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Just by Being

November 26, 2017
November 3, 2017
Nguyễn Đức Phương

'Just by Being', consisting of a series of paintings on old books, pharmacopoeia or old bibles by Tày minority people from Tay Bac (Northwest mountainous areas of Vietnam) using natural pigment originated from soil or flowers and plants; and a series of 9 sculptures made out of paper and clay, acts as a chronicle of a vanishing culture, but also brings hope and life to the ruins of time.

* This is part of Manzi’s art programme supported by CDEF of the Danish Embassy in Vietnam.


An article for the exhibiton written by Đỗ Tường Linh (Hanoi, November 2017)

In his first solo exhibition, Nguyen Duc Phuong takes the audience on a journey through color and the different nuances of paper as material. The very first impressions of Phuong’s works could be seen as Orientalist or spiritual, but when one takes time to examine Phuong’s method and process more closely, it is clear that a lot of effort and patience has been put into the making of this body of work to reverse that notion of thinking. The result is a collection of vibrant and poetic explorations on paper.

Trained in a strong academic foundation and Western aesthetics at the Vietnamese Fine Art Academy, Phuong spent his time after graduation focusing on experimentation, eschewing participation in artist groups or exhibitions. Growing up during Vietnam’s transitional period of modernization and urbanization in the 90s, Phuong’s work is tied to the changes he experienced living in suburban Northern Vietnamas a child. Phuong experiments with simple and everyday objects such as paper, earth, and wood, and is inspired by the tales and oral sayings that nurtured him in his daily life.

In the process of creating work for this exhibition, Phuong has gone beyond the scope of his early career experimentation with childhood environment and has embarked on journeys to the Northwestern highland to seek the disappearing oral stories from local villages. He has collected ancient texts from different regions and cherished them like living souls. These old texts were mostly written in the old Sino-Chinese alphabet, but in the version of the local language even with the help of Sino-Chinese researchers, no one can understand. Phuong finds a way to blow fresh air into those documents through adding drawings. In all of Phuong’s work, the way he sees the world is saturated with nostalgia, decadence; a mourning for things past but also full of Joie de vivre. Destruction and decay are inevitable in our existence,but they provide the possibility for rebirth. In the series of nine sculptures made out of paper and remains from a burnt stilt house, Phuong didn’t miss out any potential of giving birth for any kind of material. The immateriality and ephemerality in the material that he created is invisible: there lies that contrast and fragile border between death and life. The human beings in Phuong’s works are small, but not invisible. Their presence plays subtly with the details in the paintings. His works are not overwhelming in terms of space or visual spectacle, but rather deliver a subtle private message. His series of small book-sized works can only be viewed by one person at a time, creating a personal space for the viewers to imagine the many worlds each piece contains. 

The artistic and political attitude in Phuong’s artwork is reminiscent of the Italian Arte Povera movement from the 1960s and 70s, when artists utilized natural materials and everyday objects to express simple messages that reflected the rise of DIY spirit and rebellion against consumerism, war and capitalism. Overall, that nonchalant, carefree and simple spirit in Phuong’s artistic creations is his statement: Just by being.