Bui Cong Khanh: Vietnamese Domestic Tensions

Bui Cong Khanh, Porcelain Medals, 2018. Porcelain, hand-painted, 280 Pieces, size variable. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
Bui Cong Khanh, The Wound Has Not Healed, 2018. Hand-carved Jackfruit Wood, 78.5 x 104 x 67.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
Bui Cong Khanh, After The War (Vase No.2), 2018. Porcelain, hand-painted with gold, 113 x 34 cm. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
Bui Cong Khnah, North (of Vietnam), 2018. Porcelain, hand-painted, 140 x 34 cm. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
Bui Cong Khnah, South (of Vietnam), 2018. Porcelain, hand-painted, 140 x 34 cm. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
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There are at least two significant long-lasting sources of tension which poison Vietnamese society today that are pointed out by Bui Cong Khanh in his latest exhibition at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. These are the post-war frictions between the North and the South, with the “victorious” side opposing the side of the “traitors”, and a much older animosity against China and its legacy. These themes are not new for the Vietnamese artist, but he unfolds them within a domestic space by addressing the issues from the intimate perspective of a family, and in doing so, brings them closer to us. The strong, warm smell of wood pervades the gallery space, which stems from the pieces of furniture made from the jackfruit tree.

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery

 

Aptly curated by Iola Lenzi, the exhibition is conceived like a tour of a Vietnamese house, with a living room and reception room at the entrance of the gallery, and a kitchen at the back, where the artist has ‘baked’ some war medals.

Many Vietnamese artists have recently worked on the Vietnam War, eager to reveal its hidden sides and express a Vietnamese voice, as opposed to the usual, dominant American one. In an effort to confront history and participate in a healing process, these practices aim to build a renewed collective memory. However, for Khanh, the topic is far from being exhausted since the civil war’s aftermath is still vivid today and largely overlooked. Most of the history books have been written from the perspective of the North and, according to him, there has been no reconciliation yet between the North and the South. The artist used cake moulds to recreate war medals from both sides for Porcelain Medals, which he mixed together on a table and presented like mere biscuits. When his dad was a soldier, Khanh’s mother used to ask what was the point of such medals if people were starving? And beyond this genuine question, what is the power of a symbol and how does it empower those who carry it?

 

Bui Cong Khanh, Porcelain Medals, 2018. Porcelain, hand-painted, 280 Pieces, size variable. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

 

Symbols, such as the star, eagle, dragon, are omnipresent in Khanh’s work, as well as different helmets and jackets, designed according to their political affiliations. The artist carved them on pieces of furniture that stand for different sides and are rigidly shaped by their respective ideology. There is, for instance, one chair that is dedicated to the North and another to the South. They are both separated by a table, entitled The Wound Has Not Healed. Its side looks to be half-eaten, as if this rigidity is like a disease that is spreading. The pattern used in that corner is a recurring design. It is inspired by wires that were used during the war, particularly the grid which the Americans deployed to protect their tanks from bullets. After the war, many were left on the ground and poor families have built houses or pieces of furniture with them. Khanh has seen how they have been recycled as the supports for hanging plants with flowers growing inside, and so have formed a positive image for peacebuilding. In fact, Khanh likes to compare himself to a doctor whose work consists of alleviating these wounds, but he acknowledges that this might be the work of a whole generation.

 

Bui Cong Khanh, The Wound Has Not Healed, 2018. Hand-carved Jackfruit Wood, 78.5 x 104 x 67.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
Bui Cong Khanh, After The War (Vase No.2), 2018. Porcelain, hand-painted with gold, 113 x 34 cm. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

 

The artist, though, also invites us to take a step back from these domestic tensions and points out, with irony and perhaps some bitterness, how small Vietnam is, trapped between bigger powers. On the two sides of a wooden carved altar, a pair of porcelain vases represent the North and the South, but this time they share a common figure that is painted on a background of blue wires: a rooster. For Khanh, both China and the US manipulated Vietnam during the war, as if they were betting on a  fight between roosters. This might still be the case today, through neo-colonialism and various economic conflicts of interest.

