Where is Vietnamese society heading if it fails to cultivate and nurture its centuries-old traditional folk art and cultural practices?
At first glance, the paintings of Bui Thanh Tam’s Abandoned by Heaven collection project an air of innocence and a pollyanish sense of contentment. The doe-eyed figures in the paintings look to be in the midst of living happy and prosperous lives, but there is something amiss lying just underneath the surface of the paintings. The most easily distinguishable signal is given in the form of the twisted branches of the peach blossom trees featured in many of the paintings. They are in full bloom, which brings associations of spring and renewal, but the unnatural positions of the branches suggest a conscious contortion that has distorted what was once beautiful and pure.
The central question Tam is asking with his latest series is: Where is Vietnamese society heading if it fails to cultivate and nurture its centuries old traditional folk art and cultural practices? The material progress the country has made over the past two decades is undoubtedly a profoundly positive development for the great majority of its citizens, but it also comes with certain costs that can be measured and quantified in terms of environmental degradation and other negative side effects. In his role as a contemporary artist, Tam feels a responsibility to do a more abstract calculation of the cultural costs that have been associated with Vietnam’s recent period of rapid urbanization and economic development.
Tam says, “In terms of tangible culture, many historical monuments and artifacts of historical importance have been renovated, or, in some cases, completely destroyed. We have lost whole lines of folk art and many traditional craft villages have disappeared without a trace. In terms of our intangible heritage, the loss and deformation of our culture is happening at an alarming speed. Our young people no longer have the desire to preserve our unique forms of poetry, music and theater; our traditional culture is simply being replaced by that of the West. The resulting confused mixture has many negative effects on the behavior, morality and spirituality of our people leading to a loss of identity and what makes us special. The more ‘modern’ our world becomes, the more jealousy, insincerity and cruelty enters into our daily life. I attribute this to a method of teaching culture that is incorrect, and, ultimately, failing us.”
While there is an earnest moral lesson at the heart of his work, Tam leavens the potential didacticism through the use of parody and humor. His often whimsical paintings focus on the ridiculous contradictions between his subjects’ contemporary lives and his view of a more traditional Vietnamese existence. Tam has spoken of the influence that the Cynical Realism of Chinese painters has had on his work. Arising in China in the 1990s, the work of the Cynical Realists used humor and irony in confronting their society’s socio-political issues through their art. Featuring characters that often shared the exaggerated grinning face of the artists themselves, the art of the Cynical Realists focused on the transition from the old to the modern that China was experiencing and the confusion arising therefrom. In a similar way, Tam’s paintings can be seen as cynical commentaries on the state of contemporary society in Vietnam.
Tam chooses to use Dong Ho folk paintings in the background of many of his works as an over-arching symbolic representation of traditional Vietnamese culture. The traditional themes of Dong Ho paintings include good luck signs, historical figures, folk allegories and popular stories. The compositions tend to reflect the lifestyles and concerns of a rural people living in close commune with nature. Most commonly associated with Tet, Dong Ho paintings have long been used in Vietnam by craftspeople to express their concerns about social, political and cultural issues. As a metaphor for cultural loss, Tam’s choice of Dong Ho paintings is an apt one. Once produced by hundreds of craftspeople in a number of villages of Northern Vietnam, the practice has all but died out. Once a proud piece of Vietnam’s cultural heritage, Dong Ho paintings are now likely to be produced on printing presses and sold as kitsch to foreign visitors to the country.
Tam says, “Once there was a fine culture, rich in identity and tradition, made up of Vietnamese men and women who held high standards of humanity, but they are quickly disappearing with time! Even heaven, which lives for all human beings, will eventually abandon us when we are unable to appreciate and protect our own values. Today we tread roughly over the world built by our forefathers through the millennia and destroy their beautiful traditions that have sustained our society since time immemorial. Instead of caring for this invaluable legacy which we have inherited, we care only for personal gain—money, status, and power—with no regard for the negative future consequences this selfishness will reap.”
While Tam’s is an essentially conservative vision, his work should not be viewed as an indictment of Western culture, which he calls “civilized, progressive and compelling.” Tam is disturbed by the less positive side effects of Vietnam’s modernization including the rampant consumerism and narcissism the process has engendered. His ideal result would be a synthesis between the traditional and the modern that would allow the country to flourish and prosper, but would also retain what is unique and special about Vietnam. Tam says, “if we can manage to preserve the roots of our traditional Vietnamese culture as we modernize, in my opinion, the Vietnamese people will be purer and better.”
Bui Thanh Tam currently resides in Hanoi. He is a 2009 graduate of the Vietnam Fine Arts University. Abandoned by Heaven is Tam’s second solo exhibition at Craig Thomas Gallery (www.cthomasgallery.com).