Question & Answer with Pham Huy Thong
The painting Captain! Our Ship Has Been Ducked! was completed in June 2014. This was a moment when the tensions in the Eastern Sea sovereignty dispute between China and Vietnam reached new heights. China’s enormous Ocean 981 oil rig was brought onto Vietnam’s continental shelf to explore for oil and gas and to probe the attitudes and reactions of both Vietnam and international opinion. A powerful protection fleet was sent with the rig. This included China most modern battleship bristling with weapons sent as a threat and bringing with it bad omens for peace in the region.
Vietnam, like many other small countries in the region, has long been reluctantly caught up in an arms race. With the growth and military aggression exhibited by China, its neighbors have been forced to pour money into equipping themselves for self defense. The funds spent on weapons have inevitably taken away from those available to invest in crucial areas such as health, education, and culture, among others.
When developing the ideas behind Ducked!, I wanted to combine iconic images representing the opposing concepts of "peace" and "conflict" and from them to highlight the thin line between them. So, I painted a modern battleship based on a prototype destroyer of China's People’s Liberation Army. The weapons and artillery that would normally be on the ship’s deck, however, were replaced with plastic ducks. The sense of contrast that this created appears humorous but on reflection can create an opportunity for viewers to reflect and to discuss world affairs in a deeper fashion.
2. Ducked! features numerous yellow ducks in apparent allusion to the Rubber Duck sculptures of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman. What are your thoughts about the Rubber Duck sculptures and why did you choose to include them in the painting?
Designed by the sculptor Peter Ganine in the 1940’s, the rubber duck quickly become a popular commercial product with over 50 million units sold worldwide. It has become an iconic product of the modern consumer lifestyle and of pop culture. Whether members of the working class or the elite, most of us come to know the rubber duck as children and have memories of playing with them under the watchful eyes of our parents. Thus, the image of rubber ducks serves to unconsciously evoke thoughs of childhood, happiness, protection and peace in viewers.
The Rubber Duck (2007) sculpture of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, a parody of the normal rubber ducks with which we are all so familiar, has become famous worldwide. Before being exhibited in a small lake in District 7 in April 2014, Hofman’s duck had been displayed in fifteen different locations around the world to tremendous acclaim. When the rubber duck is fully inflated, its giant size tends to make objects in its vicinity appear smaller. This creates a feeling of childhood in viewers who see the body of water it sits in as a bathtub and the buildings around it as toy models.
However, when looking at photos of one of the Rubber Ducks in Hong Kong Bay, I had a different sensation – that of poseession. This was unrelated to the Rubber Duck’s success in possessing the space of the bay, but a sense of possession formed from childhood memories. This sense of possession begins to build when a child alone masters a particular space such as a tub with a small rubber duckie. Learning to play with a small toy; learning to control a small space; these are the first steps a person takes in learning to possess the world.
Therefore, if Hofman’s Rubber Duck is a parody of the smaller toy duck, my painting is a parody of a parody as it evokes association with and exploits the feelings of viewers when thinking of the two previous ducks.
Further, the images of the rubber ducks bring a different effect to my work in terms of language. I like to use puns in my work. Previous works such as The Last Party or Money-Go-Round are examples of this. Word plays can be simplistic but, if done well, can also help to transmit unspoken messages. When considering the situation of small countries encountering China, a Vietnamese person might instinctively exclaim “như caí địt” (translating to “like a fuck” in English). In turn, the word “địt” rhymes with “vịt” (which means “duck” in Vietnamese).
"Fuck" or "địt" is the reaction of those who are bullied and is an epithet hurled towards those opposing them. Using the images of rubber ducks crushing weapons of murder is the way I express my feelings toward the ships hovering off Vietnam’s coast, threatening the peace of my homeland.
3. How does Ducked! fit into the context of your greater body of work including your two most recent collections Dong Bao and Hands?
Political and social issues are regular subjects in my art. My parents are both journalists. As a child, I was fortunate to live in an environment where I was exposed often to journalists, writers, artists and politicians. I was always excited to observe, discuss, and think on issues of society and current affairs. These subjects figure organically in my artwork. While the images in Dong Bao, Hands or in Ducked! may appear different, all are based on these observations and on my personal judgments of historical issues, politics, and society in which I am always interested.
4. Can you explain why you have chosen to address current social and political issues affecting Vietnam and the Southeast Asia region in your work?
Many of my paintings have featured the theme of tensions in the surrounding seas. In the Hands series of 2011, I referenced the arms race in the Asia - Pacific region centered on the growth and aggressiveness of China and reluctantly drawing in the other countries in the region. Paintings such as Heavy Sea, Strange Dream 1 & 2 and A Sacrifice expressed my personal perspectives and thoughts on this issue. In the Hands paintings, my opinions have always supported peace and prosperity with a special attention to the fate of the common man caught up in this whirlwind.
The Hope series was started in March 2014 and focuses on exploiting theme related to rural farmers and the urban working poor. Vietnam's process of urbanization and modernization has created an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Those who have a low position in society are increasingly pushed to the margins. During times of economic crisis, the inequality gap does not shrink but to the contrary becomes exacerbated.
The Hope paintings exploit the contrast between images of storm clouds representing the uncertain future of the poor and images of white clouds like the hope that rises in their hearts. Although the people who collect my paintings are well off, my intention with this series is not to engender social pity towards the subjects. On the contrary, I hope they will provide a source of encouragement as each of us a source of encouragement, because rich or poor each of us must face and overcome our own problems though being rich or poor, each of us has to face with our problems and overcome, something which requires great faith in the future.
About Craig Thomas Gallery
Established in 2009, CTG is the natural evolution of its founder’s decade long involvement in the Vietnamese art scene and the relationships developed with artists, curators and collectors during that time.
The gallery is focused on supporting the development of young, emerging to mid-career Vietnamese artists and providing them with a platform to present their work to a wider audience. CTG’s mission includes the promotion of contemporary art by making it more accessible to the community.
CTG strives to play an active role in promoting the development of a vibrant domestic art scene in Vietnam by hosting a regular exhibition program.
Find more information on www.cthomasgallery.com