light years away

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Galerie Quynh is thrilled to present Light Years Away, the much anticipated solo exhibition by acclaimed Vietnamese artist Truong Tan. This is the artist’s first solo exhibition in ten years and his first show with the gallery.

When considering the emergence of contemporary art in Vietnam, few have proved more courageous or experimental than Truong Tan. In addition to being the first openly gay artist in Vietnam to freely address issues of homosexuality in his art, he has also proven influential due to his relentless originality as a painter and his groundbreaking works of performance and installation in the 1990s. With his new work, Truong Tan continues to innovate, presenting a series of highly unusual lacquer paintings and two ambitious installations.

Truong Tan has always been drawn to lacquer painting: the distinctly Vietnamese tradition of painting with lacquer on composite wood panels, specially designed to warp gently in the humid climate of Vietnam without cracking. The paints are naturally dark, so materials such as gold leaf, silver leaf, mother of pearl and egg shells are inlaid in the lacquer to embellish the work and add some brightness. While lacquer painting has conventionally been a delicate affair, Truong Tan’s early lacquer paintings were raw and gritty, with tangles of nude male bodies in great swarms, implying both violence and sexual penetration.

In early 2017 Truong Tan began creating hyper-realistic depictions of celestial bodies swirling in outer space. The level of detail in these paintings is unprecedented for the medium of lacquer, with Tan using a wide variety of shell fragments collected from around the world to put each and every star in the sky. The first painting in the series, Human (2017 – 2019), features a planet viewed from space, partially obscured by a swarm of belligerent figures holding knives. The figures are painted in black on black, forcing the viewer to squint and shift perspective to see them clearly, representing the teeming mass of humanity and the regrettable impacts of our actions upon each other and the planet. Inspired by this particular work, Tan set out to create 23 additional paintings of planets, symbolizing the variety of emotional states which an individual might pass through in the course of a single day, as well as the 24 frames per second which create the illusion of movement in film. All 24 lacquer paintings are installed in a single room, the works hung tightly together to achieve a panoramic effect, as if the viewers themselves were adrift in the cosmos.

Drifting through a different space is Family (2019), a work comprising 42 jellyfish meticulously created in silk and polyester. Gently lit with color-changing lights, the jellyfish float down from the 5.5 meter-high ceiling at the gallery entrance, adapting to the gallery’s architecture as the ceiling decreases. While visually quite stunning, it is important to note that some jellyfish species are poisonous with tentacles that can kill on contact. Bearing in mind that jellyfish come together in blooms more by natural impulses rather than familial allegiance, the artwork’s title takes on an ironic tone and prods us to consider how families are shaped by society.

The exhibition includes a second major installation titled Journey (2019). The work consists of 10,000 handmade paper sculptures resembling spermatozoa crossing a long narrow bamboo bridge, the bridge itself draped in white mosquito netting. The material gives the installation an aura of purity, but this is humorously undercut by the autoerotic subtext of the sculptures, each of which was made from an individual facial tissue. The idea of purity is particularly fraught with controversy when it comes to issues of genetics and ancestry – the delicate ‘beings’ wriggling across the bridge raise questions about where we come from and where we are going.

Taken as a whole, the new work is a testament to the indomitable creative spirit of an artist who has never stopped testing the limits of art in society, as well as his own technical capabilities. Like a breakaway planet unhinged from orbit, he continues to hurtle head first into the unknown, inspiring successive generations of other artists along the way.