Red scars and blue dust. Deodorant-free installation art.

From: Cristina Nualart

Posted on 25 June 2012


The world’s landfills have been dusted with the discarded union jacks that briefly saluted the Queen of England’s jubilee last fortnight. This week the red and blue colours continue to make waves in Saigon, dominating two major art galleries. Two Vietnamese women artists, neither of them from this city, put on show two distinctive art installations, one red, one blue.

Craig Thomas Gallery, veering from it’s preference for showing paintings, invited Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai (Mai being the first name) to set up ‘The Scar’. Lightboxes and a corridor of glass squares (recycled from disused window panes) flood the rooms with tainted red light and a pungent smell. The glass sheets trap tomatoes that were stitched up by the artist before getting flattened as if for microscope viewing.

My first thought were memories of Anya Gallaccio’s decaying red flowers in ‘Preserve Beauty in the 2003 Turner Prize show. Gallaccio’s installation puzzled me. Looking at the beautiful bed of flowers with stems that by then were starting to fur, I wanted to know how far the rotting would spread in the sealed glass case. Does mould spread in an airtight vaccum? What did one do with this artwork if it turned into a furry green mass? Was it meant to be a permanent artwork? I could understand that formaldehyde would preserve bodies indefinetely. I had seen Mark Quinn’s blood head, and it made sense that electricity supply, unquestionably stable in late 20th century Britain, would keep it freezing forever. Hamilton and Goldsworthy took photos of their assembled natural objects. ‘Preserving Beauty’, however, required neither chemicals nor artificially induced temperatures, nor was it meant to be reincarnated in another medium. Not being in appearance a time-based art piece, Gallaccio’s work, for me, was the first artwork that questioned the longevity of itself. My faith in restauration specialists was tested. I wonder what it looks like now.

A bed of nails frozen into a mattress of ice in another room of Mai’s exhibition wonders me into considering how far the influence of the YBA’s has stretched. As worldwide gallerists and collectors in the last decade have been billed for the huge maintenance cost of storing artworks that need life-support, it’s a surprise to see equally difficult to upkeep artworks on show in Vietnam, a hot country with unreliable electricity supply


I met Mai as she was carefully packing away her rotting tomato glass tiles to send back to her studio in Hue, but for all her care in boxing the work, I suspect she’s not overly worried about the long term survival of her crafted objects. Her artwork is raw and motivated by powerful emotions. It references the recent collective memory of Vietnam, but thematically it is not concerned with making the audience question the time ahead. Vietnam currently has a forward looking mindset, triumphantly optimistic about it’s ability to soon be on the list of developed countries. Amidst this nationwide fervor to bulldoze a highway to material progress, Mai’s work is all the more significant for it’s introspective glow, literally illuminating scars and paused ripeness. Exploded tomatoes morph into red stains dotted with neutered seeds, viscerally showing physical pain and memorial trauma. But each tomato has been nursed with medical precision, closed up with needle and thread. The artist doesn’t believe in miracle cures, healing requires the bravery of self-inflicted surgery. Trauma is not a pretty sight, the scars in the glass look like wire lightning. And it stinks.


A much more sedate installation, in tranquil blue and white, but also aromatic, has opened in Galerie Quynh. Nguyen Phuong Linh’s solo show coincidentally also has a short, resonant title, ‘Dust’. The first pieces on view are cubic tons of tobacco, soap and rubber. The scent of these raw materials permeated the neighbourhood in Hanoi where Linh grew up.


The walls upstairs are divided by a horizontal line of small scale blueprints, made in Japan with the now barely used original blueprint method. The intense cobalt blue has a purplish hue. The clean, somewhat minimal display of the whole gallery makes the rich, warm colour appear colder than it could, but the closeness with which one must look at the work means that a gentle intimacy infuses the show. It’s a beautiful feeling to examine the little collections of images, tidy like a lavender-scented wardrobe. I’m particularly drawn to the title and the topic. I want to grow a sisterhood rapport with this artist who admits to noticing subtle change in air colour and texture. I share a love for the little observations Linh has recorded methodically, connecting routine urban visions with memories and the little surprises of noticing unusual characteristics of foreign places.


The little blueprints skirt around a large ‘Whitescape’, 2 tons of powdered limestone, a breathtaking sight. Disguised as a landscape, the room appears to dwarf. It reminds me of the striking miniature snowscapes byMariele Neudecker. The dust has been whitewashed, sitting harmlessly like fresh snow. The perils of lung damage have been swept away by the poised visual reconstruction.


Finally, the artist leaves two books on a table. One is a neatly finished collection of blueprints. The other is a grey copy of it, but with Vietnamese replacing the English text of the blue book. I can’t help laughing at the grey book, with its cheap texture characteric of photocopied books – so widespread in Vietnam. An inferior product, the grey book is the only real nudge amidst these artworks that speaks literally of the dirt of dust.


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