Saigon-based multi-media artist Bui Cong Khanh (b.1972) examines Vietnamese society and culture from both insider and outsider perspectives. Images from street and traditional culture, emblems and texts of the state, and symbols of religion, are the building blocks of Khanh’s visual repertoire. Medium is selected according to its ability to impart additional meaning and elicit sensual response: blue and white porcelain vessels, textile, performance, video, participative installation, sound, drawing, and painting are combined to articulate his ideas.
While past works have among other things explored consumer habits and rural society’s transformation, starting in 2014, Khanh has turned his interest toward evolving nationalist sentiment as Vietnam rethinks its place in the world in the twenty-first century.
In new and recent work assembled for 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, Bui Cong Khanh takes Vietnam’s ancient and modern colonial histories as starting points for a series where the artist’s personal heritage as a mixed Chinese-Vietnamese has a vital importance. Choosing classical blue and white underglaze Chinese porcelain as medium for its clear reference to China and Vietnam’s shared cultural history, Khanh presents a three-part ceramics and video installation Fortress Temple 2015.
A second work, the singing and writing performance Hymne National, builds compelling tension through its contrasting of sensual and poetic form.
A third installation, activated by the audience’s participation, is Prayer on the Wind. A cloth temple-like structure made from sewn cut-out squares of Burmese monks’ saffron robes inter-dispersed with military camouflage, the piece boasts a number of pockets on its outer walls into which members of the public are asked to insert notes inscribed with their prayers, ideas and wishes. Once these scraps of paper materializing prayers have been stuffed into the piece’s outer pockets, viewers are invited to lie inside the cloth temple to experience radiant shafts of coloured light produced as sunshine filters through the installation’s textile fibers. Co-opting the public sensorially through experiential play and direct text-based interaction, Prayer on the Wind triggers thought about the relationship between different types of state institutions and the role of religion and faith in social structures. Originally conceptualised in Myanmar, Prayer on the Wind’s conceptual basis translates meaningfully to all contexts.
Visually and materially seductive, technically accomplished, and through participative strategies, the three works assembled in FortressTemple stimulate viewers. Bui Cong Khanh, one of the most sophisticated and socially cogent artists working in Vietnam today, in FortressTemple shows how through virtuously combined materials, conceptual strategies, and compelling visual cues, art nurtured in one locale and context translates to other places and time-frames.
FortressTemple is curated by Southeast Asian art specialist Iola Lenzi.
About the artist
Born in 1972 in Danang, Vietnam, Bui Cong Khanh lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Bui Cong Khanh’s work explores historical and contemporary issues in Vietnam. As one of the first local artists to gain international recognition during the 1990s, Khanh has embraced painting and sculpture to express his fascination with the complex history of Vietnam. More recently, his works are reflective of the dichotomy of his fast changing nation. Deeply philosophical and reactive to the world around him, Khanh is one of Vietnam’s most intriguing artists.
Bui Cong Khanh’s work is in institutional collections including the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane and the Koc Foundation, Istanbul.
About the curator
Iola Lenzi is a Singapore-based researcher, critic and curator of Southeast Asian art.