Vietnam and Beyond
PacificBridge Showcases New Art From Southeast Asia

JULY 21, 1999


A FILM PROFESSOR of mine proposed that the Vietnam war movie had replaced the western as the dominant icon in American filmmaking. The reason behind the change was a corresponding social shift from frontier idealism to a more nuanced, cynical view of the United States' role as global superhero. Which, as theories go, is all well and good, but, for the Vietnamese people, the fact that the war looms so large in this country's collective unconscious has been a barrier to true understanding. They'd like to move on from Full Metal Jacket, but we're just not giving them the chance.

In part, it was the desire to present a more complex view of southeast Asia that led Geoff Dorn and Beth Gates to open the Pacific Bridge gallery in Oakland 18 months ago. The couple lived in southeast Asia for several years and have toured the region extensively; they returned to this country in 1996 with a ready-made network of artists, most of whom were getting minimal exposure in the West. Dorn, critical of the Bay Area's focus on "blue-chip, G7" art, cites the fact that the Asian Art Museum has no contemporary art curator as a measure of its indifference. (To be fair, the situation seems to be changing, with major shows of contemporary Filipino and Chinese art occurring in the past year.) But he stresses that Pacific Bridge doesn't want to show art simply because it's Vietnamese, Indonesian, or Filipino, "It's just that we saw a lot of great art in southeast Asia and felt it was too bad people over here didn't have a chance to see it."

The perspective of "Cries, Whispers and Remembrances" is both Vietnamese and international. Curated by Suzanne Lecht, a U.S.-born art consultant who lives in Hanoi, it features three artists who offer a wide spectrum of experience in relation to Vietnam. Phan Cam Thuong is a scholar and artist in Hanoi, Nguyen Cam is a Vietnamese-born painter living in France, and Maritta Nurmi is a Finnish-born artist who has lived in Hanoi for the past eight years.

Of the three, the most traditional work belongs to Phan Cam Thuong, whose delicate paintings on bark paper and silk feature folkloric views of village life. The artist, who is a Buddhist scholar and one of Vietnam's better-known art historians, fuses his knowledge of the country into depictions of religious ceremonies, dances, and daily activities. Vietnam's history as a Dutch outpost, and its ambivalence toward these outsiders, is recalled in Dance of the Dutch. Many other works feature crowd scenes, with figures melding into one another as long robes billow around them.

In Nurmi's work, Scandinavian and Vietnamese influences combine in an exploration of both spiritual and mundane. Icy, shimmering tones are created by layering silver and aluminum leaf onto canvases, which are then sealed with traditional Vietnamese lacquer. In Night Raider, the abstracted form of a cockroach scuttles across a silvery ground, while 101 Eggs draws on a Vietnamese creation myth in which a dragon (the country's father) and a fairy (its mother) each took 50 eggs and headed, respectively, to the sea and the mountains. (Of the extra egg in her painting Nurmi says, "Maybe that's me.") The charm of these works lies in their simplicity, but also in a clever duality; while abstracted bugs and drums take on the primal force of cave paintings, the opalescent surfaces exude a more airy sense of transience and mysticism.

A more earthy energy inflects the work of Nguyen Cam, who first returned to Vietnam five years ago after an absence of 30 years. The artist, who teaches painting in Paris, literally incorporates aspects of the country into his mixed---media works: rough burlap, pieces of rope, and sand-and-paint mixtures form the basis of his abstract studies. With a palette of hot reds, yellows, and browns, Nguyen summons up Vietnam's heat along with its history of suffering. Recycled rice sacks bearing traces of their former contents shed light on the past; in the series Traces, the artist forges a link with his childhood through the use of these elegiac materials.

For an outsider, it can be difficult to get a sense of a national psyche through art -- unsurprisingly, artists often don't want to bear the burden of "explaining" their country to the world. "Cries, Whispers and Remembrances" offers tiny glimpses into Vietnam's soul, but perhaps more importantly it conveys the passions of three talented artists.

'Cries, Whispers and Remembrances.' Through Aug. 14. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Pacific Bridge, 95 Linden, no. 6, Oakl. (510) 451-8840. Artists' talk by Nguyen Cam and Maritta Nurmi Wed/21, 7-8:30 p.m..

CLICK HERE FOR Cries, Whispers and Remembrances

Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11 am - 6 pm.