Project: Mai Nguyen-Long’s Viet­namese res­i­den­cies


AN UN­EX­PECTED OUT­COME OF MY Beyo­g­mos sur­vey show at Wol­lon­gong Art Gallery in early 2014 was a res­ur­rected de­sire to rec­on­cile with one of my sev­eral pasts, by re­con­nect­ing with the rich cul­tural her­itage of Viet­nam. Thus in Septem­ber 2014 I com­mit­ted to two months in Hanoi with the aim of re­vis­it­ing the art world and re­vis­ing my ne­glected lan­guage skills. In Viet­nam I strived to learn the lan­guage as of­ten as I can: it helped me to see, think and feel from an al­ter­na­tive perspective. As in Aus­tralia, project op­por­tu­ni­ties come through peo­ple with aligned vi­sions and cir­cum­stances, hence it was im­por­tant for me to go on this re­search trip and cir­cu­late within the arts com­mu­nity. I be­lieve 2014’s self-con­ducted res­i­dency was crit­i­cal to the op­por­tu­ni­ties that arose for 2015 and also set the tone for the kind of ex­pe­ri­ences I might ex­pect. At the end of 2014 a ce­ram­ics res­i­dency in­vi­ta­tion came through the Fine Arts Re­search In­sti­tute’s Pham Trung and artist Bang Si Truc, the brother of a for­mer teacher of mine at Hanoi Uni­ver­sity of Fine Arts (HUFA). I was ac­quainted with Trung through our 1996 Asia-Pa­cific Tri­en­nial work when I was em­ployed as re­search as­sis­tant, guide, in­ter­preter and li­ai­son of­fi­cer be­tween Grif­fith Uni­ver­sity and HUFA. A sec­ond 2015 res­i­dency in­vi­ta­tion, ECOart, came through in­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor Nguyen Anh Tuan and Muong Stu­dio. Both of­fers were ex­tremely at­trac­tive to me. My first res­i­dency was in Bat Trang, one of the most ac­tive pot­tery pro­duc­tion sites in north­ern Viet­nam, and only 15km from cen­tral Hanoi on the op­po­site side of the Red River. Bat Trang has a long record of pro­duc­tion, fa­mous since the 14th cen­tury. With a his­tory closely aligned with that of the coun­try, it is cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a resur­gence of ac­tiv­ity, mod­ernising tech­niques and com­pet­ing in tough ex­port mar­kets. My Bat Trang res­i­dence over­looked a canal. The dirt ac­cess road had such huge pot­holes few taxis would traverse it. I ar­rived to a spa­cious Viet­namese adap­ta­tion of a four-storey French villa ren­dered in 1970s sim­plic­ity, alone but for what looked like a farm­yard of an­i­mals I was not sure what to do with! Truc set my work sta­tion up with ar­ti­san and com­pany di­rec­tor Pham Anh Duc at Bat Trang Con­ser­va­tion and Tourism Devel­op­ment, a busy six-storey pri­vate ce­ram­ics com­pany at 67 Giang Cao Street, around 3km from home. This ver­ti­cally ex­pan­sive green build­ing with grand wind­ing stair­cases in­te­grated re­tail, per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion of sig­nif­i­cant con­tem­po­rary and his­toric pieces, pro­duc­tion and a teach­ing pro­gram with a school for the vi­sion im­paired. Since I had never worked with ce­ram­ics I was ap­pre­hen­sive. My main in­ter­est was hand-build­ing as an ex­ten­sion of my pre­vi­ous work with pa­pier mâché sculp­ture. Duc en­cour­aged me to learn from ev­ery em­ployee, each of whom had specialised skills. The in­cred­i­bly in­tri­cate ceramic paint­ing tech­niques of my col­leagues par­tic­u­larly im­pressed me. A daily lunch of rice with fatty pork or tofu, clear soup and veg­eta­bles was cooked on­site by col­leagues. There were also a few spe­cial feasts which in­cluded duck blood soup and other ven­ture­some treats to cel­e­brate oc­ca­sions such as Viet­namese Women’s Day (20 Oc­to­ber). Each day my col­leagues worked from 8am to 5pm, seven days a week, later if dead­lines were pend­ing, with days off in ro­ta­tion. There was also a mid­day siesta. I fol­lowed this sched­ule bar Sun­days. My work­ing days were coloured by an in­tense scru­tiny of my ev­ery move. It seemed any mark or form made gen­er­ated com­ment. The group con­sen­sus was that I was mak­ing ghosts. In the spirit of am­i­ca­bil­ity I agreed, but by the end of my time there I re­alised it was largely true. Although I’d like to be­lieve oth­er­wise, I was an out­sider, but my sta­tus pro­gressed. To one col­league, I grad­u­ated from be­ing “skinny old lady” to “clever pro­fes­sor”. When of­fered a tip by an Amer­i­can tourist I felt un­ex­pect­edly proud that I was per­haps mis­taken for a lo­cal! At 67 Giang Cao Street, good­will, hu­mour and in­dus­tri­ous­ness pre­vail. While my col­leagues were mak­ing re­fined uni­form ceramic forms, I ques­tioned such mass per­fec­tion. I pre­fer the rus­tic vil­lage art aes­thet­ics of 16th- and 17th-cen­tury Viet­namese com­mu­nal house carv­ings. Con­se­quently I in­jected my hand-shaped pieces with a de­lib­er­ate fal­li­bil­ity. When work­ing on com­pany forms, I carved holes in one, painted the in­nards I’d been served for din­ner on an­other.

