Manzi Art Space, Hanoi.

4 MARCH - 3 APRIL 2017

Neo lại Kỳ lâu – Lingering at the Peculiar Pavilion


Lâu: a pavilion structure often erected in the middle of a lake for sightseeing purposes.

Kỳ: A game usually played between two people, each person has a set number of pieces with the goal to capture the opponent’s strongest piece (chess, chinese chess) or to secure the most amount of space on the board (Go)

Kỳ: flag

Kỳ: strange, peculiar


‘Lingering at the Peculiar Pavilion’ is artist Vo Tran Chau’s first solo exhibition. Since the 6-month long residency at Sàn Art Laboratory in mid-2015, Tran Chau has been tracing a few amongst the descendants of the Nguyen dynasty (1802-2945) to create ‘Water-image’. This work remakes Long cổn, the emperor’s ritual garment[1], by sowing together patches of the descendants’ clothing. Continuing this research, linking the past historical context with the present, Tran Chau develops a body of work consisting of embroidered paintings, fabric sculptures, and a unique form of mosaic tapestry/painting not often seen in Vietnam. This solo exhibition creates an illusory space between forgetting and remembering, between current affairs and autobiographical elements, to create discourse on the psychology of our very era that seems to embody a recurrent uneasiness, looping between the past and future.


The Nguyen’s court was erected in Hue. Geographically speaking, the city lies in the central of Vietnam today. If you type “Hue” into any search engine, you can see images of the old citadel, the tombs, pagodas, and temples along the banks of Perfume River. Visitors can buy seats on boats with attaching dragon heads to float downstream and visit these monuments. There is also the option of listening to “Hue court music”, now a World Immaterial Cultural Heritage[2]. Here, history is condensed into a few fliers and postcards, bearing the value of admission tickets and reenacted in costume games in which one can rent a fake royal outfit, sit on a fake throne, and have one’s photos taken. The city is slow and sad like a forever-alone auntie (and unbearably so when it continuously rains). Here, a turbulent historic period that has shaped not only the city but the nation’s current state has been slowly stripped off its physical symbols. In ‘Lingering at the Peculiar Pavilion’ exhibition, Tran Chau guides us on an imaginary excursion to an alternative Hue where she struggles to fill up a number of symbols, starting with “Giải Trãi” (Qilin).


According to Chinese mythology, giải trãi (qilin) is a mythical animal able to differentiate between right and wrong, and although aggressive, would only attack wrongdoers and never an innocent person. Thus, their images often adorned the official outfits of court mandarins who oversee law and order. The second emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, emperor Minh Mang (1791-1841), had this mythical creature casted, but modified it from an animal that was half lion, half dragon into an animal resembling an antelope.[3] According to Tran Chau, this action signifies “an intent to depart from Chinese influences”, a process that has never been simple.[4] Tran Chau’s “Giải Trãi”, compared to the original sculpture is bigger, lighter, and looks more like a sitting dog. This second modification signals a subtle agreement with the Emperor’s decision, as well as hammers the first nail into the potent boundary between symbolism and reality,[5] a thread the artist continues to pursue throughout the exhibition. The following work, ‘Long Tinh Kỳ (Dragon Star Flag)’, is a replica of the first flag of the Nguyen Dynasty, used from 1802 to 1883. Just within 2 years 1883-1885, Vietnam saw the rise and fall of 4 different emperors,[6] 3 installed and overturned by the imperial court, the fourth, due to opposition to the French, was banished to Algeria until death. Also within 1883, Vietnam was sliced into 3 regions under the French Protectorate.[7]Dragon Star Flag” at a glance seems like the perfect symbol for this situation: its patchwork conspicuous, the background consisting of 3 pieces instead of one, their colors diverting considerably from the original. Hung under an antique wooden bar, it looks more like a sad piece of fabric than a flag that embodies the pride of a nation. This patchwork covers a historical period, with the grief of a divided nation embroidered onto it. When asked why she was interested in discussing this particular historical period, Tran Chau said there are other periods that are equally intriguing but the symbols associated with those period can easily be misinterpreted due to their resemblance to a “sensitive” flag[8]. Thus, the Dragon Star Flag ultimately was the best option. An interesting decision, as the choice (or its avoidance) is the prelude to the question regarding the purpose of symbols, examined in the following work.