While Vietnam’s relations with the US have now been normalized, its ties with China are much more complex and problematic, despite the official normalisations of 1991. Global anti-Chinese feeling is increasing, in particular, due to territorial disputes and the massive Chinese investment that is flooding into the country. Yet the roots of this feeling are older, dating back to China’s thousand-year colonisation of a part of the country. These conflictual relations are at the core of Khanh’s practice for more personal reasons.

 

Bui Cong Khnah, North (of Vietnam), 2018. Porcelain, hand-painted, 140 x 34 cm. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
Bui Cong Khnah, South (of Vietnam), 2018. Porcelain, hand-painted, 140 x 34 cm. Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

 

At the age of 20, Khanh realized he had Chinese ancestors and started questioning his own identity. Chinese migrants have been arriving in Hoi An, his birthplace, since the 17th century, bringing both their culture and craft to the former port. Khanh decided to accept this legacy and transform it, taking the path towards reconciliation again. His work, therefore, combines Chinese traditions with contemporary and original Vietnamese designs. Just like his previous major sculptural installation, Dislocate, his pieces of furniture display a Ming influence while being absolutely innovative at the same time, and his vases bear the marks of traditional blue and white pottery. However, whereas Chinese artisans strictly respect certain production specifications, the artist has painted his own patterns on the vases instead in an attempt to break from tradition and propose an original Vietnamese style.

Khanh supports collaborative works and his practice includes many collaborations. This has been even more the case since he recently opened a studio for carving and ceramics in Hoi An. For Dislocate, he worked with a team of senior expert woodcarvers and carpenters and he expanded this collaboration for the present show. As far as the porcelain is concerned, he went to Bat Trang, a 14th-century porcelain and pottery village near Hanoi to engage with local artisans. These collaborations have been both fruitful and challenging. With his new ideas, Khanh often shocks people who are recalcitrant about change, but at the same time, he slowly opens up minds to new ideas, helping people to move away from rigid traditions and clichés and embrace larger, more creative views.

 

 

Porcelain Medals and Jackfruit Wood Grenades Curated by Iola Lenzi
10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong
December 2018 – January 2019

 

 

About the artist

Bui Cong Khanh was one of the first Vietnamese conceptual artists to gain an international reputation. Once described as “one of Vietnam’s most intriguing young artists” by 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Hong Kong, his work has been exhibited across Vietnam, as well as in France, Thailand, Cambodia, the US, and at The Singapore Biennale in 2016.

He is known for installation and performance pieces that explore themes of family, identity, and immigration. His most ambitious project to date was his 2016 work “Dislocate” which features a traditional wooden structure carved with contemporary motifs.

 

 


 

Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specialized in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in Hong Kong.

Prior to moving to Hong Kong, Ha Thuc spent two years in Tokyo and published Nouvel Art Contemporain Japonais (Nouvelles Editions Scala 2012) about the post-Murakami Japanese art scene. Her book Contemporary Art in Hong Kong (Asia One, 2013), which was first published in France (Nouvelles Editions Scala, 2013) provides essential keys to apprehend the city’s vibrant contemporary landscape and exposes the countless links between art, history, culture and identity. She recently published a book about Chinese contemporary art analysing the interactions between the art scene and China’s rapidly changing society (After 2000 : Contemporary Art in China published in French language Nouvelles Editions Scala, France 2014 & MIP, Hong Kong 2015 for the English and comprehensive version).  

As a curator, she focuses on promoting dialogue between artists from different cultures, while reflecting on social and political contemporary issues. Her recent exhibitions include Radiance (French May, Hong Kong, 2014), Hong Kong Bestiary (Platform China, Hong Kong, 2014), Shelters of Resistance an in-situ installation by Kacey Wong in the courtyard of the City Hall (YIA Art Fair Paris, 2015), The Human Body : Measure and Norms (Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015) and Carnival (Hong Kong February 2017). She is on the International Curatorial Advisory Board of the Open Sky Gallery in Hong Kong and curated the 5th Large-scale Urban Media Arts Festival, 2016.

 

 

 
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