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Nguyen Thai Tuan, Re-Claiming Lost or Marginalised Histories in the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art


Black Painting No.80. 2009. Oil on canvas. 130x100cm.

Collection of Queensland Art Gallery. Brisbane


Post-memory can be defined as secondary memory that is constructed by the next generation rather than by primary witnesses. In the work of the postwar generation of Vietnamese artists, post-memory is the inheritance of past events or experiences that are still being worked through. Nguyen Thai Tuan’s painting at the Asia-Pacific Triennial 7 shows the influence of photographic theory in the artist’s use of traces that are connected to themes of death, loss and absence. The smooth finish and the black or darkened context create sites of memory, in which memories and histories are re-figured.


Black Painting No.45. 2008. Oil on canvas. 130x100cm.

Collection of Queensland Art Gallery. Brisbane


Black Painting 45 (2008) shows the rear view of a squatting old man, probably a veteran with his topee discarded, as he sits and contemplates his past. Old soldiers have many memories of hardship in jungle trails and camps, dangerous encounters or bombings, loss of comrades, and personal and family life cut short. The extended conflicts from the First Indo-China War against the French, the bloody American and bitter civil war between the north and the south, and the Third Indo-China War against China and the Khmer Rouge determined Vietnamese life for 30 years from 1945 to 1975.

While most war memorials such as those in Hanoi, and museums such as The War Remnants Museum in Saigon, would not seem to be connected to Post-memory, the ways in which some memorials are depicted by Nguyen Thai Tuan in the Black Painting series could be interpreted an anti-monuments. Many of his paintings featuring aircraft, Black Hawk helicopters, and other monuments, include seated solitary veterans, or groups of disinterested youth passing by that suggest a refusal of the hegemony of the state war memorial. In this context, Black Painting 45 showing a veteran’s reminiscence, becomes an encounter between the old veteran and the artist who is able to do the work of critical re-presentation of memory.


Black Painting No.50. 2008. Oil on canvas. 116x81cm.

Collection of Queensland Art Gallery. Brisbane


Relational Aesthetics is a term used to describe the tendency of an artist, such as Nguyen Thai Tuan to personalize the engagement of the viewer of with their artwork. Black Painting 50 (2008) showing an old woman sitting on her doorstep to the street, lost in contemplation, invites the viewer to imagine a narrative for the figure. In the artist’s life, the old woman who began the Black Painting series was his loved grandmother, who lost her memory in old age.

The old woman wearing an all white ao ba ba is propped, half-seated at the base and to the side of a black void, or doorway. The void and the small figure are framed by a white square enclosing her interior life which is left to the viewer to imagine. At the side of her upswept hair is a textile end that is strangely flesh-coloured. Black Painting 50 is art that aims to produce moments of discussion, or suggest exchanges of thoughts and memories in the audience. It is artwork that takes its place in the structures of feeling that imply emergent social or political tendencies, taking place in the community or neighborhood. The audience for the series is the urbanized, educated, comfortable postwar generation who experienced rapid social and economic change.

The artist emphasizes knowledge and memories that are held and retrieved subjectively rejecting ‘official versions’ of history. The people, especially the old people who lived through the traumatic and socially fractured times, are depicted by Nguyen Thai Tuan as recognizable but ordinary people, shaped by human roles rather than stereotypes. The kind of memory work in his paintings can be recognized as Freud’s dream work. The black spaces enclosing the characters and selected objects, props and settings, and the realist photographic flat finish of the painting method all suggest dreams, film and cinema, forms of narrative that bring the past to contemporary consciousness.

The painting, Room of the Prince (2010) is from the more recent Heritage Series. This series began with a photograph of an abandoned ancestors’ altar in a ruined house. It includes ruins of European style Catholic churches and villas, as well as traditional Vietnamese buildings. Nguyen Thai Tuan lives in Dalat, at the southern end of Tay Nguyen, the Central Highlands where the Summer Palace of Bao Dai, the Prince is preserved for visitors. Dalat was the cool hill station for both French colonialists and the Nguyen lords during the summer, it is now a honeymoon retreat and a tourist site.

The room is a dated western style room, the figure of the seated man is anonymous, and all personal objects have been removed. The date and time depicted in Room of the Prince (2010) are ambiguous. The historical, Bao Dai, at the time of his accession in 1925 was 12 years old and at school in France. He was the last Emperor in power from 1925-1945. The Imperial Court in Hue over which he ruled, although corrupt was the centre of nationalist feeling during French Colonialism, a circumstance actively manipulated by the French.


Room of the prince. 2010. Oil on canvas. 130x150cm.

Collection of Queensland Art Gallery. Brisbane


In the Heritage paintings Nguyen Thai Tuan explores memories that occupy threshold or luminal positions between objectivity and subjectivity, forgetting and remembering. In his artwork Tuan is using material heritage and intangible cultural heritage in the form of practices, for their associative value rather than their authenticity. The Heritage series can be compared to the work of other contemporary Vietnamese artists, such as the satirical scenes depicted on traditional blue and white vases by Bui Cong Khanh in Asia Pacific Triennial 6 (2009).

The contemporary context of Room of the Prince (2010) is an acquisitive and materialist society in which earlier allegiances to Emperor, ruling regimes or political ideologies, religious or spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Catholicism were eroded by conflict and censorship, trauma and grief. The overwhelming majority of the population are young, the result of a postwar baby boom. Vietnam’s economic growth is similar to China. The ‘new prince’ is the young man born into economic security, who seeks to exhibit status through his occupation of ‘the room’ with all its associat


Dr. Annette Van den Bosch. Brisbane. 2012


Gallery of Modern Art. Brisbane




Other essays by Annette Van den Bosch:

... In his Black Paintings series Nguyen Thai Tuan challenges the identities of the types he portrays, re-placing the constructed memory with his re-presentation. He requires his audience to return to a place and time and to actively re-member much that they have repressed or forgotten... (...)
Contemporary arts practice is as important as traditional and heritage culture in the sustainability of social, cultural and environmental life in Vietnam. The current moment encompasses some conflicting and contradictory tendencies that need to be examined to promote sustainability... (...)


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