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Q&A: A History of Fading Colors — An Interview With Artist Quynh Lam

Nguyễn Đức Diễm Quỳnh (otherwise known as Quynh Lam) is a Vietnamese contemporary artist. She was trained early as a painter and was influenced by her family's traditional photography practices which tied her current practice with conceptual photography and archival projects.

Quynh graduated from the Fine Arts Association of Ho Chi Minh City in 2007 and from the University of Architecture of Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. After working in an architecture firm as a "day job" in order to support her independent art projects, her sensitivity to materials, spatial awareness, scale, and knowledge on lighting in architecture culminated in her later site-specific installation work. Her works have been on display in Vietnam and abroad. She's a recipient of the 2019 Art Future Prize in Taiwan. Recently, she presented her work at the International conference “Reviewing Black Mountain College 11,” and she was a Riedel fellow at the Ragdale Foundation (Illinois, US).

In this interview, we talked about her nostalgia, the fading colors of memory, and being torn between continents and perspectives.

For an artist who explores the concept of memory, I guess that situating your roots is something important. Could you tell me a bit about your family's and your own background?

I was born in Saigon in 1988, where I grew up with my parents, but the roots of my family are in Hanoi. I guess I also have roots in Hai Phong, but I'm not quite sure about it. My family moved to south-central Vietnam in 1954 when my father was one year old. For a long time, I felt like I didn't have any answer to the many questions I had about my relatives when I was a kid. I also have family in France and in the US. I would then wonder: why are they there? For example, I know that a part of my family is in France as someone went there to study during the 1930s. Then, that part of the family progressively lost the cultural connection with Vietnam. I saw them once or twice in Saigon, and I felt like they are so French! As for me, I always feel like I'm in between many things. When I go to Hanoi, people tell me I'm not from there because of my voice, but when I am in Saigon, people would assume the contrary! I've got this feeling that I don't belong anywhere, or at least, not to where my grandparents were born.

Quynh Lam was born in Saigon, but has roots in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Quynh Lam.

In Saigon, I started to study fine arts, but my parents, like many, wanted me to get a degree in a “safer” field, at least a degree from which I could get a job with a stable income. I think they didn't really know what being an artist actually meant, just as I didn't. I asked the mother of a friend of mine how to survive as an artist, and she told me of her own father's career, who had to be versatile in order to make a living. So I decided to get a degree in a creative field, namely architecture. It contributed greatly to developing my artistic sensibility. It helped me understand many things about the use of space and materials, as well as how it affects people, how it creates emotions.

For instance, one of my very early interest was about “nhà rường” in Hue, a form of traditional architecture that is now progressively disappearing. Not many people have maintained the skills to build them and a lot of them got destroyed during and after the war. These “nhà rường” were a typical example of how you can create a mindset with architecture. I first worked as an interior designer and got involved in many hospitality projects from 2012 until 2018, so I got to reflect a lot about what “aesthetic moods” can be like.

Could you tell me about the topics you're willing to explore in your current art practice?

To put it in as few words as possible, I'd say I'm trying to explore the many links that exist between arts, nature, history and memory. At the moment, I'm reading about eco-feminism and I think this concept has got a great influence on how I see things.

History and memory are definitely at the core of my practice. Since we talk about how a society remembers its past, I recently got struck by the fate of French colonial buildings in my country. Between 2012 and 2015, I did several sketches of many of those buildings in Saigon, sometimes very meticulous, sometimes just to try to seize their atmosphere. I also did one of my very first artist performance there. Not only is it destroyed now, but when I do research about it on the internet, which I did this morning, I can not find any good article or relevant information about that building. It feels like when something disappears physically, its remnants are also erased. It's the same with “Thuong Xa Tax” as well as many other French colonial buildings in the city.

A street sketch by Quynh Lam of a building in Saigon. Photo courtesy of Quynh Lam.

