Hue-based Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai is one of four Vietnamese artists taking part in an international exhibition entitled Riverscapes IN FLUX, taking place at the Goethe Institute in Ha Noi through April 29. She spoke to Culture Vulture about her work called Vestiges which is on display at the exhibition.
Your work is an installation of 60 wooden boxes filled with old sandals. Tell us about it.
Vestiges consists of wooden boxes filled with sandals and other objects found along the Huong River, recalling the dramatic floods in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue in 1999. I remember the historic flood occurring when I was 16 years old, and the disaster caused many losses in both body and spirit. Many dead bodies found were never identified, and 12 members in one family were drowned. Sad stories and the ruins of the dramatic flood upset and scarred many who lived there, including me. I decided to collect the cast off sandals to set up my installation dedicated to the flood victims.
How was the installation set up? Is it your only work in the exhibition not to use digital technology?
My assistant and I surveyed and found places with lots of sandals in Huong Tra District. After flood season, the slippers and other waste drifted with the current and became stuck in particular dumping grounds. With helping from local residents, we collected over 500kg of sandals which were transported to Ha Noi by train. I collected wooden boxes at Long Bien Market. I was lucky to have volunteers from the Viet Nam Fine Arts College to help me complete the installation just two days before the opening ceremony of the exhibition.
I rarely use digital technology to create my work. I always treat raw materials in my working process. In the exhibition, I have been impressed by other artists' work. It proves that there are no borders among art-forms. The artists use different materials and technology to express their ideas. It gives diversity to the art and helps viewers access the work in different ways.
Why do you frequently focus on issues of gender and feminity and the role of women in society?
I don't understand why my works are usually about women. Maybe, I grew up in Hue, which was the home of the last dynasty of Vietnamese feudalism. Old ideologies maybe still existed to govern Hue women.
I meet local women at different ages and they have problems in their lives. Mothers and aunts had to face to post-war life. Some of them have been able to adjust to the renewal process, while some couldn't. Born and growing up after war, the younger generation has another look. We face problems that are not like older generation's but the gap between two generations creates conflicts and misunderstandings.
Is Riverscapes IN FLUX an appropriate theme for an art exhibition?
Many people think that such exhibitions are not artistic because they focus on propaganda, seeking to raise community awareness about social issues. However, I myself think that the exhibition Riverscapes IN FLUX is an art exhibition that links communities through art. It's not the first time we have had such exhibitions in Viet Nam, but participating is a challenge for the artists to help the public access the issues raised by the artworks. The artists need to escape from themselves and their personal thoughts to have other experiences. In doing so, the artists' responsibility to society is affirmed. — VNS