Arts & Culture

Trần Nữ Yên Khê on Borderline, First Contemporary South East Asian Art Piece at Guimet Museum

Does art have a nationality?

Words by
b-side staff

The Guimet Museum in Paris, founded in 1898, is known for having the biggest overseas collection of Asian artworks. Yet, Vietnamese art piece Borderline, which the museum acquired in April, is the first contemporary South East Asian art piece to be added to its collection. Most of its other South East Asian art pieces are religious statues from ancient traditions and cultures, giving visitors a very simplistic view of the region.

Borderline is a Vietnamese lacquer piece that has traditional and contemporary influences. It’s a paradoxical piece of work that reflects the reality in Vietnam today. It was designed by internationally known actress Trần Nữ Yên Khê, who passed her designs to haute-lacquer company Hanoia, which used traditional lacquer techniques to create the piece.

Instead of portraying a one-dimensional version of Vietnamese art, Yên Khê’s design reveals the tensions that exist in society today, both in Vietnam and across the globe. It challenges simplistic depictions of modern nation-states through its critique of borders. This complex idea problematises the ancient, religious and static version of South East Asian art that is portrayed in Guimet Museum.

What was the inspiration behind Borderline?

With Borderline, I wished to evoke the problem of belonging, borders, territories, migrations, geographical and cerebral limits to which we refer within the current painful situation that shakes the world. This piece is meant to reflect situations like the mass migration on the Mediterranean coasts in recent years, the plight of the Syrians, Afghans or those thousands of Rohingyas who have fled Myanmar.

Borderline is also about asking oneself questions relating to the notion of belonging and identity. I grew up in Paris since the age of one. “What is my identity? Am I Vietnamese? Am I French?” Any given answer would be too simplistic.

To express the fragile balance of the world concerning problems relating to population and migration, I designed Borderline in contrast with and in opposition to the inverted cone. It is a piece of “architecture” that is full of tension, resting upon the tip of the cone and threatened by slightest movement.

When we look at Borderline, we can see a floral pattern that progresses like nature itself, expanding with great harmonious and voluptuous curves. But if one looks more closely, we see that the veins of this plant motif are made of torturous and aggressive barbed wire that embodies the forbidden border. This barbed wire protects some and rejects others.

Red and orange, two colours that are very present in everyday Vietnam in pagodas, festivals and ceremonies, are designed to be a vibrant, vivid and more modern variation, while maintaining the feeling of tradition.

For me, red is the most paradoxical and ambiguous colour of all. It expresses love as well as anger, joy as well as danger, vital strength as well as destruction.

Borderline brings together these paradoxes.

Your piece combines traditional Vietnamese elements with a contemporary design. How do you think this reflects Vietnam today, in terms of the interaction between tradition and modernity in the country?

If there was one thing in common between today’s Vietnam and Borderline, I would say that it is the concept of paradox. The family and traditional values ​​remain present, but I realise that the material success and the conquest of power are prioritised over humanistic and moral values ​upon which the foundation of any society should be based.

As in every corner of the world, it is the problem linked to injustice, profit and intolerance that threatens us.

I wanted to signify this uncertain imbalance by the inverted cone that stands on its summit.

We can see in the inverted cone, the shape of the Vietnamese conical hat, but there is nothing symbolic in that. I do not like working with symbols.

Borderline is the first contemporary South East Asian artwork to be featured in the Guimet Museum. What is it like knowing that your piece is probably the only representation of modern South East Asia in the museum today?

It took nine months for Borderline to go through the selection process, before the Acquisitions Committee unanimously decided to bring the piece to the Musée Guimet. It is still difficult to imagine that Borderline is the first modern work of art from South East Asia to enter the French national collections. I’m really honoured. I find it fascinating to imagine that it will be perfectly preserved and will survive my children and future generations.

Do you think Vietnamese contemporary artists should be encouraged to produce more art? Is there a market for it?

I do not know enough about the contemporary art market in Asia but, of course, contemporary Vietnamese artists have their place on the international scene. There are already numerous artists, like Dinh Q Lê or Tiffany Chung, whose work I particularly admire.

It’s always hard to understand why one artist, rather than any other, is suddenly placed in the limelight and put on centre stage.

How does your piece reflect a sense of national identity?

Creation and art have no nationality.

It is the artist who gives an identity to his or her creation.

I grew up and studied in Paris. I discovered other cultures during my travels. Some of them feel familiar to me, as if I’ve always known them.

But being Vietnamese, it is certain that my sensitivity is spread wide throughout Vietnamese culture. I owe it to my parents who have always been careful that we do not forget the road on which we have travelled and the place whence we come.

Then there is my own journey of learning and my own sensitivity that sharpens the way I look at things. It allows me to see what is expressive in a culture foreign to my own, to appreciate it, to be sensitive to it and to make use of it constructively.

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