, indexes and symbols, and a mixed drawing language between cartography and landscapes, to execute arbitrary and scientific, but also humorous, poetic and nostalgic narratives. The space is meant to be engaged by reading. The viewer can observe how I consider ephemeral ethical decisions.

The reason for this project comes from my anxiety of dealing with an unstable ethical foundation since my birth. I was born when the country was undergoing drastic cultural changes after the Reformation. My family was typically traditional, strongly driven by the culture my father, who was a military lineman veteran in the Vietnam War. When I was 10, he signed me up for a home class of a state artist. Then I learned how to make propaganda posters and cast drawings for the next 8 years, to prepare for the entrance test of the Vietnam University of Fine Arts (VNUFA).

The VNUFA was my formal training. The school was formerly the Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine founded in 1925 under the French Colonization. After the Revolution in 1945, it was restructured under the Socialist Realism ideology, maintaining the traditional silk and lacquer painting in the curriculum. In the 80s, the school added Constructivist style and remained unchanged since then. For some reason, all -isms from the past cohabited nicely in the school in their “translated” forms, which students like me learned without knowing their meanings.

However, different from older generations, the Internet was the major source of my education. When I was 7 my father brought home a dial-up modem, which was among the very first modems in Vietnam. Just five years later, Internet was already omnipresent in the country. Since then I could see art around the world. As there were some artists that always looked worse on the computer screen, I even thought the works of Malevich and Pollock were no different from tablecloths. De Chico and Persian Miniature, on the other hand, mysteriously connected to my soul. Internet has shaped my vision on art forever. 

After graduation from VNUFA, I found myself as an outsider of both the Socialist art system and the newly emerged contemporary art system. The former still turned away from contemporary expressions, but the latter seemed to have controversial meanings that, as Stuart Hall would say, “decoded” differently in the local culture. I was particularly interested in this situation, and decided to take a break from art making to observe, by opening an art cafe a few blocks away from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a popular area for artists and tourists.

The cafe brought me close connections to work with many different artists and talk about the crisis that Vietnamese contemporary art is undergoing. Lacking support and resources, the local contemporary art movement tried to make a quick “bridge” to Western centers to catch the wave of the newly open art market. In this traffic, cultural dynamic interactions are essentialized and condensed into fast products, and political identity and ethnicity are oversimplified to branding. Moreover, the analog bridge is very narrow and not for everyone. Some well-known “iconoclasts”, using their powers of access, even suppressed other voices to gain monopolistic exposure in West. Unfortunately, most local artists are not fully aware of the situation, which is, as Gerardo Mosquera said, “a complex disease that often disguises its symptoms.” From my observations, though it emerged with good intentions, Vietnamese contemporary art seems to end up contributing only modestly to the local cultural capital. It’s also for the most part disconnected from the local audience and at worst becomes an unethical system of exploiting and destroying the already fragile local cultures.

“Bridges” can never fully reflect the complexity of their “lands.” This is why I would like to ask people to be critical about the bridges, and to encourage them to take a step further from a remote appreciation of cultural forms, to look closer at tremendous ethical struggles happening today in local cultures. My art is therefore based on an intimate conversation about cultural reception and translation, which can easily be distorted or misunderstood. In a broader conversation, I also question the contradiction between the political ideology and cultural reality of multiculturalism in contemporary art. My goal is to use what I learn here to build a more ethical contemporary art community in my homeland when I eventually return.

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Hà Ninh interviewed by Alyssa Ebinger

Alyssa Ebinger: “I’ve heard you mention the difference between artwork in Vietnam and Western Art, can you briefly explain the difference?”

Ha-Ninh Pham: “Yes, I think that’s interesting to me. I think that the art environment in Vietnam is much smaller. We just started to open to the outside world, in the 90’s and early 21st century. A lot of modern art movements came to Vietnam. I think I was developing at that chaotic period of time and I saw that a lot of things happened in Vietnam in a short amount of time. I was really overwhelmed and disoriented by that. Meanwhile the history of American modern art is much longer so I don’t really see a big difference between the generations of artists here.”

AE: “Was it hard for you to come to school here? Did you do any adjusting of your artwork?”

HP: “Yes, I think my art, my process, my work totally changed in my first year. My first year was a big change for me. I had to adapt myself to almost every single thing here, especially the food, the schedule, the lifestyle. I feel like my metabolism has been totally changed forever, a lot of things I have to get used to.”

AE: “Your first year you did a lot of painting and you did some printmaking and now this year you are doing more drawing. What made you do that transition?”

HP: “I was trained like a Western painter when I was in my undergrad. But I could not see Western paintings in person. When I came to United States I feel like painting has a really long tradition in western painting and I see that. That made me exited at first, but it ended up being an existential crisis. I don’t really fit in with that tradition. I moved away from painting and I do drawing now because I think drawing is much more universal. People form the cave and the cave drawing that they drew a long time ago and right now we are still doing drawing. That’s the reason why I decide to change.”

AE: “You moved on to these really large-scale drawings. Do you get your inspiration from memory or do you work from photos, or is it a combination or imagination?”

HP: “I avoid working from photograph. I think I avoid working from observation in general. Most of my works are memories or kind of an imagined world that I can’t take from photograph. So it doesn’t relate anything to the reality. Before I painted small and then I decided to make my work bigger. I think that when I face something bigger I can feel some kind of sense of real world in front of me instead of an actual object.

AE: “When you start your drawings do you know what they are going to look like? Or do you just start drawing and it builds from there?”

HP: “I work either way. I think I plan a lot but improvisations happen too.”

AE: “What are you hoping to achieve with these large scale drawing that you weren’t able to get in your paintings?”

HP: “I want to make it like a map and I think a map should be big. I really want it to be complicated enough to convince people that it’s a real world. Sometimes we look at a map we don’t understand a map but we believe that the map is relating to something that is real. I really like that idea, I want to persuade people that the world I create is something you can believe in its existence.”

AE: “Are you looking at any artist for inspiration?”

HP: “Yes, a lot. Some examples are Paul Noble, Trenton Doyle Hancock. I think it’s strange because two artists are doing different kinds of drawing. Because I really like drawing I don’t really see a big difference between them.”

AE: “Do you see yourself trying any new mediums anytime soon? Last year you did a sculpture and printmaking or like incorporating printmaking into your drawings? Or for now is it just focusing on drawing?”

HP: “The only feature I want to work with in the next few months is that I want to imbed the drawings with the process of web making. I want to make some project that has drawing which you can go to the website to see them in a series.”

AE: “Has there been a show that you have seen recently that you’ve really enjoyed or helped inspire any of your artwork?”

HP: “Yes, I went to a show in Vietnam and he’s my friend. He has kind of the same feelings I have. He feels like he is living in a chaotic period of time that he cannot trust anything around him. I am really interested in what he is making and he is one of my favorite artists.”

AE: “Do you find it beneficial to attend galleries and openings frequently or do you set a goal to once a week go to a gallery or do you go when you feel like you need the inspiration?”

HP: “I like to go to the gallery openings because I want to talk to people. I think that talking to artists is much more important than seeing the work alone. I really appreciate the connection between the artists. I really want have connections here in the United States, but because of my language skills I cannot do it fluently, I will try my best to improve it. In Vietnam I do it really well to have a connection with people and connected with what they say about their work.”

AE: “Is there an element of your art or a subject matter that you enjoy working with the most? When you’re doing these maps, what is your favorite part about making them?”

HP: “Usually in my maps I create a territory that I claim that is mine and that is the most interesting part. In my work I can put some flags and claim that its my land, its my land, its my land and so I feel like wow I really love it and I have a lot!”