Fresh Faces: Vietnamese artist Quỳnh Lâm

On Vietnamese traditions and navigating censorship
By David Willis

Quỳnh Lâm in the studio. Image courtesy of the artist.
Quỳnh Lâm in the studio. Image courtesy of the artist.


M’s Fresh Faces is where we profile an emerging artist from the region every month and speak to them about how they kick-started their career, how they continue to sustain their practice and what drives them as artists. Read our profile on Vietnamese artist Quỳnh Lâm here


You have a background in Architecture. How does this relate to your work as an artist?
I have always wanted to be a visual artist, but I knew that pursuing it as a career might be difficult, especially in the beginning. I decided to compromise and study at the University of Architecture in Ho Chi Minh City. This way, I could work in a visual field, but have some practical opportunities and financial security.

It taught me how to collaborate with others. As an introverted person, I tended to stay in my own world and work on my own projects, mostly in isolation. My family, however, didn’t want me to lock myself in the room as an artist. I had to think of a better plan to balance my personal and professional lives. I decided to pursue my degree in architecture and interior design in order to have a stable job, which I acquired after graduation at the architecture firm Design Worldwide Partnership (DWP), where I worked with a diverse group of people from around the world. 

From this, I could take care of myself and invest in my art with my own income. Moreover, I gained some benefit from studying and practicing professionally, such as when I later designed the layout for my own artist book. More generally, I gleaned a keener understanding of composition to space, lighting and sound to my video works and site-specific installations, and also how to manage time-based work.

Quỳnh Lâm, 'In Memoriam', 2010, performance view at KCBT. Image courtesy of the artist.
Quỳnh Lâm, ‘In Memoriam’, 2010, performance view at KCBT. Image courtesy of the artist.


One of your first art performances took place at Khoan Cắt Bê Tông, the warehouse art space and collective active in Saigon from 2010 to 2013. Please tell us about that performance.
‘Khoan Cắt Bê Tông (KCBT)’ is named after the cement breaking company and the space came from the idea of making art outside the studio. My first performance at KCBT, ‘In Memoriam’ (2010), built upon an earlier performance action at Eden Mall Saigon, an old piece of French colonial architecture which many Saigonese people have memories of. In my childhood memory, they did puppet shows there, and gave balloons to kids after the show. On one of the last days before the building was shut down, I held chrysanthemum flowers and walked around it under the rain, across the main streets Lê Thánh Tôn, Đồng Khởi, Lý Tự Trọng and Hai Bà Trưng in District 1 in Saigon. In the language of flowers, chrysanthemum represents mourning. 

For the show at KCBT, I painted over a projection of the performance documentation, with a recording of my voice playing in the background. This adds another layer to the first performance. I erased and repainted over my image, before using rainwater saved from that day to wash the wall, erasing the memory. 


You have used flowers and other organic materials in your work frequently ever since then. What role have such materials played in your work recently?
Many Vietnamese traditions and art forms incorporate flowers and natural pigments, such as Đông Hồ paintings and I am interested to explore them in a contemporary setting. I use materials such as flowers, leaves, fruits, and vegetables, traditionally associated with “women’s work”. In my work, these materials are used to question the roles of women in Vietnamese society as well as cultural links concerning women and nature. I have also experimented with organic pigments as a way to talk about Vietnam’s complicated postwar history, a decaying society after a tornado of political change and the process of rebirth. 

I’ve continued these themes and material explorations in my MFA of Studio Art at the School of Art, University of Tennessee, in Knoxville Tennessee, USA. I was assigned this host institution because I spoke about the spirit of women artists at Black Mountain College during my Fulbright interview. Being located nearby, in Knoxville, I am able to travel back and forth for my research on the legendary institution. Black Mountain College is renowned for its experimental and interdisciplinary approach, in which art is created more democratically and globally. Last year, I was one of the artists who gave a lecture at the Black Mountain College Museum’s international conference. 

Quỳnh Lâm, 'I Am Not a Spy', 2019, performance view at Gallery 1010. Image courtesy of the artist.
Quỳnh Lâm, ‘I Am Not a Spy’, 2019, performance view at Gallery 1010. Image courtesy of the artist.


Quỳnh Lâm, 'History of Colour', 2019, exhibition installation view at Vincom Contemporary Art Center. Image courtesy of VCCA.
Quỳnh Lâm, ‘History of Colour’, 2019, exhibition installation view at Vincom Contemporary Art Center. Image courtesy of VCCA.


Decaying flowers also played a central role in your recent installation at the VCCA in Hanoi last year, where you made some Cy Twombly-inspired paintings on the walls, and heaped piles of flowers from the Hanoi flower market on the floor. What were the process and thoughts that went into that work?
It’s true that Cy Twombly influenced that work, but in fact, this site-specific installation was a substitute for my performance ‘I Am Not a Spy’ (2019), originally staged at Gallery 1010 in Knoxville. In the performance, I wrote the words “I am not a spy” over and over on the walls of the gallery space, while the audience was only able to watch over CCTV or through the window from outside. I could not make that kind of work in Vietnam because of the tense relationship and misunderstandings between local Vietnamese people and those abroad. Therefore, for the piece in Vietnam I used flowers as a visual language, instead of text. Again, I am a person who is always making work in two versions, as a way of seeing from both sides. So for me, the homage to Twombly was an innovation to deal with certain limitations in Vietnam.

There were three performative actions involved in the VCCA piece, titled ‘Flower Obscured’ (2019). Firstly, I invited some young Hanoian women to interact with my piece. I described and showed them how I wanted the flower arrangement to look and they made it very gentle and elegant, the typical fruits of women’s labour. The second action was more aggressive. I invited some male Hanoian artists to try to destroy, dump, and step strongly on the flowers, like an aftermath of men’s work. The third came about by way of censorship, as the museum management came to check out the installation, and required me to remove some decaying flowers. They suggested that I kept only the fresh and dried flowers, and remove the stinky rotten flowers. Around half of the flowers from the early stage were thrown out in a collective clean-up.

Quỳnh Lâm, 'Landscape of the Dead 1889', 2018, decaying pigments on paper, 51 x 122cm (triptych). Image courtesy of the artist.
Quỳnh Lâm, ‘Landscape of the Dead 1889’, 2018, decaying pigments on paper, 51 x 122cm (triptych). Image courtesy of the artist.


You also have works on paper depicting historical sites in Vietnam that were “painted”, so to speak, using mould. How does the use of mould as your medium relate to the subject matter in those works?
The ‘Mausoleum’ drawing series are based on my uncle’s photographs from the 1950s, taken in front of the tombs of the kings (Thieu Tri, Dong Khanh, Khai Dinh) in Hue, a citadel which housed the old capital of Vietnam. Those drawings are a sort of third space, emerging from twists and distortions between my memory and my uncle’s memory. By using decaying plant-based pigments, I think the materials reveal the mausoleum’s deterioration in reality. 


Fresh Faces courtesy of Art And Market 

July 30, 2020