Trần Trọng Vũ – The Already Seen Never Seen

It was a mellow afternoon outside Le Van Mien street, still that iconic heat of Saigon, but became a lot milder thanks to a short but refreshing pour-down minutes before. As I entered the glass door into the elegant black painted art space of Vin Gallery, the first thing that emerged into my vision was a gigantic white wall positioned only two meters away from the entrance, with a still human figure pushing against the wall. On the other side of the wall stood a white hammer whose broken handle written “understandable” in red paint, separated into two halves: “under” and “standable”. It invoked the feeling of an extremely vulnerable and tottering structure, as well as the noticeable effort existing with the opposite momentum.

That was the gateway to the surrealistic world of Tran Trong Vu’s solo exhibition entitled “The Already Seen Never Seen”.

Tran Trong Vu is a Vietnamese artist currently based in Paris, who is the son of the famous Vietnamese writer/poet Tran Dan – a revolutionary figure of Vietnamese literature. Having his life and education in Vietnam prior to the following migration to French in 1987 to pursuit his studies abroad, Vu witnessed some of the most major changes in Vietnam society, including the Doi Moi period in 1986, and the normalization between Vietnam and the United States after 20 years of the on-end war that took place in 1995. Therefore, his experience varies between the Eastern and Western cultural and political context, which contributed to the vagueness and confusion toward his own identity as an exile Vietnamese artist. Consequently, Vu finds it difficult to divorce his attachment with the obsession of the war, as well as current changes within the Vietnamese society itself nowadays.

As I ventured further into the space, I encountered more of his multimedia paintings full of representational imageries that illustrate Vu’s confusion toward the past and the present. Being hung solely on the black surface near the entrance was an oil painting with a clear blue sky occupying the first half of it. Among the colorful field of flowers spotted several green-clothed soldiers, pointing guns directly at one another. It was a critical reflection toward the nation’s not-quite-easy-to-perceive part of history, where the Vietnamese were being under the inevitability of mutual elimination because of the differences in what they acquired as the ultimate “patriotism”.

Interestingly, some other works of the artist embraced the application of Photoshop editing that hybridized the traditional paintings and real images. The realistic elements in resonance with the dream-like environment surprisingly enhances the tremendous surrealistic aspect that challenged the absolutes in our mere perception, and what should have been re-investigated for renewed justification. Thereby, he spoke up for the to-be-seen being under the manipulation of censorship (which Tran Dan and Vu himself experienced quite often as artists); at the same time, he questioned the true freedom, where he could be settled with his own true self. Still, it is not, sadly, appeared to be found even within the land where he originated, as in one of his interview sections, Vu shared: “even before I left for France, I had always felt like an outsider wherever I was”. 

On the right side of the gallery space was a sequence of three like-structured paintings. Each of them depicted the image of a person posed identically: holding a saw, cutting through a certain kind of matter in different backgrounds: a golden frame, a green garden, a blue, and a punctured brick wall, signified a strong sense of alienation. Also excerpted from the aforementioned interview, Vu confessed his desperation and foolishness by clinging on the shattered memory of Hanoi, as well as the anxiety of confronting the chaotic realities in his motherland at the moment. As a result, the artist tried hard to escape from the (beautiful) long-gone past by breaking through the barriers between his multiple suppressed identities.

The moment I stepped closer toward the end of the room, I confronted a large-scale digital painting that depicted four men in black suit, standing among an overwhelming blue plastic-like ocean. It was not the first time those uncanny symbols presented in his works. According to UCLA Asia Pacific Center’s article, the blue shade in Vu’s painting represents memory and vagueness, and the men wearing suits symbolically described as the “epitome of conformity” – the sense of otherness. I directed my vision to the second large painting, which also consisted of several men in suits, holding guns, jumping up and down on a vibrant flower field. Despite not being conveyed in any clear extents, those imageries somewhat implied some kinds of exposed taboos – the controversy to be reconsidered and to be observed critically, in which the answer of Vu’s (and maybe our) own existential question might be responded.

There is something that always manifests in Tran Trong Vu’s artworks that would require us to constantly question our personal and collective history – what has led us to our current state of presence. In the end, it is always a necessity to comprehend the rooted attribution to our identity, and to what we believe to be “seen” but actually “never seen” since there are still many stories left untold.

Tran Trong Vu’s “The Already Seen Never Seen” is currently on view at Vin Gallery, 6 Le Van Mien, D.2, Thao Dien, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam until February 2020.

Find the links down below for further reading and references: