Phi Phi Oanh: “I view ‘sơn ta’, Vietnamese lacquer, as not merely a painting medium but a framework of intersecting relationships.” – S.E.A. Focus

Phi Phi Oanh: “I view ‘sơn ta’, Vietnamese lacquer, as not merely a painting medium but a framework of intersecting relationships.”

Lacquer painting at the intersection of locality, culture, ecology and time

Phi Phi Oanh is a Vietnamese-American artist best known for her experimental approach to the traditional medium of Vietnamese lacquer painting. Her work reflects on cross-cultural histories and situates the medium in a broader art discourse that rethinks categories such as “craft”. Phi Phi has participated in institutional exhibitions such as the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA (2022), ‘Radiant Material’ at National Gallery Singapore (2017) and the 2013 Singapore Biennale ‘If the World Changed’, among others. 

This catch-up session focuses on Phi Phi’s ‘Pro Se’ series, which was selected for acquisition into the Singapore Art Museum collection through the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund. Initially commissioned by National Gallery Singapore for the exhibition ‘Radiant Material’, ‘Pro Se’ responds to Nguyen Gia Tri’s ‘Les Fees’ (1963) a landmark work by one of the founding artists of modern Vietnamese lacquer painting. Phi Phi speaks to the processes behind the body of work and the formal connections she drew with art of the past. She also unpacks the themes in her latest work ‘Palimpsest: A Light Exists in Spring’ (2024) which is presented at the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024. 

We begin by asking Phi Phi about her relationship with Vietnamese lacquer, a medium she describes as “a critical lens” to view society and the natural world.

‘Radiant Material – A Dialogue in Vietnamese Lacquer Painting’, 2017, exhibition view at National Gallery Singapore. Image courtesy of the National Gallery Singapore.     

You have been researching Vietnamese lacquer painting for 20 years. What prompted your interest in this material? Have your motivations shifted since the start of this journey?

At first when I started with lacquer painting, it was an exciting way of discovering my Vietnamese heritage. Later, it became a way to actively participate in this culture. Increasingly, I see it as a critical lens through which to process and view the natural world around us and the society we live in. I now view sơn ta, Vietnamese lacquer, as not merely a painting medium but rather as a framework of intersecting relationships with locality, culture, environment, ecology and time.

Back when I first started working with lacquer painting, any mention of medium in contemporary art was seen as an art world faux pas since post-industrialist logic will consider the concept of the work as most important and how things were produced as secondary, if it is at all considered. How far we have come since then! With climate and technological changes, interest in decoloniality and knowledge of natural resources, awareness about how things, objects and even ideas are produced have become essential to the work itself. It is a good feeling to be on the right side of the times.

Phi Phi Oanh, ‘Pro Se-Vivarium Air 1’, 2023, photos of the work in progress. Image courtesy of the artist.

Are there techniques or new material combinations you are most excited by today? If so, can you provide examples?

You might be surprised to know that currently, I am obsessed with naturalistic painting through direct observation in tranh sơn mài or Vietnamese lacquer painting. The process inherent to lacquer painting– of layering paint and sanding away– leads to a final image that to me is “hyper-real”. Perhaps not tonally realistic in a photograph, but truer to mirroring the slippery way in which sight and memory works. This goes both for the artist and the viewer. I liken this attempt to capture simultaneity of experience to what the Analytical Cubists were aiming at over a century ago. However, the fragmented views and changing perspectives that were an intellectual exercise in oil painting are somehow inherent to the process of making a naturalistic lacquer work. The process demands repeated sessions of observation and then the deliberate effacing of the work through sanding away – the final resulting painting after polishing is a palimpsest of all those moments. It is a visually rich two-dimensional painting that is ever changing with light. It is an intuitive and visceral process, and I hope to make paintings that can successfully capture this without need for further exegesis.

Currently, these naturalistic terrarium still-life paintings are combined in a series called ‘Pro Se’ where the lacquer boards are shaped like trompe l’oeil digital tablets. The “device” is a device intended to bring to mind our relationship with digital images. I am also excited to watch how lacquer ages alongside the originally referenced tablet.

Works from Phi Phi Oanh’s ‘Pro Se’ series on view at S.E.A. Focus 2024. Photo by Darren Soh.

