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Ha Noi artist tries to preserve Old Quarter

Update: January, 12/2014 - 16:43
Architectural preservation: Artist Vuong Van Thao creates fossilised replicas of old houses to ensure that the traditional structures are not forgotten.

As the capital's old structures are replaced by modern buildings, one artist has resorted to an unusual means of preservation:wrapping clay models of the ancient houses in layers of amber. Phong Van and Bui Tuyet report.

While local authorities in Ha Noi City remain busy seeking solutions to preserve its Old Quarter, a Ha Noi artist has devoted his life to immortalising the old quarter.

The artist, Vuong Van Thao, is the first and only lover of the city to seek to preserve its old houses and streets by fossilising them.

"A fossil is dead, but being fossilised can bring eternal life," the 45-year-old artist said.

After graduating from Ha Noi University of Fine Arts in 1995, Thao first achieved national renown in 2001 with his work entitled Dat va Nuoc (Land and Water), which won an award at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts held by the Viet Nam Fine Arts Association.

Thao's work, made of polymer composite and oil paint, entitled Hoa Thach Song (Living Fossils), enchanted the public when it was on display at L'Espace - the French Cultural Centre in Ha Noi City in 2007.

The artist later was invited to exhibit the work at the Singapore Art Museum as a part of the Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Foundation Signature Art Prize, the most prestigious art award in the region, in 2008.

After competing with 33 artists - three of which are also Vietnamese, Thao's Living Fossils was named to the top-ten list, as he was nominated one of the 10 Best Artists in Southeast Asia. The work was purchased by the museum for its permanent collection.

The Living Fossils, which replicated 36 of the capital's old houses and loudspeaker polls, were designed to draw attention to the apparent contradiction of new and old Ha Noi.

"I hoped to make Hanoians think about what they treasure most in the city that is more than 1,000 year olds," Thao said.

Wrapped in cracked amber chunks, the houses look like real archaeological finds, frozen and preserved for eternity.

"I had a strong attachment to the quarter's profoundly traditional beauty and was saddened to see old structures being knocked down and replaced with modern, soulless architecture, lacking in ancient beauty," the artist said, adding that the old quarter was a precious legacy of Ha Noi's ancient past, though the area was undergoing rapid changes.

The 36 streets of the Old Quarter are today the remnants of the original market town, which developed beside the emperor's citadel. Many of the original houses have been lost over time, torn down or renovated into something new. But the old streets remain a part of the country's cultural tradition.

"I asked myself what I could do to preserve the authentic ancient architecture of the old houses, their shapes and spirit, their culture. So I decided to preserve some of the few remaining houses in their un-renovated state," he added.

Reputation-building: Thao with some of his works.

An idea then came to the artist in 2004.

"I wished to be able to cover the houses with some sort of transparent material. I also wished to create a beautiful work of art."

Thao spent months wandering the streets to capture, with a camera, typical houses in each of the 36 old streets. "On each street, I chose a house with specific traits of traditional Vietnamese culture."

He then modelled the shape of the 36 houses and loud-speakers in clay, with the same proportions but much smaller sizes, then poured a polymer composite into them. After that, he painted the houses with oil, trying to create the authentic colour of each house with green moss. He then congealed it in a transparent composite of yellow amber.

"Materials used to fossilise the miniature ancient buildings were very expensive. I often spent about VND5 million (US$238) to fossilise a house. Therefore, I had to draw more rice paper paintings to have enough money to buy the materials during that time," Thao said.

"These 36 houses are to me like thirty-six diamonds in the heart of the Old Quarter. I would like to see Ha Noi become an open-air museum, in which these houses would become modern works of art through the process of 'fossilisation'. This way, the past will live in the present and on into the future," the artist said.

Thao has since continued exploring the "Living Fossils" concept and created sculptures of facets of the city that are under threat from development, and also cast them in polymer composite blocks.

In 2008, he fossilised Long Bien Bridge in ten sections, most of which are in private collections around the world. Three years later, he continued preserving 36 the city's village gates by fossilising them.

With his dedication to beautifying the city, Thao was awarded the Bui Xuan Phai - Love for Ha Noi awards organised by the city People's Committee in 2011.

"It's amazing, the more I use it, the more I master this material and find it beautiful. My house currently is full of fossils made by me. Now, I want to find another material to create more beautiful works of art," Thao said. — VNS

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