Spotlight on Lê Thúy: Sovereign Asian Art Prize Interview

This interview with Lê Thúy is part of a series of interviews highlighting the shortlisted artists for The 2022 Sovereign Asian Art Prize – the 18th edition of Asia’s most prestigious prize for contemporary artists. Selected from over 400 entries, the finalists hail from 16 countries and regions across Asia-Pacific. Of the artists, 27 are new to The Prize – appearing in the shortlist for the first time. Read on to discover more about the finalists, their key points of inspiration, and why it is important to champion the work of artists from Asia-Pacific.


Lê Thúy (Vietnam) was shortlisted for her work ‘Garden of Eden’. The now silenced instrument, with its veneer of loss and loneliness, stands in quiet testament to those people of no status, who have no voice.


Where did you come across the Dan Tranh instrument – ​​and what drew you to it as a surface for art creation?

A few years ago I went to say goodbye to a friend who was leaving the city life for a quiet life. I found the ‘Dan tranh’ amongst her discarded things. It was once a beloved object, now broken with rusted strings and rotted pegs. I could not help but admire the workmanship of the master craftsman who made it. I have never heard its sound but I imagined the lovely tunes it would have made.

The fine decorations and detailing with mother of pearls, the bridge, the pegs speak of the talent of the master craftsman. Now lying broken and unloved amongst other broken and unloved things, it was a mournful sight. At the same time, I mourned for the wasted talent of a master craftsman, I mourned for the forgotten traditions no longer appreciated by my generation. I brought the broken ‘Dan tranh’ back to my studio and placed it where I had to see it every day, until I could find an inspiration worthy of its beauty.


How did you find the experience of working with such tragic subject matter?

I am haunted by the particular event where 39 Vietnamese nationals died in a refrigeration truck outside Sussex, while being smuggled into the UK. For many weeks, I was unable to open my own fridge without thinking about it. The blast of cold air each time I open the fridge would make me imagine the horrors of their last moments.

I come from the same place as they. A poor, harsh land without resources and the only work available is toiling the land. And these farmers can no longer toil their lands due to many reasons, from natural to man-made. They were robbed or from their own accord, abandoned their only means of livelihood. They seek to turn their fortune quickly at any cost, leaving their homes to find a way out. These young lives probably didn’t appreciate the darkness that awaited them. But for their families, their clans, they accept any danger to escape poverty. I feel only pity for them and sympathise with their choices. Their deaths are like the sounds of a music instrument suddenly silenced. They should have had a right to enjoy their lives, the beautiful music. But suddenly they are dead bodies no longer capable of music.


What do you hope audiences will take away from your work?

This work was created during a time when darkness shrouded all of humanity. Pandemics, wars, refugees seeking safety and solace. Deaths arrive in ways that rob people of any chance of resistance. People living in isolation, isolated from their loved ones, from society, from nature. In the work “Garden of Eden”, I want the viewers to think about what sort of instrument this is? Why use a music instrument as a visual art medium? Why are the strings and pegs missing?… and from these questions, ponder what had happened to the ‘Dan tranh’ itself.

Just as these questions applied to the 39 unfortunate Vietnamese lives, to understand the tragedies of their lives. This ‘Dan tranh’, the garden, or the insignificant lives like the tiny skeleton of a mouse are witnesses to forsaken and neglect. There are many ways an artist can express herself. I choose to express the silence because sometimes the silence is truly deafening. Sometimes silence is the only voice we have left.


How important is it to support artists from Asia-Pacific?

Asia-Pacific is a diverse region with rich cultural and artistic traditions that have been historically under represented. Supporting artists in this region gives the artist community here a voice, a platform for their art to be seen, their voices to be heard and their presence to be felt on an otherwise poorly represented and misrepresented community and region.


To vote for Lê’work, click here. The most popular finalist will receive the Public Vote Prize and USD1,000.

To register interest in purchasing Lê’s artwork, please email Artwork sales will be launched in person and online during Art Central, from 26 – 29 May 2022. Proceeds will be spilt equally between the artist and charitable programmes.

‘Spotlight on Lê Thúy’ courtesy of Sovereign Asian Art Prize, May 2022