An afternoon with Tran Trong Vu

Visit to Tran Trong Vu’s house in Antony, France, June 27, 2010.

A photo essay

The painter Tran Trong Vu lives in Antony, a suburb of Paris, with his wife and two sons. His house is an extension of his paintings, a universe where humour, satire and primary colors, red, yellow and blue dominate the décor.

His wife, Thuan, over the past decade has become a successful writer in her own right. She writes in Vietnamese even though she hasn’t lived in Vietnam since she was a child. And most of her books are published in Vietnam. Those that are printed in France, in French, are translated by her twin sister, Cam-Thi Poisson, a professor of Vietnamese literature at INALCO, or School of Asian Languages and Culture. Thuan’s writings also blend parody with social commentary about Vietnam and Vietnamese.

The last time that I visited them, was two years ago. I have been coming to Paris about every two years since 1994 and have visited Vu in all of his homes, from a tiny “Chambre de bonne” in the 9th arrondissement, ironically above a café called “Revolution,” to a one bedroom in the 3rd to the first house that he remodeled in Antony to this one. The house is a showcase of Vu’s work, he lives with his paintings, his paintings inform his life and his life informs his painting. He hangs his work around the house like mottoes or mementoes, echoing his thoughts.

Vu came to France in 1989 after receiving a scholarship from the French government. He then sought political asylum. His father, the writer and poet, Tran Dan, lived most of his life under house arrest, unable to publish under his own name. He died in 1996. Vu grew up in an atmosphere of disillusionment with the party and a strong sense of language. Since his father died, Vu has become a kind of sound-bite for his father’s writings.

This particular work is a reference to Tran Dan’s famous poem “Nhất định thắng” which ends with the line “I saw only rain drops on red flags” juxtaposed with his father’s famous answer to the question “what party do you belong to?” “the party of tears.” Vu has been making rain/teardrop paintings and installations on plastic since 1996. One of them represents jars of rain or tears that could be sold to tourists like water from the Venice canal or cans of Paris air. This piece simply spells out the words rain and salty in French as a minimally reduced version of his earlier large scaled installations with plastic, rain water and writings about his father’s tears.

Vu has also been working with archetypes of Vietnamese society, especially the communist party cadre and the idiot proletariat following orders. He has been mocking also the blind consumerist in Vietnam, lured by western goods without questioning their purpose.

Many of his paintings are red and yellow, playing with the colors of the Vietnamese flag but also the stereotypical color of Asian skin. This comes from decades of living in Paris where “all Asians look alike,” and there are lingering manifestations of racism.

Vu is still very much Vietnamese at heart. I remember speaking about him to artists in Hanoi one year. We were discussing “Viet Kieu” artists and one of them said: “Vu khong phai la Viet Kieu!! (Vu is not a Viet Kieu) By that, he most likely meant he was still Vietnamese but I also took it to be a reference to his work that is intricately tied to the frustrations of being Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad. He works speaks of a kind of Vietnam that is trapped between communism and capitalism, with no clear ideology or hope for the future. But, he speaks from the side-lines, from his home/studio in France, looking into the mirror with a camera, like this painting, a keen observer of the many double-entendres and false reflections in Vietnamese society: looking in and looking out at the same time, canceling each other out.

Nora A. Taylor

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