Land of Hope and Aspirations

Be careful what you set your heart upon –
for it surely will be yours
(James Baldwin)

“I simply set out to paint the wishes of parents and of the next generation,” Tuan Anh says of his new paintings which explore the complexities of dreams and ambitions within a reality of rapid urbanisation and commercialisation. Baldwin turned the clichéd dictum Beware what you wish for… into something altogether more complex by adding the vaguely threatening stanza, for it surly will be yours, implying that hopes and aspirations become an inherent part of an individual’s psychological make-up, even if they cannot be realised. Similarly, Tuan Anh transcends the easy juxtaposition of wish and reality and instead gives attention to how the wishes of a generation have become part of the landscape of the soul.

The painting Deceptive Dream, originally exhibited at the artist’s last show Oh City, served as the starting point. Already apparent are some of the building blocks of the new canvasses: the parents dwarfed by their ambitions; the infant, eyes closed, oblivious to his parents’ burden. In his new collection, ideas and concepts from Deceptive Dream have matured into two cycles of large-scale, visually striking and symbolically rich paintings,evolving around the notion of dreams of the parents and dreams of the child. Painted in a pithy, faux-aged style, the cycle investigating the parent generationbuilds upon the artist’s pre-occupation with the city as both a place of promise and disillusionment. “My own father recovered from the war and dreamt a very simple dream for himself: enough food on the table, a roof over his head – normality. His dream for me,
though, which became my own dream, was of the city,” explains Tuan Anh who grew up in Thanh Hoa Province during the bao cap era. “Hanoi looked like heaven on TV, when I was a child. It was like candy while the country-side was as boring as boiled peanuts.”

The straightforward ambitions of a generation which has gone through war times and the subsequent period of austerity in the 1980s are reflected in the very directed pictures of this series. For each painting, Tuan Anh has picked a singular aspect from his theme of city life encroaching on countryside traditions and condensed it into an instantly memorable, iconographic image. The six paintings show the countryside as a place where ambitions for a better life turn into nightmares of consumerism and where peasants are weighed down by dreams of progress and modernisation – the skewed perspective mirroring the imbalance betweendream and reality. Lurking in the background is the subterranean, unspoken-of memory of
the American war, most obviously in I wish …4 which transforms the famous wartime photo of a woman dragging debris from a downed American bomber into a biting commentary about harnessing modern market forces.

The second cycle, consisting of five oil paintings, offers a different perspective. “The younger generation is more outward looking. It has a more global perspective,” Tuan Anh says. Here, the main protagonists are not burdened by their ambitions, but surrounded by possibilities. Each picture is built around the strong, central image of a plump infant placed in an allegorical dreamscape: the blatant fleshiness of the central figure a clear indication that the days of rationing cards are well and truly over, and that the dreams of the new generation are the dreams of plenty.Not innocent like the sleeping baby in Deceptive Dream anymore, the podgy infant isoften knowingly, mischievously even, gazing at the viewer. Yet, his worldliness comes at a price. Having moved away from a collectivist society towards modernist individualism, he is alone, cut off from history, unaware of the peasants, the generations before him, toiling at his feet.

Tuan Anh’s new paintings display both continuity in artistic outlook and a departure in style. Earlier works such as the Street Life series employed a technique reminiscent of expressionist realism. In subsequent paintings, the artist’s vision turned inwards, moving towards his characteristic allegorical style. Crammed full with detail, metaphors and characters, these pictures show modern life as a psychological, maybe even psychotic, condition, as a permanent state of alienation and dislocation where individuals are unable to control their destiny.

In contrast, the canvasses on show exhibit a certain playfulness, a lighter touch particularly evident in the oil paintings. The artist has retained his thematic pre-occupations and the strong narrative quality that defined his earlier work, but the interplay of symbols and style is often ironic. Visually, both cycles integrate a wide range of influences: Vietnamese folk art, Japanese imperial prints, Western pop culture references to name a few. The bold use of colour endows the paintings with a heightened texture and additional layers of meaning. In a departure from his previous works, Tuan Anh’s new pictures are less crowded with imagery. This, combined with the cultural hybridity of the symbolism, allows viewers tomore freely project their own experiences, dreams and hopes onto the paintings in front of them.


Andreas Pohl

Author / Educator

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