Ngọ Môn, the Meridian Gate, is embedded in Hue’s logo. In the past the French Resident Superior exerted considerable diplomatic effort as well as protectorate power to negotiate the rights to travel through the main gate instead of using the side gate like other envoys, as this gate was originally reserved for just the emperor and his entourage. Today, this gate signifies no special privilege, allowing anyone to pass through. (A tour of this gate takes no time, ending at the upstairs quarter after a narrow flight of stairs.) In the form of a mosaic tapestry, the image of the “Meridian Gate” lacks the stability of bricks and stones but appears like an elusive gleaming castle. This brings to mind Bao Dai’s library (Tàng thư lâu) in the inner citadel, now adorned with colorful lights, flashing green and blue and red every night; or the Tứ Phương Vô Sự Pavilion (roughly meaning “the Pavilion of Peace for all Corners of the World), now converted into a coffee shop; or a further association would be the tacky cultural festivals organized every year at the front premise of the citadel. This gate opens into such a haphazard, careless reality. From another angle, it closes on a past on which bombs and renovations have significantly eroded away.[9] What then does the Meridian Gate symbolize?


Meridian Gate” in parallel with “Ngẫu cảm (Spontaneous feelings)” are both ending knots, one for a dynasty, the other for a person. The embroidery “Spontaneous feelings” depicts the bare and simple grave of emperor Bao Dai (1913-1997) in France. None of Bao Dai’s descendants still live in Vietnam. Their absence is a metonym for what’s missing in a society striving to eradicate class differences: a person’s place is not determined by their bloodline; everyone is equal. But is this really so? Probably not, a small number are always more equal than others. “A grandfather’s son, a father’s grandson (Con ông cháu cha)” is a sarcastic phrase used to describe people who receive more benefits than others simply because of their family background. This goes to show contemporary society still differentiates between classes. Perhaps, the only difference is that these different classes mix and mingle more. The mosaic tomb resembles a scenic landscape – a consolation from Tran Chau to the emperor who was no longer shrouded in gold and silver at the end of his life. It also embodies the artist’s concern about what was buried, regardless of whether it was naturally under the course of time or deliberately by man’s hands.


The two works “Portrait no.12” and “Portrait no.13” directs this excursion to the royal father and son, Khai Dinh (1885-1925) and Bao Dai. Aside from the “basterdized” style of dressing that was heavily criticized during his reign,[10] Khai Dinh’s heritage includes a tomb in the unique style of converging old and new, East and West. His portrait is embroidered in a blurry shade of yellow, which according to Tran Chau, ” adheres to the artistic temperament of the emperor”. Bao Dai is more well-known as “the last emperor” and also as an elegant person with a beautiful queen. His portrait is done in the shades of blue jeans, pieced together from fragments of clothing belonging to descendants of the Nguyen dynasty not including his own offspring. Here Bao Dai’s eyes are very dark, in contrast to all of the remaining photos of him. There are rumors that Bao Dai is not Khai Dinh’s biological child since the later was said to be impotent.[11] No one can be sure if Nguyen Phuc Vinh Thuy’s[12] life would align with Bao Dai’s if this rumor is proven true. By pixelating the photographs and then laboriously reconstructing them with another material, Tran Chau creates two “new” versions of these characters, inviting the viewers to think about alternative pasts for them as well as what they represent. The character’s undefined gaze also invites the viewers to look into themselves in the present. Are they honest representations of themselves? In the confusion of current time, how do they interpret today’s affairs?


