Every day, as we walk or ride through the bustling streets, have you ever looked up in search of the horizon? Is it still possible to glimpse the horizon in crowded cities with tightly packed houses? And even when it’s in sight, can we truly break free from our confines and reach that distant line where the sky meets the earth?
These are just a few of the many questions that came to my mind at the “Giao Bien - Traversing Realms” exhibition at the Lotus Gallery, showcasing the works of four celebrated contemporary artists: Nguyen Thi Chau Giang, Nguyen Thuy Hang, Duong Thuy Duong, and Nguyen Quoc Dung. Through their individual paintings or series, each artist invites viewers into a personal dialogue.
The exhibition combines four distinct collections, each exploring boundaries in the physical realm and the human psyche. It displays boundaries that have been crossed, new ones to be explored, and even those invisible lines we often fail to recognize. Regardless, each piece serves as a reminder of our small place amidst the vast, ever-changing world.
Amidst Artistic Gazes
On a busy Wednesday morning under Saigon’s scorching sun, as I stepped into the space of Wiking Salon, I immediately felt a chill running through my body. Initially, I mistook it for the air conditioning against my sweat-drenched body.
Only upon leaving did I realize the temperatures were similar inside and out. The real source of my shiver was the enigmatic gaze of the paintings scattered throughout the room.
There were the apprehensive, defensive looks of immigrants in Nguyen Quoc Dung’s paintings and the direct, challenging, thoughtful stares of women in Nguyen Thi Chau Giang’s pieces.
Yet, even these paled in comparison to Duong Thuy Duong’s collection: 12 paintings, each with a unique face and pair of eyes, questioning the viewer, “Stranger, do you know your place among these faces?”
In contrast, Nguyen Thuy Hang’s paintings don’t offer direct gazes. Instead, viewers must search for the human element amidst large expanses of nature – be it rolling hills, dense forests, or vast skies.
Each artist has a designated space, yet there’s a seamless flow between the collections. Immersing in the colors and strokes without focusing on the titles or artists, one could easily be swept into an emotional whirlwind of unconnected thoughts.
With a deliberately curated layout and lighting, Lotus Gallery has created diverse focal points within a compact art space. One corner features Nguyen Thi Chau Giang’s largest-ever 2-meter-long silk painting. In another, an abstract piece by Duong Thu Dương, brought from Berlin, holds its ground. Each painting is a portal for viewers to dive into a world of reflection and emotion.
A Gathering of Contemporary Artists
As I meandered through the Traversing Realms exhibition, each painting made me feel like I was part of an intimate encounter with art. Unlike fleeting speed-dating sessions where quick judgments are made, Traversing Realms allowed me the luxury of time and space to engage in deep conversations with each artist and their creations, savoring the unique painting styles, mediums, and presentations.
Nguyen Quoc Dung and Nguyen Thi Chau Giang: Exploring Human Existence
Nguyen Quoc Dung’s themes and subjects struck me profoundly. While many artists have portrayed laborers and daily life, Dung’s intense focus on immigrants sets his work apart. His portfolio also includes charcoal drawings of transgender individuals – a group rarely depicted in our country’s mainstream art.
His paintings intricately detail the cramped spaces typical of rental housing. One shows a father covering up a mother as she changes clothes, with their child playing on a mattress. In another, a six-member family lives amidst a sea of belongings. Among the standing figures, a somewhat awkwardly lying figure disrupts the painting’s structure, adding to the chaos in an already cluttered scene.
It’s noteworthy that Nguyen Quoc Dung’s paintings are framed, adding layers of meaning as they interact with the spatial layout and asymmetrical composition to create a unique perspective. Viewers feel like they’re peering into the immigrants’ lives through a window or ajar door, almost as if encroaching on their private world.
Though also focusing on people, Nguyen Thi Chau Giang presents a stark contrast in style and content. Her largest piece, a nude, captures the evolving beauty of womanhood. This painting impresses not only with its technical prowess on double-sided silk but also invokes profound and enigmatic reflections on human destiny.
Giang brought a set of “tu binh” paintings to the exhibit. Still, instead of traditional themes like the four seasons of the year or four noble trees (Pine, Chrysanthemum, Bamboo, and Yellow Apricot), she portrayed the journey of womanhood from innocence to old age. A recurring feature in her works is the subjects’ provocative, almost challenging gaze, which invites viewers into a dialogue, prompting introspection and response.
Nguyen Thuy Hang’s ‘Way to Home’: A Journey into the Unknown
In the exhibition, Nguyen Thuy Hang’s "Way to Home" (Đường về) series profoundly resonated with me. Her works depict minuscule human figures engulfed in nature, persistently moving through an endless quest. Viewing her art, one is drawn into vast expanses that evoke thoughts: Are these endless spaces symbols of liberating freedom or reflections of profound emptiness? It’s a question that leaves each viewer with their sentiment.
Hang’s portrayal of infinity, crafted with masterfully arranged colors, speaks of steadfastness. Life moves on; we walk continually amidst the clouds. Sometimes, we pause to “look up at the boundless sky,” at other times, we ponder, "I will move forward, not knowing where yet." Regardless, life flows, and we keep walking.
A very personal connection I found with Nguyen Thuy Hang’s work was her use of Bui Giang’s poetry from the poem “Phung Hien” to title her pieces. The poem, which explores human love’s destiny against the constraints of time as well as the inevitable end of everything, contrasts with a painting about a quest for the eternal. To me, this represents a perfect intersection of concepts.
Duong Thuy Duong: Seeking Self and Finding a Personal Realm
As someone not well-versed in abstract art, some of Duong Thuy Duong’s pieces demanded extra attention from me. But that’s okay – art isn’t meant to be easy.
The most striking aspect of Duong’s work was not just the 12 portraits depicting individuals in a borderless era of technology but her inclusion of two mirrors of similar size to her paintings.
Passing by the artworks, we stop at the mirrors and recognize ourselves as part of the narrative, realizing that our identity blends into the diverse fabric of contemporary life.
Her work thus becomes a dialogue with the observer. Alongside these 12 pieces, her larger works capture natural scenes through her unique lens. Truth be told, even now, I ponder their deeper meaning. Are they conveying a message, reflecting our internal chaos, or perhaps both?
While I may not have all the answers, I appreciate spaces like Traversing Realms that offer a pause in life’s chaos, prompting us to reflect on ourselves and our surroundings.