Pro Se, latin for ‘to self-represent’, is the latest work by contemporary Vietnamese-American artist Phi Phi Oanh. This series of work, or site-adaptive installation, is a beautiful rethinking of the Vietnamese lacquer painting tradition.
The art and technique of Vietnamese lacquer is sophisticated, delicate and time consuming, requiring a certain amount of attention and dedication in order to produce the brilliance of colour, precision of line and depth of image typical of the best from this art. Phi Phi had learnt her skill from the Hanoi artisans under a Fulbright Grant in 2004, an experience that decisively changed her visual form.
Site adaptive installations is a relatively new term that is gaining popularity in recent years. With the increasing development artistic practice, artists are beginning to take charge of the method of presenting their works with greater sensitivity than before, a phenomena that Phi Phi and her work are part of. With this work, Pro Se, what Phi Phi emphasises is its immersive quality.
Pro Se is made up of more than 30 objects that are works in their own right. Her interactive ‘tablets’, for instance, are meant to be examined individually. The other ‘tablets’ on the table are merely contextual backdrop. However, the individual ‘tablets’, while visually stunning, does not convey the conceptual impact present in having 8 pieces together on a white island table, each balancing on its own stand.
The experience of beautiful consumption in an electronic store and its accompanying baggage all comes into play in Pro Se. While interacting with the ‘tablets’, we can look over at how the visitor opposite or next to us are interacting with theirs, learning from their mistakes and copying their motions, just like in an electronic store. We learn pro se, or to self-represent.
In the same way, the objects on the wall do not carry the same impact when displayed on its own. Examined individually, they are no different from the table works anyway; each object is 24 x 18.5 cm and feature the tablet form. Except you cannot touch them. A black line on the floor distances us from the wall. It seems like a rather strange elevation of select tablets from the eight on the table (following on the metaphor of the electronic store, are the ones on the table refurbished?).
Phi Phi explains, “This series is inspired by photo streams found on everyone’s digital device and include mis-taken selfies, vacation photos in front of iconic locations, pictures of food, or generally images that we collect because somehow they impact our lives.” Visually, the imagery Phi Phi has produced for the wall and table works are divided by the intimacy of the subject matter. The closely installed wall hung ‘tablets’, when placed in visual relation to the table ‘tablets’, should remind us of the intimately delightful images that we browse on our own devices. There is some link between the well ordered wall hang and the scroll of images at the bottom of our screens in the iOS’s Photo app. Instead of tapping to zoom, however, the user should step forward in the physical space of the gallery to examine the work in close (but distanced) quarters.
Two other sections make up the totality of Pro Se. Next to the table is a cabinet vitrine displaying lacquer painting on glass which plays with perception and technology like the magnifying glass. In a separated corner is projection of lacquer slides on a self-invented machine called ‘Lacquersopes’.
As if you did need another reason other than Yayoi Kusama to visit National Gallery Singapore, Phi Phi Oanh’s work on the same floor is definitely worth catching. As part of NGS’s declared geographical area of interest, Southeast Asia, Phi Phi’s work, which is being exhibited alongside Nguyen Gia Tri’s Les Fées, is much more interesting to examine in relation to the gallery’s curatorial strength.
Radiant Material closes this weekend.
Radiant Material: A dialogue in Vietnamese lacquer painting
5 June – 3 September 2017
Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery C
Free with any admission ticket
National Gallery Singapore
1 Saint Andrew’s Road, #01–01
+65 6271 7000
Sundays to Thursdays, 10am – 7pm
Fridays and Saturdays, 10am – 10pm