“The exhibition is a chance for me to pause, reflect on my own substance, and reconnect with the self I've inadvertently overlooked amidst the life's hustle and bustle.” (Excerpt from the exhibition guestbook).
“Substance” is a heartfelt exhibition by Phuong Si (PSI) that brings together 21 outstanding portraits of women from many different professions, representing many generations of women who have made significant contributions to society.
By employing the life-casting technique typically used in filmmaking, PSI has used a variety of materials such as plaster, ceramics, and lacquer to create the ‘substances’ of her subjects, bringing to life their individual stories.
Vietcetera met with Phuong Si on the last day of the exhibition, just before she embarked on a long holiday to incubate her future projects. Amidst the serene atmosphere of the exhibition, she shared her journey of discovering the substance of 21 inspiring women, as well as her own substance as a makeup artist with 15 years of experience.
What does the word “substance” mean to you?
To me, “substance” embodies a state of emptiness, which seems to have everything yet also nothing. The final scene of the exhibition’s introductory video captures this perfectly; it features an empty chair, devoid of my presence or anyone else’s. This represents the profound sense of ‘nothingness’ I experienced after pouring my heart, soul, and energy into this exhibition. After a long journey to reach this endpoint, we all inevitably return to ourselves, to this sense of “nothingness.”
“Substance” could encapsulate grand concepts, yet it could also be found in the smallest of things. My substance is significantly shaped by giving and receiving the stories of those I have had the opportunity to encounter. Sometimes I’m rational, sometimes emotional, and my substance always needs to learn to find balance.
How did you choose the subjects for “Substance”?
This project has been a labor of love for three years. After a long period of reflection and research, I chose subjects who had influenced me in some way. Some of them I’ve collaborated with, others I’ve lived with, including my mother and grandmother, and some simply came into my life by chance.
On top of that, there were some individuals I wanted to include, but they couldn’t participate due to time constraints. However, I didn’t insist on featuring specific individuals or stories. The only criterion I was strict about was their age to align with the narrative arc of my project.
The exhibition’s pathway is arranged by age, from 18 to 90. The 20-30 age phase is women’s “blooming” period, filled with energy and experiences. From 30 to 45, women accumulate a rich array of ‘substances,’ hence, I chose distinctive materials that represent the unique colors of each character. This stage is also depicted in greater detail compared to the first one with only one character - Phượng Anh and the final stage when one returns to the point of “nothingness,” represented by my grandmother.
Many have asked why I did not provide a guide for the exhibition. I believe everyone has unique perceptions and experiences. Who knows, perhaps visitors might see a reflection of themselves along the journey.
What led you to favor an exhibition as your artistic expression?
I've worked on image-based projects on social platforms before, but I still wanted to resonate with my audiences on a deeper level. A multi-media exhibition like Substance can allow me to convey my message and evoke emotions in the audience fully.
At “Substance,” there are many types of media - from visuals, sound, lighting to sculptures - designed to foster interaction and self-reflection among visitors. As visitors enter, they are confronted with their reflections in two mirrors at the entrance.
The mirror path then offers a unique experience. From one angle, it’s just you, but with a slight shift, another “substance” comes into view. This is similar to meeting someone for the first time - you can’t fully grasp who they are from the outset. It is through the passage of time, through shared stories and experiences, that you gradually develop a more profound understanding of them.
Did you have any expectations of how the audience would react to your works before the exhibition?
To be honest, I didn’t really have any expectations. If anything, my expectations were directed at myself. I created ‘Substance’ primarily for me. I did it to satisfy all the curiosity in my mind. As for how people would receive it, I was open to all reactions.
Why did you choose women as your objects and not anyone else?
Part of the reason is that I chose femininity as the main theme and feminity embodies a world of emotions, stories, and complexities to explore. Another reason is that I am a woman myself.
In my perspective, a woman's femininity is formed from love. And I'm not just talking about romantic love between men and women, but also friendships, motherhood, etc. When someone sacrifices a part of themselves for their family, that's love. For example, my mother chose to stay home and care of her children. All the women around me led lives that are full of love.
How has your 15-year journey as a makeup artist influenced the creation of Substance?
My time in England taught me the highest technique in makeup, life-casting, which I’ve fully applied to this exhibition. After 15 years in the creative field, I’ve accumulated a precious wealth of long-term collaborators who excel in their respective roles and understand me deeply.
You see just one minute of each character interview and seven minutes for the project introduction video, but behind that is a massive content volume of 21 characters. We spent sleepless nights for two months to get this done.
Beyond all these, perhaps the most significant thing I gained was trust. Everyone on the team believed in me and that we all could do it. It’s the same trust I have to earn from the characters. They need to feel comfortable enough for me to take their life-casts.
Have you ever feared misrepresenting your subjects with the materials used?
Once I hear a character’s story, I can intuitively discern the right medium for them. I wanted to maintain the original plaster for facial casts because it captures the minutiae of skin texture. I only transformed the plaster into other materials such as ceramics or lacquer for a few characters or added elements like flowers to better express their narratives.
During the casting process, reactions varied across characters. Some praised it, others were... a bit startled. Ha Do even exclaimed, “It doesn't look like me at all.” I didn’t show the characters their finished substances, or require them to visit the exhibition. I believe in letting people receive it in the most natural, organic way. Ms. Le Khanh visited a day before the exhibition concluded. The experience proved deeply touching for both of us.
How has life shaped your ‘substance’ in the past 15 years, and how does today’s PSI compare to the past?
I once read a beautiful quote from a wise teacher that resonated deeply: “No matter how you change, you are still you.” Whether it was 15 years ago or now, I am still that curious girl who loves to explore and discover, and who realizes there’s so much about the world she doesn’t know. I’ve traveled far and wide, and met verious people, but I constantly feel there is so much more to learn.
The journey to create the Substance project mirrors my journey, starting from nothing, then acquiring something, to eventually returning to a state of “nothingness.” There were moments when time and financial pressures made me feel hollow, but having overcome those, I now see that it was all worthwhile.
What's next for you after the Substance exhibition in Hanoi?
Truthfully, I feel the project has succeeded in the sense that I've given it my all, and there are no regrets. I put my entire heart and soul into it, and how people have embraced the message I wanted to convey is a great joy to me. I consider the heartfelt messages people wrote in the guestbook at the exhibition as a reward.
In the near future, I hope to bring Substance to Saigon. As for the distant future, I intend to explore Substance from a different angle and in greater depth. I want people to remember me as an artist, whether it’s makeup or any other medium.
“Every woman has her own unique beauty. Substance is just an external representation, and there’s no such thing as an unattractive woman. Let’s love and respect the other half of the world for collective happiness.” (Excerpt from the guestbook at the exhibition)
Translated by Bich Tram