Ordeal in oil

BRAIN LANDSCAPE, 150 x 120cm, oil on canvas, 2002

Stefan Reisner

During the Vietnam War, the toxic defoliant known as “Agent Orange” was sprayed over vast swathes of rainforest in order to strip the dense undergrowth bare. Even now, the indigenous population continue to suffer the after-effects of this poison and many are born with severe disabilities. Nguyen Xuan Huy, an emerging Vietnamese artist living in Berlin, has not forgotten the victims of this atrocity; they inhabit his canvases.
No bombardment followed in the wake of the advancing planes.

No crack of light, no deafening explosion, only an ethereal mist which settled imperceptibly on the greenery below; a mist which was to disfigure every tree it touched by completely stripping it of foliage. This mist became known as “Agent Orange”, a term which was coined in reference to the orange striped barrels it was shipped in between 1960 and 1975. The substance these metal cylinders concealed, however, was not as harmless as the cheerful coloured band stamped on its outer shell. The destruction and mutilation of decades past, is visible, even today. But it is no longer the trees of Vietnam which bear the scars of this terrible legacy, but the people themselves. These people, with all of their defects and deformity, gloriously inhabit the creations of Nguyen Xuan Huy.

The painter, who currently lives and works in Berlin, evokes the horrors of war through those who have been previously concealed from view. Thirty five years after the end of the Vietnam conflict , the delineations of Nguyen Xuan Huy transport them, from the gloomy depths of the jungle, into the light . Nguyen Xuan Huy’s paintings depict just a fraction of the more than four million people who, even now, due to alterations in their genotype as a result of dioxin exposure, are being born into the world with crippling birth defects; without arms, without legs and often mentally impaired.

“It’s insensitive to imagine that because I was born healthy that I am untouched by this issue” says Nguyen Xuan Huy. Because so many people are potential carriers of the altered genotype, this is a problem
which could affect each and every citizen of Vietnam. Nguyen Xuan Huy is moved to paint the resultant deformity because, in his words, “it belongs to my Vietnamese identity.” Nguyen Xuan Huy lived and studied in Vietnam until 1993, before which time he completed his A Level exams and began to study architecture in Hanoi, sporadically taking up his brush when he felt compelled to paint. He painted in the style instilled in him by his father –– that of realism, at which he clearly excelled.

His mother, then a foreign worker in the GDR, invited her son to join her in Germany in order that he benefit from a superior education. “I had to wait six months in Vietnam to get a visa” he recalls. During these six months he painted “and painted and painted” until he arrived at the profound realisation that he would not study architecture in Germany, but art. In 2005, now a student of Burg Giebichenstein Art and Design Academy in Halle, he decided to travel throughout Vietnam in search of malformed children, the victims of “Agent Orange”, intent on capturing these encounters on camera. His knowledge of the war at that time was limited merely to propaganda slogans and the stories recounted by his father, who himself fought in contaminated areas. At some point during his studies, Nguyen Xuan Huy had encountered photographs featuring crippled and deformed subjects; this inspired him to record the modernday aftermath of a long forgotten war, on film, first hand. This was something he felt compelled to experience personally.

On his return to Germany he began to paint what he had seen, initially against a jungle background; a woman with two torsos squats amidst tree branches, a small boy without legs performs a headstand amidst a towering thicket of bamboo. Later, he also integrated the victims into his “Blackout” series, in which he not only depicts images of crippled children, but the cloud of poisonous gas billowing out across a valley; the view from the cockpit of an aeroplane and the resulting strike; a woman peering out from one of the small protective bunkers that still litter the landscape. Solitary black canvasses hang between each of the paintings, symbolic of the blackouts that war leaves behind. Crippled bodies remain the focus of Nguyen Xuan Huy’s work, even af ter his “Blackout ” series. Now however, they are stylised; running, striding and hovering in front of a white background. Nguyen Xuan Huy explains: “ I have attempted to create a fictitious, ‘ ideal world’ in which all the people depicted are malformed, yet still carefree, and who follow,
convinced by, an exceptional ideology.”

This concept of a fictitious ‘ideal world’ is also adhered to in Nguyen Xuan Huy’s monumental three part work “Procession”, completed in 2007, in which attractive young women grasping hammers and sickles, move along under a red star. This evokes the impression of a large monument which would certainly not look out of place in Hanoi, Peking or Pyongyang. However, Nguyen Xuan Huy cuts through the socialist symbolism by introducing a billowing stream of blue fabric and a blue umbrella, which rise to join the red star. The bodies of the women are wedged into each other and entwine and grow together peculiarly; from one shoulder protrudes a third hand; a dismembered torso appears to move in stride with the other figures.

A white background which does not detract from the subject matter; pretty, yet still deformed female bodies; fractured socialist symbolism –– these are the ar tistic ingredients and aesthetics of the new Nguyen Xuan Huy. In his 2008 work “Chicken Wing Company”, based on Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason”, plucked and dismembered chicken wings appear to fly above a young girl in a red neckerchief, the back of her hand raised to her head in the pioneer’s salute. Within this work, themes of both socialist symbolism and capitalist abundance are revealed. In the monumental, eight by three metre work “Garden of Desire” (2008), socialist symbolism and the naked female form are juxtaposed with modern paraphernalia. This painting, inspired by the works of Hieronymus Bosch, came to fruition in 2008 during a three month stay amongst the Schöppingen
artist community in North Rhine-Westphalia. “I had planned to create a very large work there,” recalls the artist.

The Berlin studio in which he painted would certainly have been too cramped to house a canvas of this size. “To paint large pictures was always a dream of mine and my forte.” In his more recent works, such as “Procession” and “Garden of desire”, Nguyen Xuan Huy substitutes the seriousness of social realism for a somewhat profane pseudo-soft pornography. “The erotic serves as a means to propagate an ideology, the same way in which capitalist advertisements employ bare flesh as an enticement to purchase products; products which have absolutely nothing at all to do with naked skin,” remarks the artist . And in the same way as an advertisement , appearances in Nguyen Xuan Huy’s pictorial worlds can also be deceptive; where the perception of the erotic shifts until it becomes something more sinister. “ It ’s like the way in which a beautiful dream metamorphoses into a nightmare, and that nightmare is recognized as reality.”

The helplessness of the families in regard to the fate of their children is actualised on canvas by the Vietnamese born artist . “The destiny of those affected,” “says Nguyen Xuan Huy, “is reflected in the powerlessness of humanity as a whole. This is what I want to convey.” The war is a manifestation of this powerlessness. However, it is not interest or fascination he has inspired in his fellow countrymen, but consternation. Even forty years on, entire regions of southern Vietnam are still contaminated; however, he does not wish his paintings to serve as a reminder of historical events. “Agent Orange is a symbol which motivates people to reflect upon life in a general way.” To create politically provocative work or to assign blame, says the young painter, is not his intention. Nguyen Xuan Huy has immor talised in oils the trauma of an entire people; a trauma which he himself shares. When his own wife became pregnant , he was disturbed by the thought that his own child could be born into the world disabled. Even though their son Tony is healthy, Nguyen Xuan Huy is haunted by the nightmare ‘that my child will one day become a victim of Agent Orange.’


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