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Photographer's Note

In Vietnam, the coffins are not only used to store the corps but also for most valuable objects of the family. For that concept, a young lacquer painter has picked the shape of coffin as her unique way to display her artwork.

After experiencing this atmostphere, Professor Nora Taylor — PhD Alsdorf Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art Department at the Art Institute of Chicago — made thE following remarks:

"Since lacquer painting was introduced as a fine art medium in Hanoi at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine in the first quarter of the 20th century, it lost it some of its ancient purpose as a protector of the material and spiritual world. The resinous substance or son ta tapped from the Rhus Succedanea trees native to Vietnam, thrives in hot, humid climates and was long used to adorn temple sculpture to protect it from worms and termites. It also anointed the bodies of deceased monks in some practices to preserve them for all eternity. Modern painters used the medium like oil and created landscapes and portraits using wooden boards as canvases. While certainly the result produced an original and interesting hybrid form of painting, the original meaning of the medium itself was lost in the process. Phi Phi Oanh’s Black Box in many ways have revived some of the earlier associations made between lacquer and the eternal, or the sublime.

Sublime was the first adjective that came to my mind when I saw Phi Phi’s finished boxes. Not in its colloquial sense but in its association with Kantian philosophy, literature and aesthetics. For one, it recalls Immanuel Kant’s definition of the world beyond human imagination. For another, it reminded me of the French literature scholar, Richard Klein’s book Cigarettes are Sublime, that assigns Kant’s definition to the dark forces that humans find so attractive and appealing. A third association is the sublime of philosophical journals that equate the word with the quest for an ultimate truth beyond the scope of human existence. And lastly, is the term art historians use to describe works of art that defy ordinary beauty.

The sublime nature of Phi Phi’s piece touches on all four definitions but I am particularly fixated on her daring embrace of death as a theme. By death, I do not mean the end to all things living and she herself would probably prefer not to use that word at all, but death as an evocation, a reflection of one’s life. The gloss off the lacquer acts as a mirror, a mirror onto life around us. Her skilled drawing technique aptly depicts elements of life that are also transitory. The suggestion is subtle. The blackness of the lacquer on her boxes is brilliant and not morbid. The paintings are celebratory, they include feasts, flowers, falling leaves, motorcycles, air, water. They glow with light instead of darkness. They are alive and sensually evocative. And yet, they are still about death but a sublime death, an after-life or an eternal life beyond the human world.


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For a brief video clip about the mentioned artwork, please access here.

To obtain more in-depth information, please visit her webpage.

For more pictures about her current exhibition, please use this link.

Thank you for your time and your interest.

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Additional Photos by Ngy Thanh (ngythanh) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 471 W: 125 N: 2332] (8458)
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