For an art form that supposedly represents Vietnam’s cultural patrimony, lacquer painting has very little basis in actual tradition (being a French colonial invention).
Probably for this reason, it has lent itself well to abstractionism. The limited five-colour palate of lacquer meant that the artist could never hope for realism in this medium anyway. Instead, artists over the decades have poked and prodded this viscous, molasses-like material, in the hope that it might reveal answers about an elusive Vietnamese soul.
Viet Kiêu (that’s a member of the Vietnamese diaspora) artist Phi Phi Oanh has been working with lacquer for a while now, taking the abstraction to a new level. In Palimpsest, the viewer doesn’t interact with the lacquer itself but with images of the lacquer. Oanh has painted with lacquer on glass slides, just as she might on any surface. The image of the resulting painting is then projected onto large screens that are layered just like the colours in a lacquer painting are layered.
The experience of walking through layers of suspended screens, surrounded by unidentifiable shapes and lurid colours, is like walking in a liminal space between worlds. You might actually be in Oanh’s consciousness itself. The scratches on the lacquer are experiences that have left deeper impressions; the other hazy shapes experiences that have yet to be processed. Oanh has said she likes working with lacquer because it has a mind of its own. Like Oanh herself, a person who lives between cultures, like identity itself, it’s slippery.