Your work has been selected through the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund to enter Singapore Art Museum’s collection. What does this mean for you personally and for your practice?

Receiving this recognition from the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund is a wonderful way to commemorate my relationship with Singapore. This relationship began with my participation in the 2013 Singapore Biennale where one of my first works ‘Specula’ was exhibited. Since then, I have been honoured to collaborate in meaningful exhibitions with institutions such as the Singapore Art Museum, National Gallery Singapore and NTU CCA as well as with the FOST Gallery that represents my work.

Also, this pleases me immensely because even though Vietnamese lacquer painting is considered an important national tradition, there are very few examples of it in museum collections in the world. Although the works selected are more like experimental seeds towards new directions rather than iconic, consecrated, and established works, I am grateful they were chosen in celebration of the experimental and risk-taking spirit that has defined lacquer painting in Vietnam.

Phi Phi Oanh, ‘Palimpsest’, 2024, installation view at Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale. Photo by Yeo Siew Hua. Image Courtesy of the artist and FOST Gallery.

You are presenting the second iteration of ‘Palimpsest’ at Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale. Can you talk about how the work has been adapted for this presentation?

‘Palimpsest’ is an installation that combines upcycled obsolete medium format projectors I call “Lacquerscopes” to project lacquer paintings painted on glass through light onto a large screen. Originally, the work is about dematerialisation, shifting scales, and perspective.

In this latest iteration of  ‘Palimpsest’, I included an additional element consisting of steamer trunk suitcases made from locally-sourced recycled plastic that are used to pack one of the Lacquerscopes and also serve as the base for the assembled Lacquerscopes on display. The structure and arms of each Lacquerscope and its support resembles a tree with branches, but which has no roots. Collectively they speak about human migration, in particular the burden of carrying around a self-contained sense of home.

The travel stickers on the trunks tell us where the work has physically travelled. At the moment, only stickers from Da Nang and Riyadh have been pasted.

Phi Phi Oanh, ‘Palimpsest’, 2024, installation view at Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale. Photo by Yeo Siew Hua. Image courtesy of the artist and FOST Gallery.

In your opinion, how does it respond to the biennale theme ‘After Rain’ and/or the context of Saudi Arabia?

The main goal of this biennale is to introduce the role that arts play in society and show how different artistic strategies respond to questions such as urban transformation, human dwellings, and coexistence with non-human habitats.

As an artistic strategy, ‘Palimpsest’ treats Vietnamese lacquer painting as a subject and substance belonging to a specific place and culture. It challenges the limits of breadth by adding the Lacquerscope machines and projecting it onto light. This fundamentally changes it while keeping it essentially the same. The paintings on glass remain traditional in the techniques of layering and sanding. These small paintings now live in a self-contained box and its main significance to anyone is in its denomination of origin and capacity to represent a distilled essence of place. All of the above movements mirror the experience of migration and transformation.

I think that even though sơn ta lacquer is specifically a Vietnamese medium, every place has its own significant substances or traditional cultural practices tied to natural habitats. I think the significance of sơn ta lacquer can translate well to visitors of the Biennale, whose relationship to fragrant substances such as Oud or Bakhoor, for example, also goes beyond simply a scent into the realm of the spiritual.

The curators wanted to create an exhibition about regeneration and growth and all intangible things that can signify hope. I can get on board with a proposal like this especially while being deeply aware of the tragedies of destruction and displacement unfolding around us. The slides presented for this edition of ‘Palimpsest’ called ‘A Light Exists in Spring’ were created with this curatorial objective in mind.

A look inside Phi Phi’s studio. Image courtesy of the artist.
A look inside Phi Phi’s studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

What other upcoming projects/exhibitions are you working on?

This year, I continue with my experiments with naturalistic still life compositions of bricks and moss enclosed in a type of Wardian case. This series is called ‘Capriccio’ because they are inspired by that genre of fantastical architectural landscape paintings depicting ruins. FOST Gallery will be presenting these works in fall.

Otherwise, I am also revisiting a work called ‘Armour Piece’, creating an armour composed of parts from different territories, cultures and historical times that have shaped my identity as a person. This would be a sculptural work for an exhibition in October 2024.