Is there a form of nostalgia in your work? Are you trying to find something that doesn't exist anymore?

Nostalgia, I love that word! An artist friend of mine recently visited me in my studio. She saw the flower pigments that I use by scratching them on the walls. The color will then slowly decay, depending on its sunlight exposure. My friend would look at that wall, smell a hint of that decaying fragrance and then turn to me. The word she used was precisely "nostalgia."

I've got a personal experience about that. The first time I came to Vietnam was in 1998. I was only seven years old then. The feeling I have is that Saigon, back then, had a very different color from the city I found when I got to live there as an adult.

Perhaps it's the mural paintings, just like the Post Office whose yellow is now so flashy? Joke aside, there is something about the harmony of the city, about the tons of color, that has definitely changed. Just look at the tourist sites and the way they have been renovated, either in HCMC or in other cities, like the citadel in Hue where many buildings are now gilded. With the colors they used, I sometimes have the feeling that I'm in a Chinese drama movie. It used to look very natural 10 or 20 years ago, but by trying to make it more flashy for tourists, those sites have lost a bit of their beauty and substance. They now look a bit artificial in my opinion.

I like to think of my own palette as very close to natural colors. Oil, acrylic, all those are chemical and sometimes not that good for one's health. What I'm looking for, as I said earlier, is the “smell” of decay. From the cycle of life of plants, of vegetation, namely sowing, blooming, and rotting, we can draw a parallel with human's life. For colors, it's very subtle, but I like to look at that slow and gentle decomposition as the time goes by. It's something you can observe in the works of some of the Indochinese painters of French colonial time. The slow and nearly invisible effect of time. A painter like Lê Phổ often represents women and flowers in his work. The symbolism of such a motif is definitely something I want to explore.

Since we are here, could you please tell me of your project “History of Colours,” which you did at Vincom Center for Contemporary Art (VCCA) in Hanoi in 2019?

I aimed to do a site-specific installation that was not only conceptual. Not solely about the process, but something that would be a multi-sensorial experience for the viewer. Every day, I'd go to the Quang Ba flower market in Hanoi, and bring a whole load of flowers, mainly chrysanthemums, back from Ho Tay to VCCA on the back of a xe lam. Something funny is that the driver I hired had a logo that says “Socialist Republic of Viet Nam” on his xe lam, and that he was a veteran of the northern army who took part in the events in Saigon on April 30, 1975. As we worked together every morning, he told me a lot about his past experiences, and it was strange how it would resonate with the installation I intended to do.

Riding on a xe lam with a war veteran. Photo courtesy of Quynh Lam.

Chrysanthemums are flowers that are very present in the life of Hanoians, as we offer them to the dead, and more. I was inspired by a painting called 'Jeunes filles au jardin fleuri' by Mai Trung Thứ. One of my purposes was to evoke women's labor in Vietnam. At the Quang Ba market, of course, but also in a broader perspective. For instance, I was assisted by Hanoian women for that installation. Besides, the show took place in December, quite close to Tết when flowers also play a huge role as presents. Another part of my inspiration was how the pigments used in the traditional Dong Ho paintings were made: basically from natural components such as burnt bamboo leaves for black or cajuput leaves for green.

My point with this one was to bring my “palette,” the materials I most commonly use, into a more modern setting. The stems, the petals and the smell of them as the flowers would rot over time: all of that was part of my installation, for both the symbol and the sensory experience of the viewer. The show lasted from December to February, so after the opening, the chrysanthemums would die but I planned to leave them there until the end.

Quynh Lam working on “History of Colours” at the VCCA. Photo courtesy of Quynh Lam.

How did the public react?

