The image of a solitary umbrella on a beach surrounded by numerous incenses occupies a whole wall at the front of the exhibition, instantly provoking anyone’s curiosity. The seemingly bright image with vibrant color invites viewers to enter an eerie, otherworldly place.
“Muted Conversation” is Dat’s first solo show in his home country as part of Materialize program facilitated by The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre. A series of 43 photographs and a two-and-a-half-minute video installation on display are part of an ongoing project that aims to explore the spirituality and superstitions surrounding rituals in Vietnam today. Over the past year Dat has travelled extensively across the country to create these photographs thanks to the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Fellowship, juggling between rural and urban life, between public and private space. This is as much a journey to get to know Vietnam as it is one of self-exploration as Dat tries to grasp his Vietnamese identity in a rapidly evolving society after years of studying overseas.
Walking into the exhibition space, visitors might initially be overwhelmed with a cluster of medium to large size prints that give no clue on where to start. However, the hanging area is spacious and the artworks arranged purposefully with smooth color transition from one wall to another has been able to lead viewers from hesitating to being intrigued. Lingering for a little while, we gradually find ourselves sucked into a world made of uncommon topography and kaleidoscopic hues.
Dat translated his unfettered imagination into unconventional photographs. There is no straightforward images that directly depict practices of religious importance. Rather, what we see are often overlooked moments in daily life with no name nor caption to nudge viewers in a specific direction. Instead of temples and churches, his lens points at a raincoat hanged in the middle of the street, a man standing beneath a green curtain or an Internet café full of youngsters playing game under an altar: they are familiar scenes that come out both surreal and comical. At a corner, visitors would come across a video installation inside a small altar. While the still images could come out as distant for some, viewers can immerse in the montage of a pig being butchered and a grave being taken down and walk home with feelings of disturbance. The video also keeps the viewer’s eyes fixated on the screen to search for a conclusive answer that is not offered in the first place.
I also leave the exhibition with vague feelings and no clear understanding of the backstory behind each photograph. Furthermore, I am not entirely convinced that the show effectively delivers its artistic statement “to highlight the role of traditional cultural practices as Vietnam rapidly transitions into a new era of economics possibility”, despite being aware of Dat’s decisions to tackle a collective mindset by personal observations. However, the series captivates me with its suggestive imagery. A gust of wind blows up a curtain, a cat playfully drinks water from a glass meant for offerings, a woman stares blankly under heavy rain. On this sublunary world, we see signs of communication with the other realm, the unknown, the immaterial as Dat once said in an interview.
At the show’s opening, Quang Lam, photographer and founder of InLen Gallery, also shared his confusion: “They [the photographs] are all over the place”. While the exhibition may leave viewers craving a comprehensible narrative, Muted Conversations is successful in the sense that it embodies the photographers’ free-spiritedness and unique personal philosophy of communicating with images. It is full of potential and we can hope that Dat Vu continues Muted Conversations with a more cohesive series at a later point as the artist continues to examine his identity and his country. His voice is a young, fresh a needed one in the image-saturated society we live in today.
Muted Conversations Exhibition
Venue: The Factory Contemporary Art Centre, 15 Nguyen U Di, Thao Dien, D.2, HCMC
Time: from August 10 to September 17 2017.