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Installation gives ao dai a metaphorical twist

Update: January, 17/2015 - 08:59
Finer points: A new exhibition juxtaposes the ao dai collection of Thai Kim Lan with a contemporary art installation by German artist Veronika Witte. — VNS Photo Viet Thanh
HA NOI (VNS)— How does a hundred-year-old ao dai look when it becomes part of a contemporary art installation?

The new exhibition The Gorgeous Yellow Runs Over Green Leaves juxtaposes a collection of royal ao dai with video interviews by German artist Veronika Witte.

Eight individuals, from a 95-year-old court lady of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) to a 19-year-old student, discuss the traditional Vietnamese long gowns. Through them, Witte develops fictional conversations about preservation, usage and the meaning of ao dai.

The 12 long gowns come from the collection of Thai Kim Lan, an overseas Vietnamese in Germany. The outfits were worn by the queens and royal members in Hue, Viet Nam's former imperial capital, located in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

"This is a modest and humble collection with 12 dresses, not many, not formal dresses or court dresses," Lan said.

"They are preserved by a family of a common citizen, like other citizens of Hue during the 20th century. They were worn by the king and members of the royal family on ordinary days from the 19th to early 20th centuries."

During the period, everyone wore ao dai including the royal family, mandarins and vendors, according to Lan.

"For Hue people, wearing ao dai is a way to express respect for surrounding people, time, space and the wearers themselves," she said.

"When I came back to Hue at the end of the 20th century, ao dai had just disappeared from the streets. I asked my mother why and was told that everyone was too scared to wear it. They said wearing ao dai would give them an air of royalty, kind of lavishing on luxury."

Lan said she was surprised and really scared to see the dress she loved disappear and ao dai considered part of feudalism.

"It was like doing the wrong thing wearing the traditional dress. I was so terrified thinking that all the ao dai my mother gave me would disappear, too. That's the reason why I try to collect and protect the old ao dai passed down through generations so that they will not be lost."

Almuth Meyer Zollitsch, director of the Goethe Institute, said she treasured the collection of Lan and others should feel likewise, as Lan and her mother preserved the ao dai despite many troubles of life and war.

"Thanks to Lan's collection and Witte's creation, we have a chance to imagine the splendour of the past, the evidence of history," she said.

"Below the long gowns is a floor paved with 1,300 bamboo shoulder poles, as a contrast between the royal court and common people, between the strong bamboo and soft fabric."

As a part of the exhibition, the Goethe Institute Ha Noi invited collector Lan, artist Witte, cultural expert Trinh Bach and historian Tran Quang Duc to an art talk tonight to discuss the importance and the role of the historic garments within Vietnamese culture and history.

There will be guided tours through the exhibition where artist Witte, collector Lan and historian Duc will show to the audience the world of ao dai and give an insight into the metaphors and images of the installation. The tours will take place on January 18, 22 and 30.

As participation is limited to 20, those interested should register with the Goethe Institute in advance.

Witte has been working in Berlin since 1998 in different areas including sculpture, video and scenic installations and always tries to blur the lines between visual arts, music and opera.

She has received awards in Israel, France and Germany and other countries.

Lan was born in Hue and studied philosophy and German both at home and in Germany. In 1976 she earned her PhD in philosophy in Munich and taught there until 2007 as a private lecturer in comparative philosophy. Lan has also taught in HCM City and Hue since 1994.

Besides her publications on philosophy, Lan has written cookbooks, essays and poems and translated texts of German authors and poets.

Poems from her bilingual anthology Lanh Hon Xu Minh (In a Colder Country) claimed prizes in both Germany and Viet Nam. The name of the exhibition is a line from one of her poems.

The exhibition runs until the end of this month at the Goethe Institute Ha Noi (56-58 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Ha Noi). Entrance is free of charge. The Institute is open from 9am-7pm. — VNS

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