In 2014, Luu Tuyen took a risk. Despite his growing success as a rising Vietnamese contemporary artist, Luu wanted something bigger. He was used to creating one or two paintings for international art galleries and expositions including Art Expo Malaysia—the longest running Southeast Asian contemporary art fair—but this time he wanted to challenge himself to develop an even bigger collection to further showcase his voice.
Luu knew that this was no easy task. Because of the complex nature of epoxy resin—his signature material—each painting would take at least several months, and sometimes even years to finish. But he was determined to create this collection.
Even before the collection was finished, he was recognized as the most prominent Vietnamese contemporary artist by Skira Editore, a leading art publisher, when his work was featured in their 2017 book “Vietnam Eye: Contemporary Vietnamese Art.”
Four years after that initial gamble, standing in front of his solo exhibition “Perfect Reality” in the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi, Luu Tuyen looks content. When asked how many paintings are in his exhibit he beams, “32 pieces.” We decided to sit down with Luu Tuyen to talk more about his personal story, his art, and his take on the flourishing contemporary art scene in Vietnam.
What is art to you? How would you describe your art to someone who has never seen it?
To me, art is a mirror in front of which one reflects and grows. My art is a reflection of myself. It reflects my anxieties, torments, as well as my concerns about the present-day reality where time-honored values are fading and being replaced by superficial ones.
In my work, I try to preserve and remind the viewer of values like heritage, diversity, and individuality that are often forgotten and overshadowed by the fast pace of life.
How did you first get involved with art? Who inspired you to start painting?
Art has long been a passion of mine. When kids my age were outside playing, I was inside drawing. For someone starting out, one of the most crucial things to remember is persistence. Grow your skills and your knowledge of art.
Personally, I explored my passion for painting through books about famous artists. One of them was Johannes Vermeer who influenced me to pursue realism. I was attracted by his light, his simplicity, the loud silence of his characters and scenery. Every time I stood in front of his paintings, I never wanted to leave.
Which Vietnamese contemporary artists were also inspirations?
When I met Le Huy Tiep and Bui Thanh Tam in person, I was blown away by their ideas and wisdom. Le advised me to learn from other experienced artists while Bui taught me how to expand my horizons and incorporate other perspectives into my art. With their advice I developed my own strengths. I was better able to express my ideas through my work. We often talked about growing the presence of contemporary art in Vietnam and they have left a lasting imprint on me…and that’s reflected in my artwork.
Your work often features characters that look like dolls. What’s their significance?
The characters in my pieces are always kind of vulnerable. The doll-like characters, for example, have a youthful brightness. But they are placed against dark backgrounds. They have a flickering sense of innocence and as they hold onto their own dolls they wish to find comfort in an uncomfortable setting.
I want them to express fear and uncertainty over the chaos of life. Their vulnerability is perfect in my eyes as an expression of the human condition—we work on our vulnerabilities, and in turn, they become valuable to us. That’s what humanity is about.
How did you come up with the name “Perfect Reality”?
It began when I decided to look more deeply into societal issues in Vietnam. I began to feel that we are too swept up in modern life…we are forgetting to appreciate simple things. Despite progress many of us are filled with worry and disappointment.
I’ve felt those emotions too. There were times when I felt hopeless and directionless and wanted to escape everything. But the reality is reality we can’t run from ourselves. The only thing we can do is embrace it. When we learn to do so, that’s when our reality becomes a perfect one.
What are the struggles that you’ve had to overcome as a Vietnamese contemporary artist?
When I became a professional artist in 2004, I was very anxious. I experienced first hand the reality of becoming a full-time artist. As many people will understand, art is a long and arduous process filled with challenges.
In 2007, when many galleries closed down, I was also put in a difficult place financially. I had to quit art to pursue a more lucrative profession and I even considered quitting permanently at least three times, but I’m not one to give up so easily.
Every time I returned to my passion I told myself to not give up at any cost. Would I rather overcome difficulties in order to pursue my art, or abandon art and live a life that was meaningless to me? To this day, I still hold the belief that art is what gives my life meaning. Even when life is challenging, I remember that practicing art is a privilege.
You’ve been a Vietnamese contemporary artist for over 15 years. How has art in Vietnam has changed over that time?
Fifteen years is definitely not a short amount of time, but in art, it is still not long enough. Art in Vietnam went from a lively and thriving market between 2003 and 2008 to a much quieter and more underground scene.
Many galleries closed down and some artists had to put down their paint brushes—just like I had considered doing. Luckily, the emergence of new Vietnamese contemporary artists around 2010—like Ha Manh Thang, Pham Huy Tong, and Bui Cong Khanh—brought a fresh breath of air to the art industry.
The market slowly recovered as more artists and buyers returned. I was one of the generation of artists born in the 1980s who helped revitalize contemporary art in Vietnam, and since then, Vietnam’s art scene has shifted in both its quantity and quality, and with its depth and reach.
Epoxy resin is an unusual material to use as it’s complex to master and time-consuming. Why do you choose to use it as your signature material?
Epoxy was first used in the 1950s to glaze over the surface of ships. Nowadays, it is used as a coating in architecture and interior design, as a protective covering for flooring for example.
This material, for me, acts as a metaphor—in this modern age of technology and innovation, pure values are swapped for superficial ideals, culture gets blurred, people become depressed and anxious, but we all display this glossy shine of well-being on social media—to make it seem like we’re fine. But the glossy coat fails to hide what is within.
In my art, the true beauty and significance of the paintings are hidden behind the epoxy layer—like the values inside of us.
What direction do you see art in Vietnam taking in the future?
In my opinion, the future of Vietnamese art is hopeful. There has been considerable support from personal collectors all over the country. People are investing in creative hubs and galleries to share Vietnamese art locally and globally, and artists are being exposed to prominent art scenes and trends as more collaborations with global art programs and fairs are happening.
As a result, I definitely believe Vietnamese contemporary artists are ready to create our own global voice and create art that builds toward a meaningful and beautiful society.
Who should we interview next?
I would recommend my fellow Vietnamese contemporary artist Bui Thanh Tam. He is one of the two creatives I mentioned who inspired me to pursue my dream of becoming an artist.