Art, War and Remembrance : Exhibit: Irvine Fine Arts Center unites two cultures in a unique way through the side-by-side works of Americans and Vietnamese.
Two of them, Americans, lived in Vietnam for a time. Two others, Vietnamese, live in the United States now. All are artists. How did dislocation affect their lives, their art? If war was the initial catalyst for their common ground, can a shared exhibition now unite them in a new way?
Questions such as these are addressed in “Four Artists/Bon Hoa Si: On Common Ground/Un Common Ground,” an ambitious undertaking at the Irvine Fine Arts Center (through Feb. 2) featuring work by Americans Richard Turner and William Short and Vietnamese Viet Nguyen and Hoang Vu.
The past experiences that each brings to his art are disparate. Turner, director of Chapman University’s art gallery, lived in Saigon as a teen-ager while the seeds for the Vietnam War were being sown. Short, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., was an American serviceman imprisoned in South Vietnam for refusing to fight. Nguyen, now a La Palma resident, escaped Vietnam hours before Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975. Vu, who lives in Fullerton, attempted five unsuccessful escapes after the fall, and finally made it to the United States in 1984.
“This show creates a new language that’s not about war, but that has to do with the beauty and the graciousness of art,” says arts center curator Dorrit Fitzgerald, who organized the show with Turner. “It’s about art being a bridge for the two cultures that goes beyond conflict.”
Because she and Turner wanted to promote a “dialogue about cross-cultural influence,” the works are displayed side by side, not segregated, Fitzgerald said. However, the aim was to show an overlap, not a fusion.
As local Vietnamese artist and writer Dong Nguyen states in the exhibit’s catalogue, works by Turner and Short, “although presenting Vietnamese realities, sustain their own modern and American character.” And Nguyen and Vu, “students of American schools of art whose works completely reflect American methods of composition and style, still show a Vietnamese soul.”
(The catalogue--the 11-year-old arts center’s first--also contains each artists’ biography, an essay by Fitzgerald, and one by Peter Frank of Los Angeles as well as the one by Dong Nguyen. Printed in English and Vietnamese, it was produced with the arts center’s first grant--$15,000--from the National Endowment for the Arts.)
The exhibit sprung from Fitzpatrick’s desire to stage a retrospective for Turner. But he preferred a show reflecting his interest in Asian cultures and the relationship between “art and place.” As Orange County is home to the nation’s largest number of Vietnamese, a show that combined both cultures’ art seemed especially appropriate.
Each of the artists was asked how the war and how living in a foreign land influenced his work and what the exhibit symbolizes for him.
Turner, 48, lived in Saigon from 1959 to 1961 when his father was director of Michigan State University’s police training program, part of the U.S. government’s economic Cold War aid to Vietnam. Since then, his work, largely mixed media constructions and installations, has dealt with the interaction of Asian and American cultures.
“I began making art when I was in high school in Saigon, so the very act of art making for me begins in that place,” he said. “Also, the art that I started making there was copies of American Abstract Expressionism, so doing Western art in an Asian country is, I guess, what has influenced all of my life, all of my art since then.”
He has done several pieces about the war. But a room-sized installation at the arts center, “Desire and Indifference,” may signal a move away from that focus, he said. The work concerns American cultural influence during the post-World War II era in Vietnam. It contains references to the Beat Generation (Jack Kerouac’s book “Dharma Bums” is drawn over a map of Vietnam) and juxtaposes other images of ‘50s counterculture and Vietnamese life.
Turner said it represents “a direct response to going back to Saigon (last year), to the place that I had dreamed about and made art about for nearly 30 years, and finding it so changed and my own experiences so erased and inconsequential that I felt I was kind of purged of that desire and indifferent to continuing exploring that aspect of my past.”
“Four Artists” can help foster equality for and understanding of Asian artists, Turner said. The exhibit is partly about “considering works by Vietnamese artists not as derivative imitations of Western works and not as exotic treasures from faraway lands, but in the same way we look at the art in some gallery in Santa Monica.”
