Erie Dreams

Born in 1981, Pham Huy Thông is a post- Vietnam War baby boomer who grew up during the Doi Moi period, in an era of continual economic development. However, like most of his generation, he experienced the challenges in a socialistoriented

Market economy of consumerism, greed and the uncertainty of ideals, to name a few. As an emerging artist of the new millennium, Thông missed the 1990s surge in the market for Vietnamese contemporary paintings, when artists could make a fortune almost overnight1. Instead, as a child of journalist parents, he was exposed to flexible thinking

About social issues, which appears to have benefited him later with a purposeful artistic and social curiosity far beyond most of his peers. All these influences culminated during a productive six-month residency in South Korea in 2011, at the Haslla Museum and Goyang National Art Studio, to produce the exhibition titled Strange Dreams.

In the last five years, Phaạm Huy Thông has produced works based on particular themes: Chairs, Brotherhood and this recent theme Hands. The last two themes established the content of this exhibition, Strange Dreams. Through utilizing elements of surrealism and caricature, Thông comments on Vietnam’s contemporary history. The distinctive feature of the Brotherhood theme portrays bizarre babies in unreal settings that pose questions about the cult of personality and the conformity of the masses2. The Hands theme is also surrealistic and equally critical portraying characters that have lost their heads and subsequently their capacity to think, with hands inhabiting the place where their head should be. It appears that these characters have lost their identity, and through significant actions such as holding, pointing, gripping, seizing, or snatching, Thông denounces with compelling effect the greed and economic monopoly currently running through Vietnamese contemporary society. Several paintings refer to the ascendency and power of money, but due to the absence of a ‘true identity’, it is not possible to isolate any individual or syndicate controlling the power.

In the painting titled Feremod of Sephec, Thông portrays three hands in the stele as locked; two appear to be hapless and the third (as head of the character) is an angry and challenging fist. The title inscribed above the stele is actually a re-arrangement of the phrase “Freedom of Speech”. The image of a stele mounted on the back of a carved stone turtle is a memorable image in the Literary Temple in Hanoi (as a symbol of scholarship). The fallen letters at the foot of the stele when re-assembled, form the well-known Vietnamese phrase, which translates as the fragmented dream of “Independence – Freedom – Happiness”3. Feremod of Sephec discloses the artist’s criticism of the “censorship, which made people lie or not tell the truth.”4

Three paintings in this exhibition: A Scarify, Strange Dream No. 1 and Heavy Ocean reflect in particular ongoing tensions over the minute South China Sea islands by several Asian countries, where the Vietnamese government has pretty much played the victims role throughout. Political unease over the islands threatens Vietnam’s claims to sovereignty but the authorities remain largely silent. This has led to activists demonstrating in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, to oppose recent Chinese interventions over the issue that was quelled by the police, while the media simply mentioned “strange ship”5. The ambiguous term, “strange ship”, was the inspiration for the title of Strange Dreams.

Away from home as an artist-in-residence in South Korea, Thông’s response to the “strange ship” incident and subsequent police actions was surprise and disenchantment. He downloaded photo documents of the event from the internet, and carried out some studies toward a painted response. The ships in Thông’s paintings are seen as huge, intimidating, disgusting beasts, and highlight the need for a transparent dialogue regarding such territorial claims. His response harmonizes with a foreign journalist’s observation:

As much respect as I had for the post war generation, its members seemed obedient to authority, almost passive in accepting the hand they had been dealt. But Western friends, who had been in Vietnam longer than I, said I had misread an important part of the culture: the Vietnamese will not be pushed around indefinitely, by foreigners or their rulers.6

Phạm Huy Thông does not simply make beautiful images; he poses questions and raises issues with his art. He promotes a political agenda by utilizing an ability to communicate through his artistic activity in the manner of ‘artivism’ (combination of “art” and “activism”),7 which was defined as:

The artivist merges commitment to freedom and justice with the pen, the lens, the brush, the voice, the body, and the imagination. The artivist knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation.8

Phạm Huy Thông artivism is clearly recognizable through his Strange Dreams, and emphasizes his commitment to social commentary.

Boitran Huynh-Beattie, PhD
Independent Curator and Art Historian, Vietnamese Art
Asialink Writing Resident, 2011

1Philip Shenon, “Success Overnight, in a Sense: Vietnam’s Artists in Vogue”, The New York Times, Nov. 29, 1994, p. 15.
2Brotherhood series were exhibited at the Bui Gallery, Hanoi. For more information, see Joyce Fan, “Pham Huy Thong: the Dong Bao Series”, Pham Huy Thong (Hanoi: The Bui Gallery, 2010) pp. 9-11.
3“Independence – Freedom – Happiness” is a compulsory phrase to be the heading of every formal document and letter in Vietnam.
4Peter Sis, “My Life with Censorship”, Bookbird, 2009, V. 47, Is. 3, pp. 42-45.
5See: “Vietnam identifying strange ship that hit Vietnamese fishing boat” on http://www.qdnd.vn/qdndsite/vi-VN/61/72/182/155/160/84267/Default.aspx
6David Lamb, Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns, (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), p. 168
7http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artivism
8M. K. Asante Jr., It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), p. 203.