I hand-formed 11 pieces and painted on 11 com­pany moulds. On leav­ing I gifted some as an ex­pres­sion of my extreme grat­i­tude for over­whelm­ing hos­pi­tal­ity. In 2016 I was able to re­turn to 67 Giang Cao Street and make ad­di­tional ce­ram­ics. My sec­ond res­i­dency, at Muong Stu­dio in amongst the lime­stone moun­tains, and col­lo­cated with Muong Cul­tural Mu­seum in Hoa Binh Province, 75km from Hanoi, was very dif­fer­ent. Nguyen Anh Tuan’s ECOart project hosted eight core par­tic­i­pants, four of whom were in­ter­na­tional, with on oc­ca­sions a to­tal of 20 res­i­dents. Dur­ing the day we par­tic­i­pants worked on our per­sonal projects in fluid, open stu­dio spa­ces. Evenings were re­served for pre­sen­ta­tions. Sleep­ing quar­ters were in a tra­di­tional Muong stilt house – ev­ery­one to­gether in the same room with ba­sic elec­tric­ity sup­ply. I was spooked by wasp nests in the show­ers but dis­ap­pointed not to en­counter the ghosts so strongly be­lieved in, while the si­lence of the night was bro­ken by ter­mites steadily munch­ing our build­ing. My new in­ter­est in na­ture spir­its and the ephemeral saw me work­ing with cot­ton, tree branches and bam­boo, but my main work was con­structed from rat wire. The rigid wire square grid pat­tern­ing re­minded me of the mir­rors fea­tured in my mon­grel in­stal­la­tions ‘Pho Dog’ (2006) and ‘Aqua Mutt: an In­stal­la­tion with Dag Girl’ (2007), re­flect­ing the push-pull of con­flicted forces. My 147cm tall rat wire work, ‘The end the beginning’, an ap­pari­tion-like dog form, was in­stalled in the sur­round­ing bam­boo forest and left to be con­sumed by the cli­mate. Bac Au, our bam­boo expert, was baf­fled as to why I could not use nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als like ev­ery­one else. I was at a loss to ex­plain. For me there were too many unan­swered ques­tions. My res­i­den­cies im­mersed me deeply into dif­fer­ent are­nas of Viet­namese art and so­cial cul­tures. My in­tro­duc­tion to ce­ram­ics away from my art stu­dio norm was un­ex­pect­edly provoca­tive. The ECOart ex­pe­ri­ence was re­ward­ing on a very dif­fer­ent level. As a re­sult of my ex­pe­ri­ences I was able to in­tro­duce Muong Stu­dio as a Host Part­ner to Asialink. Viet­nam has so much to of­fer. This “small” coun­try has a pow­er­ful spirit I feel com­pelled to ex­plore fur­ther.

My in­tro­duc­tion to ce­ram­ics away from my art stu­dio norm was un­ex­pect­edly provoca­tive.

works turn into a liv­ing nightmare where I ask my­self why I even paint at all.

Larger works such as ‘Big deal Warren, I wagged all of Year Ten’, took about seven weeks, work­ing any­where from five to 15 hours a week. This seems like an in­or­di­nate amount of time con­sid­er­ing its size, but the na­ture of my process means that I’m work­ing on things such as com­po­si­tion as I go. It’s a mov­ing feast and I’ll rou­tinely paint over a day’s work if some­thing’s off. Any­one who has spent any time watch­ing me paint would know how of­ten I mis­place my mahl­stick too – this prob­a­bly ac­counts for an hour of wasted time each ses­sion.

The paint­ing ‘Home Ren­o­va­tor’ was an in­ter­est­ing piece be­cause it went through more it­er­a­tions than usual. I think the board it­self has three pre­vi­ous paint­ings un­der­neath lay­ers of primer. The 80s bloke with the bal­a­clava was based on an im­age from an old Australian Owner Builder magazine. I saw it in a sec­ond­hand book­store and was drawn to the deca­dent drap­ery-type folds in his snappy jumper. The child pre­car­i­ously bal­anced in his arm was the cream. The main fig­ure was painted over the course of one sit­ting and then left for a num­ber of weeks un­til I had an idea of fill­ing in the back­ground with the in­te­rior of my family’s house in the Gold Coast hin­ter­land. I thought it worked but my brother and wife quickly in­formed me it did not. The only part that made the cut is the rem­nants of the leather re­cliner chair and a glimpse of a fig­ure be­hind the bucket guy up front. There is a real value to hav­ing peo­ple close to you who have no qualms in telling you some­thing is no good. With these works, the in­ter-re­la­tion­ship of the images be­come key. Some­times you can say a lot with very few images, a kind of short­hand which can tap into a va­ri­ety of me­mories and emo­tions. You miss the mark plenty, but when you create a work that peo­ple con­nect with then you know you’ve done it.

I thought it worked but my brother and wife quickly in­formed me it did not. The only part that made the cut is the rem­nants of a leather re­cliner chair and a fig­ure. There is a real value to hav­ing peo­ple close to you who have no qualms in telling you some­thing is no good.

02 Speak, 2015, glazed stoneware, 24 x 24 x 25cm, pho­tog­ra­pher Mai Nguyen-Long 03 Un/civ­i­lized, 2016, glazed stoneware, 22 x 16 x 16cm, pho­tog­ra­pher Mai Nguyen-Long 04 Mai Nguyen-Long at work in Bat Trang, 2015, pho­tog­ra­pher Nguyen Danh Tu

05 Meal, 2015, glazed stoneware, 13 x 13 x 6cm, pho­tog­ra­pher Mai Nguyen-Long Courtesy the artist 05




Courtesy the artist

04 03 Big deal Warren, I wagged all of year ten, 2016, oil on board, 60 x 90cm 04 Bucks party, 2016, oil on board, 29 x 38cm 05 Green chair, 2016, oil on board, 23 x 30cm

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