The feedback I got would pinpoint the nostalgic dimension of such an installation. To the audience, the smell of the flowers getting stronger and stronger and the visual impression of the decaying colors were like getting more distant from Tết over the year while still remembering its atmosphere. In my artist talk, the day after the opening, people told me they had never seen a work of such scale in Vietnam before: a multisensory installation including smell, color from flower pigments, the texture of flowers, and the whole body of flowers in the exhibition space — perhaps they had basically never seen a time-based work. Somebody came to talk to me at the opening and told me it was like being lost in someone's dream. People would also take pictures and comment on the VCCA's Facebook page. So I think we can say that the reception was very positive.

Photo courtesy of Vincom Center for Contemporary Art Hanoi.

How does it feel like, being a Vietnamese artist working and living in the US? Do you engage with other Vietnamese artists there? Is there a community of them?

It's hard to tell as I have been staying here for just three years, although I tried to make many trips to many states to open my eyes and my mind, to see what the art scene in the US is like. From my own observation, I see that most artists in the US are struggling more than in Vietnam, especially to survive in big cities like New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, etc. It's tough there. Most artists are working as professors in art schools while doing their personal work. Even if I am in a graduate program, I still have to take a teaching job as a graduate teaching assistant to maintain my full scholarship with my host institution and also get a small income to purchase my art materials.

I am not sure about the idea of a strong community of Vietnamese artists in the US, but I heard about the strong connection between Vietnamese-American writers and poets, especially in New York and in California. I guess that being an artist in America is a busier life than being an artist in Vietnam. I see people coming to the shows, but after the opening, they'd leave very quickly, catch up with their other activities. It's not really like in Vietnam where young artists would usually gather for drinking and talking. Here, if you don't make a plan beforehand, there is no chance to catch up/meet up with someone. Until now, I haven't known any Vietnamese artist popular in the US. People in the US may be familiar with some Vietnamese-American artists though. And from my understanding, these artists all work separately on their own projects. I assume it's because of the geographical distance in America. It's not always easy to connect here.

I don't engage with such a thing as a Vietnamese community of artists in the US. Or rather, I didn't really get the chance to do so, due to the fact that my state (Tennessee) is majority white. There are not many Asian people living in the American South. I don't like to follow anyone else's footsteps so I picked this place far from the hustle of big cities. Such a quiet environment is very beneficial to my work.

Quynh Lam in her studio. Photo courtesy of Quynh Lam.

Are you “under influence” just like some would say Vietnamese artists of the first half of the 20th century like Lê Phổ, Vũ Cao Đàm, or Mai Trung Thứ were influenced by French techniques and their French teachers, like Victor Tardieu or Joseph Inguimberty ?

Well, it's definitely a way for me to study further the work of American artists that have had a huge influence on me, like Cy Twombly. I borrowed a lot from Abstract Expressionism, as you can see on the walls of the installation at VCCA in Hanoi. Cy Twombly would paint flowers too, but what is special about my piece is that I painted flowers with flowers' petals, not with oil painting.

Mai Trung Thứ, Jeunes filles au jardin fleuri.

However, my influences are much broader than that. I love French artist Sophie Calle, German artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl, Danish (of Vietnamese origins) artist Danh Vo, as well as American photographer Cindy Sherman or Belgian multidisciplinary artist Francis Alÿs, and I'm currently exploring more about video work and working on my new video under the guidance of Yael Bartana, an Israeli artist I feel what you say when you mention Lê Phổ, Vũ Cao Đàm or Mai Trung Thứ, but isn't it always the case for artists who are set elsewhere from where they're from, trying to get new inspirations? Cy Twombly was an American citizen but he spent most of his life in Rome, Italy, and he took a lot of inspiration from that geographical situation.

If there is one thing about me that's changing, it's that I've become more critical, in a positive sense. With the way that the university courses are structured here, I feel like we're always challenged, that we need to question what we believe we know. I believe it's going to be positive for my practice. In the meantime, I see Vietnam changing from afar. It goes so fast. Buildings. Colonial villas disappearing. Roads. Even the way of life. I don't say it's a good or a bad thing, but seen from my distant point of view, it seems a bit of a radical and sweeping change.

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