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On Nguyen Thai Tuan’s BLACK PAINTINGS


Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the paper “Signs of grief, memory of violence and the suppression of freedom of expression in the work of three Vietnamese artists in the Post Doi Moi period” by Dr. Annette Van den Bosch. This paper was presented in full at the 17th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia in Melbourne 1-3 July 2008.


“Ngoài luồng”, those outside identity and memory

Nguyen Thai Tuan in a recent series of Black Paintings began with a portrait of his grandmother who in her late 80s had lost her memory, to depict a cast of Vietnamese figures, some historical but most contemporary whose faces are blank. Memory constructed out of stereotypes of roles and gender obliterates personal memories and complexities, portraying a contemporary context in which the profusion of memory constructions, censored media and persistent poverty is referenced obliquely (Hue-Tam Ho Tai 2001: 168-169). Nguyen Thai Tuan’s Black Paintings are portraits in which the human person is absent. The face which tells us about a person’s individuality and humanity is blank. The face is blacked out as if their individuality is censored or repressed. In this portrait series people are depicted as types. All that we know about them is their role, they are men or women of Vietnam, they are Buddhist monks or prisoners, they are gaudy brides of foreigners, or they are an old person who has lost their memory. The Black Paintings of Nguyen Thai Tuan challenge conventional imagery of identity and memory as transparent, by the erasure of the personae, the figures are reduced to puppets or ghosts, mindless actors in a theatrical charade of roles acceptable to the state.

Mark Phillip Bradley (2001: 196-226) analysed the revisionist Vietnamese films of the 1980s to show how a powerful medium of state sponsored memorialisation could be reconstructed to articulate a counter-memory. His argument was based on Michel Foucault’s (1977: 113-196) term counter-memory, a residual or resistant strain of remembrance embedded in popular consciousness that withstands official constructions of the historical past. The media saturated imagery of Nguyen Thai Tuan’s Black Paintings are painted in a flat figurative style emptied of spatial, temporal and contextual references but redolent with recognisable typologies that are personal and political. His situations are similar to theatre of the absurd, they are everywoman or man yet they convey profound alienation. Bradley’s analyses of the film Brothers and Relations (Tran Vu & Nguyen Huu Luyen 1987) that depicts a society indifferent to the memories of fallen soldiers, concluded that while state commemorative practices are emptied of significance, on the margins they can be imbued with new more private and resonant meaning (Bradley 2001: 197-199). Nguyen Thai Tuan’s Black Paintings which often depict old soldiers, such as Black painting 22 and Black Painting 36 are infused with resonance.

Black Painting 22
       2008, Oil on canvas, 130x110 cm (Private Collection)


Black Painting 36
       2008, Oil on canvas, 130x100 cm (Private Collection)

The theme of the series which includes old soldiers, police, and other officials seated with domestic pets is profound irony, the paintings emphasise the contradictions between their roles and their humanity.

Black Painting 30
       2008, Oil on canvas, 130x100 cm (Private Collection)

Black Painting 30 depicts two faceless policemen taking a man into custody. There are no clues to the situation, but the audience would read the physical apprehension of a nameless individual as commonplace. Trials are held in public but the judiciary is not impartial. Another earlier painting of Nguyen Thai Tuan, Black Painting 17 showed prisoners in the dock in striped pyjamas.

Black Painting 17
       2008, Oil on canvas, 89x130 cm (Private Collection)

This painting suggested a mock show trial, such as the trial of over 50 Vietnam Communist Party members in 2003, which resulted from sustained public protests against corruption. The viewer of Thai Tuan’s Black Paintings is disturbed by the absence of the face which forces them to recognize each type, as a stereotype, similar to the way they are depicted in the media or propaganda. Thai Tuan paints the figures on a black ground so that we have no familiar surroundings with which to identify the figures as persons that we know. The figures are without a context so that the viewer has to provide the setting or context in order to make meaning of the figures and the painting.

Bradley (2001:208) also argued that many of the revisionist films of the 1980s called into question the foundational myths of the war experience through which the Vietnamese Communist Party-State sought to legitimate its power and authority. Twenty years after Doi Moi the question of power and legitemacy is framed in Nguyen Thai Tuan’s Black Paintings. In particular, conflicting generational sensibilities are revealed in Tuan’s paintings.

Black Painting 28
       2008, Oil on canvas, 130x110 cm (Private Collection)

Black Painting 28 depicts the younger generation who are more aware of the individual struggle to live in a market economy, open to global media and resistant to collective constraints and nostalgia. The context of his youthful faces and figures are abstract, empty spaces that epitomise contemporary urban spaces and more impersonal, less family-oriented, relationships, that are “ngoài luồng” or outside. They refer to repression, mindlessness and loss. Black Painting 28 (2008) shows youth, faceless youth on the street, the scene could be in any global city but it is in Vietnam, so the context is extreme. Over 50 percent of the population are under 30 years of age, they are the postwar baby boom, and their impact will be as significant in Vietnam as that generation were in Western countries after the Second World War.

Nguyen Thai Tuan, lives in Dalat at the southern end of the Truong Son Mountains where some of the most bitter fighting of the war took place. He expresses the impact of the war on interior lives through figurative painting.

Black Painting 14
       2008, Oil on canvas, 70x60 cm

Black Painting 14 depicts a screaming woman. It has the same social and psychological impact that Munch’s famous Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893, tempera and casein on card, Nasjonal Galleriet Oslo) had a century earlier. Figurative painting centres on the representation of the individual subject and their relationships with others. It concerns the phenomenological stance of how to be in the world. Nguyen Thai Tuan’s artwork is an important example of how artists subjectivity takes a counter-hegemonic form which resists interference from the state, a form of revisionism identified by Bradley (2001: 213-15) in his discussion of post Doi Moi Vietnamese films. Tuan’s scenarios refer directly to the states postwar betrayal of socialist ideals and the failure of legitemation through official narratives of history and cultural identity. Geibl (2004: 146) has argued that underneath debates about history there were challenges in the south to the national discourse emanating from the north, challenges that aimed to problematise the embedded identities, complexes and memories that were represented. 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.



Bradley, Mark Phillip, ‘Contests of Memory: Remembering and Forgetting War in the Contemporary Vietnamese Cinema’, 196-226, in Hue-Tam, Ho Tai, ed. THE COUNTRY OF MEMORY: REMAKING THE PAST IN LATE SOCIALIST VIETNAM, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 2001.
Foucault, M., ‘Counter-Memory: The Philosophy of Difference’113-196 in his LANGUAGE, COUNTER-MEMORY, PRACTICE: SELECTED ESSAYS AND INTERVIEWS, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University press 1977.
Geibel, C., IMAGINED ANCESTRIES OF VIETNAMESE COMMUNISM: TON DUC THANG AND THE POLITICS OF HISTORY AND MEMORY, Seattle and London, University of Washington Press with Singapore University Press 2004.
Hue-Tam, Ho Tai, ‘Introduction: Situating Memory’1-20; and ‘Faces of Remembrance and Forgetting’, 167-195, in Hue-Tam, Ho Tai, ed. THE COUNTRY OF MEMORY: REMAKING THE PAST IN LATE SOCIALIST VIETNAM, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 2001


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