French Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran’s sculptures and installations evoke the emotions experienced as an immigrant to the French capital and reflects a deep rooted national consciousness resulting from a mixture of the traditional and the colonial. Her first project, Barque Du Palacio (2007) features a wooden sail boat placed into the atrium of a Parisian housing estate, Les Espaces Abraxas, which at the time, was used to house immigrants in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
An authoritarian, ‘dreadful’ community space, its ‘notoriety’ stems from the fact that its cold austerity, has been the used as a backdrop for several dark sci-fi movies. It is the peculiar blend of kitschy post-modern exterior wall features, the scale-defying towering mass and the moody Parisian atmosphere, that has produced a surreal, dystopic, theatrical space, even if it seems ‘unfriendly’ for human habitation.
It is in this place that Thu Van Tran spent 6 months befriending the residents and building a wooden sail boat which at once doesn’t fit for the size of the atrium, and also doesn’t belong, reflecting the feeling of the residents.
In another project Fahrenheit 451, which is named after the novel of the same by sci-fi novelist Ray Bradley in 1953, a scroll of text in an undecipherable language, a panel of books clamped together, some withering plants sprayed grey and green and a painting of the effects of book burning are shown.
The novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) was a story about a future world in which books were outlawed and had to be burnt, along with the house in which they were found, whenever the an alarm was raised, and ‘firemen’ were sent, not to put out fires, but to start them in order to destroy any sign of a book in any home.
More interesting was what kind of a society would make such a decision; a place where TVs were the size of rooms and filled the walls, where people enjoyed fast cars, cheap thrills, magazines and book summaries instead of the real thing, and where the majority, intolerant of dissent, ruled requiring conformity above all else.
But the novel was more than just about not allowing people to read or have books; it was about the celebration of ignorance in society, where people have become ‘zombies’ from watching TV, talk all the time but don’t say anything meaningful and don’t care about or enjoy nature or all of life for that matter.
It is also about the human tendency to shun what is ‘different’ from themselves, even if ever so slightly, as exemplified by the outcasted beautiful teenage girl Clarisse, who eventually gets killed somehow.
It is also about the tradition of oral story telling, as the persecution of intellectuals forced them to memorize the books they had to burn, to pass on the knowledge later by recounting, and it is this aspect that Van Tran chooses to emphasize here, with performances by other artists and writers continuing this tradition.
Curiously, the main culprit behind the state of Fahrenheit 451‘s cultural decent, the ubiquitous mass media, doesn’t seem to be represented here, nor the hollowing effects on the human condition of being told what to think. But we see the inability to enjoy nature in the de-colourized plant of Immediate Happiness (2009) and the black and white vaporization of a book in Book Burning (2009).
L’Ecart (2017), Palais De Colonies (2017), Red Rubber (2017) and Penetrable (2017) all seem to deal with the same issues; the re-materialization of culture, which is similar to fossilization and the ‘stain’ by foreign events, foreign forces, which produces a mixture.
In L’Ecart (2017) which means ‘the gap’ in French, depicts a plant as a cut out of a plaster cast mold. An abstraction of the real, this fossilization aesthetic forces the memory of the original to surface, which in a way is the opposite of the pictures of bas-relief sculptures in Palais De Colonies (2017).
In Red Rubber (2017), tree trunks are coated in latex rubber and thus ‘re-materialized’, making them look like they might be made of ivory, but the red one breaks this line of thinking, leaving a certain ambiguity as to the material. That they are all lying down on top of wooden coffin-like cases suggests a death of sorts, where these trees have been drained of their rubber but are now made of it.
The phenomena of contamination oppose this phantasm of purity and so true are they that they achieve a form of perfection, reflecting what we are: mutant identities, woven of particles that have crossed the deserts of the Sahara, ardent and atomic clouds, murderous dioxins and the paths of exile. We, identities determined by our moving geography, forced to learn a foreign language, live and negotiate with our stains.
Penetrable (2017) which is a painting done on the walls of the Vietnamese Pavilion in Venice, depicts a representation of this ‘stain’ as latex rubber and chemical paint don’t mix very well together.
Although the 2 materials don’t mix well together or at all, it in fact produces an attractive effect; there is a sheen to the latex, which brightens the whole picture. And in fact this is what all 4 of these works are about; that there is an another way to make something beautiful, an alternative aesthetic. The aesthetic of the stain.