Nguyen, 40, escaped Vietnam hours before the fall of Saigon; his father, two brothers and a sister have yet to follow, and his mother died there. Like most artists in Vietnam, he studied European Modernism, with an emphasis on the Ecole de Paris style. Early on, his work embodied traditional realism, but upon coming to the United States, that changed.
“From the beginning here,” he said, “I did a lot of art about Vietnam.” But then it became too painful “to be sad all the time.” Also, the moment people would learn that he was Vietnamese, they would say, “ ‘I’m sorry.’ That bothered me. I don’t want to live the rest of my life with people seeing me and saying sorry.”
So Nguyen’s paintings and prints, while still referring to his homeland and past, became more abstract. Described by Fitzgerald as the results of “his passion to show the beauty of his country,” their vibrant colors and abstract landscapes reflect an “inescapable joyousness” and optimism.
All of Nguyen’s works at the arts center are coupled with poetry by Maria Kubaiska, a Yugoslav poet and writer living in North Hollywood, with whom he shared experiences of extreme political unrest and conflict. Nguyen’s agenda is not political, however; like most Vietnamese artists, overt political statement has no place in his work.
The exhibit gives him an opportunity to give “thanks,” he said. “I want to say thanks to 58,000 men and women who died in Vietnam. . . . I want to share with the American public not just war, but the beauty of Vietnam, the nature. American soldiers didn’t have a chance to sit and enjoy.”
Short, 44, was drafted, then court-martialed after four months of combat and imprisoned in South Vietnam in 1969 for refusing to continue fighting. “I didn’t think the war was worth fighting,” he said. “It was not worth taking another life and risking my own.” Since returning to the United States, he has worked in photography, sculpture and painting, much of it addressing the emotional aftermath of his war experiences. He has returned to Vietnam three times since 1989, and the large photographs in Irvine reflect his interest in the people and daily life there.
His trips back were the first times he “actually got to see towns and villages and Vietnamese people up close. I’d been in a free-fire zone in combat, and that means anything that moves, you shoot, and we did not take prisoners. If we went into a village, it was to destroy it; we didn’t do anything except kill anything in our path. It was not an opportunity to get to know Vietnamese people.”
Short’s photographs depict such images as a young boy, proudly displaying a venomous cobra he captured, and two women entertaining at a Hanoi piano bar. Short chemically damaged many of his negatives, a process which, for instance, produced a long, thick black mark over the eyes of one of the piano bar women--an allusion, he said, to the way Vietnamese women suffered from sexist treatment by American GIs who viewed them solely as “objects for male pleasure.”
The exhibit, Short said, “heads in a direction of resolving that bad chapter of Vietnamese history and American history. I think it’s time for Americans to understand the Vietnamese of this country and those still in Vietnam. It’s important that that the war be laid to rest.”
Vu, 29, came here seven years ago; some of his earlier attempts to escape landed him in prison. During one effort, he could hear police “bullets drop on the water around me.” Like Nguyen, his work evolved from realistic to abstract, and the pieces in Irvine range from to small ceramics that recall leaf-like structures to large sculptural works made with natural elements, such as plants, alluding to his reverence for nature.
“In Vietnam, I didn’t have much freedom, so I was painting about beautiful places and free kind of places,” he said. “I (still) think my work is not much about the war or fighting.” Vu sees two main themes in his work. One has to do with his longing for the lush landscape he left behind (“Of all the things that I miss so much, the first is rain, the second is moisture and the third is moss”).
The other has to do with assimilation. “It’s about my struggle in America in dealing with a new society, a new culture that is so different from what I came from. In many fields, I feel that the white (race) is always (considered) more superior than other races.” This exhibit, giving equal time and space to Americans and Vietnamese, “shows that there is an (equality among) us, and that’s a very nice idea.”
“Four Artists/Bon Hoa Si : On Common Ground/Un Common Ground” continues at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine, through Feb. 2. Hours: noon to 9 p.m. Mondays; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission : free. Information: (714) 552-1018.