by Huynh Boi Tran
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 socialist oriented
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.
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 masses. 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.
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” 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.
Pham 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”), 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.
Pham 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