Review of Poetic Politic: A Sàn Art Exhibition

Closing this week is Poetic Politic, a group exhibition of contemporary photography, videos, and documentaries from Vietnam and Cambodia, curated by Zoe Butt. This show is co-organized by Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco and Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City.

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Exhibition dates: Oct. 17 – December 12, 2012
Gallery hours: Friday – Sunday, 12-4pm, or by appointment, 415.738.8668

Venue: Gallery at Kadist Art Foundation, 3289 20th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110

Located in the Kadist Foundation’s non profit exhibition space , the show includes photographs and video from Khavy Samnang, An My Lê, Dinh Q Lê, Ngô Đình Trúc, Uudam Nguyen, Phan Quang, Phunam, Vandy Rattana, Trần Minh Đức and Võ An Khánh.  The exhibition spans both documentary aspects of the effects of war a generation ago, to acute allegories which encompass its transcendence, and relevance to cross cultural and contemporary experiences.

Vandy Rattana’s photographs of Cambodian bomb ponds, reveal the overwhelmingly abundant toxic craters in that over time due to their form and function, have been adopted for agricultural use. The incredibly provocative and beautiful photographs of An My Le, a recent MacArthur grantee are from her “Events Ashore” series, documenting the activities of a contemporary US Soldier. Her work  significantly captures the strategies of war, including humanitarian exchange, defense and humanitarian missions.

Dinh Q. Le, Pishkun

Dinh Q. Le’s video, Pishkun, is a compelling cultural analogy. I found it beautifully composed, especially given his Vietnamese American identity.  The title is derived from the term used by Blackfeet American Indians, and refers to the site where roaming bison were killed by herding them into a panic, running them over a cliff.  In Le’s version, the sound is magnetically choreographed and its inundation of waves and helicopters correlate to the distance and timing of the characters in his video.  Here, the bison are the helicopters which held Southern Vietnamese and American military and US diplomatic personnel which tried to flee Vietnam on April 30, 1975, as the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong marched towards Saigon.  In the panic, many never found their aircraft carriers and plummeted into the South China Sea after running out of fuel.  Le’s digitized video creates an eerie, ghostly surreal representation of the tragedy.

Phunam, Patination

Vietnamese artist Phunam lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, and I believe, is 1/3 out of 3/3 of the Propeller Group .  I have never seen his solo work, only The Group’s consistently poignant conceptual performances, paintings, drawings, photos and video about contemporary Vietnam.  When I first looked at this piece, it firmly looked like a mid-century painting.  While these abstractions are sometimes shunned by the public as non-relatable objects of color, others know the politicized nature of these works, as artists during this time were reacting agains the political realism which dominated previously, as well as decorative abstraction that was emerging.  Phunam’s photo reminds me of Alberto Burri’s works. His gritty painted surfaces included such things such as paint, charred holes in various materials, and burlap.  While these paintings unquestionably create visceral reactions in their viewers, throw in the knowledge that Burri worked as a physician in the Italian Army in WWII and the surface analogies to flesh become almost unquestionable.

Only a few inches from Phunam’s piece did I realize that it was not a painting, but a photograph, coming from a series of  highly detailed close up views of government compound walls in Ho Chi Minh City.  The provocative surface, a melange of pollution and soot on the crumbling painted walls. These symbols of surface decay are visual parables to the communist government’s neglect on addressing social liberties. His title “Patination”, is a keen pun meant to refer to these government structures as mere patinas of the roles they are meant to fulfill.


Lien Truong lives and works in Northern California, where she teaches painting and drawing at Humboldt State University. Her artwork has been exhibited in numerous venues, including The National Portrait Gallery, Galerie Quynh Contemporary Art and Southern Exposure.  More info here.



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