“Khuyết” (The Thing That’s Not There) is also a suggestion. This work of embroidered silk depicts Long cổn spreading its arm in mid-space, its adornments of dragons and phoenix lacking from the gown while it reflects on water a shadow that differs considerably from itself. Borrowing the style of the ritual outfit from the Qing dynasty (China, 1644-1912), a reign that exerted strong influence on court wear of countries such as Vietnam, Korea, or Japan, Tran Chau alludes to a strategic game between Vietnam and many other opponents that has dragged on for thousands of years and still hovers on the geography of Vietnam. “Khuyet” paves the way for “Water image” in the form of a royal garment suspended on top of a black pond, isolated, in silence. This is Tran Chau’s imagination of what the position of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty was like during a century of turmoil. Like most other works, “Water image” is created from sowing together pieces of clothing of the Nguyen descendants, who are like portraits without numbers. The tremendous effort of those currently in power has and continues to erase these people’s past, rendering their images blurry and patchwork-like, akin to their family history. Their story reflects society: that same blurriness unfortunately coincides with contemporary culture as some things (tangible or not) are packed with a “heritage” label and others tremble and shiver under uncertain, unappreciative hands. The exhibition ends here, but the strategic game displayed at this Peculiar Pavilion is open to people to play/compete. Tran Chau’s move is “breaking the structure of the material […] to create a new material to observe and touch upon the depth of individual stories as well as the multiple angles of history”.[13] What about you?



Nguyen Bich Tra


[1] the designated garment for the emperor when making offerings to the heavens, wishing for peace

[2] Hue court music was recognized by UNESCO as an immaterial world heritage in 2013. The image of dragons, unfortunately, has gradually lost its magical qualities: from one that was only used for the royal family, now people can put dragons on any common object. Recently, a tree sculpted in the form of a dragon became a social media sensation due to its comical qualities.

[3] there are people who mentioned it looks like a Saola, an Asian bicorn discovered in Vietnam in 1992, but because this is too far from the times of Minh Mang, the author does not wish to engage in this comparison.

[4] there were many big demonstrations against China in the last couple of years. The most prominent ones occurred after the environmental disaster in Ha Tinh caused by the metal factory Formosa, devastating the 4 central regions.

[5] please check out Boi Tran Huynh Beattie’s elegant essay “Vietnamese aesthetics from 1925 onwards” The first chapter in the piece discusses symbolism in Vietnamese aesthetics from the 18th century to the end of 1884 with many references to the Nguyen’s heritage.

[6] At a glance: Tu Duc died in 1883; Duc Duc was emperor for 3 days before the chancellors Ton That Thuyet and Nguyen Van Tuong overthrew him. Hiep Hoa had the throne for 4 months before the court dethroned him, then died from poison. Kien Phuc reigned for 8 months before dying at the age of 16. Ham Nghi rose to the throne at 16 but within less than a year he was caught supporting the anti-French movement and was exiled to Algeria.

[7] more information can be found in the Quy Mui Accord: chapter XII, Vietnamese History, by Tran Trong Kim.

[8] that of Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) 1955-1975

[9] The Hue citadel was bombed in the Mau Than Tet Offensive and badly damaged in 1968. Generally, all renovation efforts on the inner citadel (and many other cultural heritages all over Vietnam) do not conserve but seem to paste a new face on the old structure. Read “Billions and the scars on our heritage”, Tuoi Tre cuoi tuan 3.12.2011 (http://tuoitre.vn/tin/tuoi-tre-cuoi-tuan/20111203/tien-ti-va-nhung-vet-thuong-di-san/467759.html, last time checked on 4.2.2017)

[10] In 1922, during Khai Dinh’s trip to Marseille to attend a fair, the intellectual Phan Chau Trinh wrote the emperor a letter with a list of suggestions including a passage on outfit. An excerpt: “Your highness has created a new style of outfit to wear to court. This outfit keeps the old style on the upper half, but the sleeves and cuffs are covered in colorful gemstones, neither the style of the West, neither the style of the East, then on your crown there are bright embroideries of dragons and phoenix.” (“Letter of seven points” (Thu That Dieu), Phan Chau Trinh, Anh Minh Publications, 1958)

[11] Although there are no concrete documents to support this, the fact that Khai Dinh had 12 wives but only one child that is Bao Dai makes this rumor likely

[12] Bao Dai’s birth name

[13] From the artist’s statement, 2015