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Velvet Chains and Epaulet Couch: How a Curious Artist Plays With Symbols

What would it mean to sit on the shoulder-attached epaulet of a military uniform that denotes rank?

Towards Realist Socialization (trông thật khác, nhìn thực giống), an art exhibit by Ngô Đình Bảo Châu, asks this very question with the piece 'Epaulet.' The cement bench rests at the entrance to Galerie Quynh, where the show is on display until October 3, and serves as an introduction to many of the themes it contains.

Châu explained to Saigoneer when we visited last month that by taking the image of authority and enlarging it to the size and function of a couch, it becomes playful and comical, and thus forces one to contemplate one’s relationship to symbols of power. The couch also commingles notions of interior and exterior life via its concrete structure inlaid with leather cushions. Constructing the piece of furniture, which is so central to most homes’ living rooms, with a hard surface typical of public spaces invites ruminations on what distinctions exist between personal and collective experiences and what forces establish those delineations.

The couch rests in front of a repeating film that plays images of monuments dedicated to heroes and victory while we hear the voices of wives and mothers who lost sons in the war tell their stories. Then, the channel changes to the football matches that have captivated the country in recent years. In this way, it juxtaposes the somber, the patriotic and the joyful along with the collective and the personal. Châu says the piece, titled 'I Hold the Remote in My Hand,' also reminds her of the televisions people sometimes leave on in the backgrounds of their living rooms, “simply to hear human sounds.”

The ten pieces that occupy Galerie Quynh’s three floors are united around the central conceit of one’s home, with a space dedicated to different rooms in a house: living room, kitchen, altar room and bedroom. One of the most striking aspects of the exhibit is the great variety of materials Châu uses, including wood, fabric, film and paper. She explained to Saigoneer: "Every time I try a new material and I fail, I tell myself a hundred times, 'next time, just do paintings.' But in the end, there are many works with completely different materials; I couldn't stop. It's a natural thing that I feel I have to try different materials to achieve the goal behind the artwork."

So in the absence of material cohesion, what seems to connect many of the works is her interest in dichotomies and the layering of contrasts for the purpose of re-examining familiar symbols. For example, the lone piece in the altar room is a large resin star that features copper eyes placed on it. She explains that a falling star is an important symbol in religion and politics, such as its use on flags. But she subverts the concept by having the eyes that cover it remain closed so they cannot absorb any of the light being emitted, and thus become metaphorically unable to take in wisdom or reflect lost belief in an idea or institution.

Another object that relishes in opposites is the large chain made out of embroidered velvet titled 'Die-In-Pillow-Chain.' The conventionally hard, cold item takes on new meaning when constructed out of a soft, warm fabric. Châu explains that unlike the enlarging of the epaulet, which evokes humor, this piece is foreboding and intimidating thanks to its size, despite it essentially being a large pillow. 

The flowers embroidered on the pillows are a recurring theme in Châu’s work. A piece in the main room, 'Lost Portrait - Altar,' for example, consists of a handcrafted wooden altar with a piece of industrial steel plating inside that Châu has acid etched to resemble the flowers often seen on podiums during official events and speeches. She says that the piece concerns itself with the complicated interplay of rituals, religion and politics. 

To see the flowers in 'Lost Portrait,' one must peer into the wall-mounted altar, which forces viewers to assume an engaged and almost whimsical pose. Despite the large and weighty themes she engages with, there is a certain lightheartedness that Châu seems to want viewers to arrive at her pieces with.

Although Châu can provide detailed and thoroughly thoughtful explanations of her artistic choices, some of which this article attempts to transmit, curator Arlette Quỳnh-Anh Trần purposefully provides minimal material in the program guide. Rather, she wants visitors to feel free of influence on their first encounter. Only after they have explored the gallery should they read what she calls “not an explanatory text, but rather an open-ended proposal to read the exhibition.” 

Such permission to interpret at one’s pace is exemplified by 'Die-In-Pillow-Chain.' Some may see the velvet chain and think about the connections that exist to form our society, while others, as Châu shared recently happened, will associate the work with marriage. Speaking to this range of reactions free of Châu's intentions, she told us: “After the exhibition, many friends shared with me their thoughts that the living room is impressive, the altar room bewilders them, the kitchen brings a familiarity, and the bedroom is haunting. They're all what one person feels upon stepping into the different rooms. What more can I ask for?” She also noted that one friend told her that it reminded her of wallpaper elements in northern homes that she wasn’t familiar with, and thus could never have intended.

The piece 'The Lost Portrait - Altar.'

Visitors will certainly have different takeaways from 'The Extracts.' The five paintings feature five scenes, including a rural duck farmer, a depiction of school violence, and the curtain that is placed behind many official speeches or inaugurations. Placed in the “Bedroom” portion of the collection, Arlette says that it is a bit like a diary that one keeps, but in this case, the details concern not an individual’s life, but Vietnam’s collective experiences. The meaning one draws from them will largely depend on their personal experiences. 

Another piece, 'Uniform - Wallpaper,' can produce a similar expanse of interpretations depending on what a person brings to the experience through 40 separate paintings that function as wallpaper with overlapping and layered woodblock prints of a child saluting; the logo for a popular mid-1980s television show called Những Bông Hoa Nhỏ; young bamboo, which is a symbol of the HCMC Youth Society; and silhouettes of smoke, fire and buildings. One’s association with these images varies greatly based on age, nationality and background. To Vietnamese, it could conjure nostalgic reminiscing on one’s childhood and the prominent place collectivism holds informing one’s self-identity. A foreigner may not recognize some of the subtle images, but still be drawn in by the work’s beauty while making connections based on their own cultures. 

Will everyone grasp how Châu used block printing on 'Uniform - Wallpaper' as an homage to the propaganda posters that have so powerfully helped shaped Vietnamese society? Will they make the connection that the layering of images is a metaphor for how one’s mind makes, stores and navigates memories? Perhaps not, but isn't that the joy of discovering art? There is no singular, central meaning, and everyone can get something different from it.

Châu is quick to note that despite certain local specifics and insider references, her work should have universal appeal. She explained: "A farmer or a duck is a common image in rural Vietnam, and I think this is the same elsewhere, even though the skin tone or agricultural tool can be different in other regions and countries. Even though I haven't been to many places in the world, I still recognize that rural America is as melancholy when the sun sets as in Vietnam, as I feel that similar closeness when a vegetable seller in China smiles at me.”

Châu (left) and Arlette (right).

Châu spent five years working on Towards Realist Socialization and could not, of course, anticipate it would be unveiled during a global pandemic that is forcing people to spend more time at home. Asked about any new context she sees the exhibit situated in, she said: “I think these common issues always exist in the human society in different forms, when we live under the same roof, community, country, on the same Earth. I've contemplated on it for many years, and now it's more pronounced because of a virus that we can't see with our naked eyes.”

In the open-ended proposal that accompanies the show, Trần includes a quote by Trịnh Bá Đĩnh from the book Từ kí hiệu: “Cultural memories are preserved in symbols. In moving through the layers of culture, symbols both lose meaning and accumulate new ones - not only from traditions but also from other cultures.” Indeed, Towards Realist Socialization provides a great opportunity to replace old meanings with new ones and re-examine our connections to the symbols we take for granted in our everyday lives. It’s an invitation to see the world with fresh eyes.

Towards Realist Socialization is available for viewing from August 14 to October 3 at Galerie Quynh. Please make an appointment prior to your visit.

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