An ambitious project at the South L.A. gallery the Mistake Room seeks to introduce local audiences to contemporary Vietnamese art. “Where the Sea Remembers” — encompassing an exhibition, program series and website — features 15 artists active after 2007, when communist Vietnam entered the World Trade Organization and relaxed its borders, allowing for greater exchange with the rest of the world.
The show — thoughtfully curated by the Mistake Room’s artistic director, Cesar Garcia-Alvarez, with staff members Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia and Kris Kuramitsu — is no doubt an indicator of the economic rise of Vietnam. As we’ve seen with China and India, a strong contemporary art market definitively marks one’s arrival on the international cultural scene.
The most relatable works are those that address cross-cultural interactions. Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s “Letters From Saigon to Saigon” is a series of larger-than-life size reproductions of a handwritten letter sent from Vietnamese rapper Wowy to African American rapper Saigon. The text bubbles over with Wowy’s sheer excitement at connecting with Saigon, whom he discovered on the internet. Between the lines we can feel his desire to see himself reflected in a global culture — he laments Vietnamese ignorance of hip-hop — but also Vietnam’s strange relationship with the U.S. After all, the letter only exists because of the legacies of war, loss and sacrifice that led Saigon to name himself in honor of the black soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War.
Phan Quang’s poignant photographs probe more intimate relations. His images document the families of Japanese soldiers who remained in Vietnam after World War II. These men married Vietnamese women and started families, only to abandon them when called home to Japan after Vietnamese independence. Quang depicts the descendants, draped under a gauzy white veil, with pictures of their absent patriarchs. The veil suggests the ghostly presence of the missing men and a family life frozen in time, but it’s also a protective, sanctifying gesture, deflecting the discrimination these families have faced because of their mixed heritage.
Other works take a more personal, surreal tone. Sandrine Llouquet, who was born in France to Vietnamese parents but now lives in Ho Chi Minh City, creates beautiful, delicate drawings inspired by her interest in religion and spirituality. They are lovely and mysterious, sealed in a visual symbolism all their own.
Phan Thao Nguyen’s equally fantastical scenes are similarly opaque, even though they are painted on the pages of a book about Vietnam by a 17th century French missionary. Nguyen’s drawings literally overwrite this text, augmenting and reframing a Westerner’s account with a local one.
For Ngo Dình Bao Chau, illegibility seems to be part of the project. She has installed a small black-box theater setting for her elegiac drawings of flowers, grave sites, and children, holding viewers at a distance. Each drawing is cryptically captioned in flat, and therefore unreadable, Vietnamese Braille.
The inclusion of these more introspective, even recalcitrant works speaks not only to the depth and diversity of the Vietnamese art scene but to the curators’ desire to present a multi-faceted survey that reaches beyond works that are easily legible. As they say in their introduction to the show, this is just a starting point.
In the interim, there’s always the Propeller Group. The artist collective’s faux-aged paintings of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, each with a different Leonardo DiCaprio hairstyle, require no translation at all.
When: Open Wednesdays-Saturdays, through Oct. 12
Info: (213) 749-1200, www.tmr.la