Hanoi Rauschenberg

By: Hal Medrano


“I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out the real world.”
– Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg took New York City trash to his studio, and glued it onto his canvases. “There is no reason,” the American artist concluded, “not to consider the world as one gigantic painting.” Hanoi’s richly textured walls testify to Rauschenberg’s once-startling assertion that everything can potentially be seen as art, if we give it the proper attention.

Rauschenberg and Hanoi both build upon – and ultimately transcend – earlier traditions. For Rauschenberg, the tradition is abstract-expressionism; for Hanoi, it’s an architecturally rich colonial past. Just as Rauschenberg once erased a de Kooning painting and claimed it as a unique work, time has stripped Hanoi’s once-glorious buildings of their former grandeur, creating a wholly new aesthetic.

Rauschenberg’s earliest works of note were large white or black canvases arranged as panels or quartets. Variations in surface texture reflected the changing ambient conditions. Later he began adding bits of newspaper which could sometimes be seen under the paint, sometimes not. These features – textured translucent layers affected by the ambient light – are key aesthetic elements encountered in Hanoi.

Responding to Rauschenberg’s 1951 “White Paintings,” John Cage “composed” his famous “4:33,” in which he sits at the piano for over four minutes without hitting a key. Cage intended to negate the distinction between sound and silence: “Silence is the turning off of awareness.” With Cage, art and silence are matters of intention…as with Rauschenberg…and Hanoi.

From monochromatic experiments in texture and light, Rauschenberg progressed to his famous “combines”: complex assemblages of found objects and paint, amalgams of painting and sculpture. Working “the gap between art and life,” Rauschenberg saw that an object, placed in a new context, becomes an entirely different object. He transported trash from street to canvas because he wanted to be surprised.

Everything was grist for Rauschenberg’s creative mill: quilts, tires, socks, nails, the severed head of an Angora goat. For Hanoi, it’s light poles, parking lots, embassies, schoolyards, and cafes. For Rauschenberg, the chair in front of the canvas; for Hanoi, the motorbike in front of the wall. Everything, inside or outside the frame, is part of the construction.

When Rauschenberg stopped working with found objects, and began silkscreening images onto metal, canvas, and rocks, he noted that in a consumer society, images are no longer bearers of information, but things. Every reproduction creates a new object, imbued with its own individuality. Rauschenberg emphasized this by distressing each silkscreened image until every trace of the mechanical process was gone.

The stenciled letters on Hanoi’s walls advertise the city’s craftsmen – its masons, carpenters, and electricians – through the crude mass-production technology of a developing nation. When reproduced over rough-hewn surfaces at cockeyed angles and allowed to drip and fade, these stencils cease, as Rauschenberg once suggested, to be transmitters of information: they become runes, hieroglyphs, fetishes.

Hanoi’s multilayered walls beget the same careful observation as a Rauschenberg collage. You look at, onto, and into them simultaneously, wondering if the juxtaposition is by caprice or design. Are these random objects brought together by chance, or coded messages to be deciphered? In Rauschenberg’s case, the artist’s hand is evident, but what of Hanoi’s walls?

Rauschenberg moved art from the street to the canvas; Hanoi’s urban aesthetic is discovered by returning to the street. The city’s plaster walls – eroded to their rough brick foundations, streaked with grime, graffiti, torn paper, and letters – perfectly straddle that space “between art and life.” Or as Rauschenberg would say, it’s art if you say it is.

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