Highly dynamic artist makes perfectly still sculptures

(No.6, Vol.7,Dec 2017-Jan 2018 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

A portrait of ‘Ceramic Tuan’ by Hoang Tuong

Famously known by his nickname, ‘Ceramic Tuan’, the young artist, born in 1981 in Hai Duong, spent 14 years of his life in a village, creating a unique strain of ceramics that is rich in Buddhist elements, or a ‘Vietnamese sutra’ as an art critic and artist Le Thiet Cuong calls it. Having graduated from the Ceramic Department of the Hanoi School of Industrial Art in 2006, from 2008 he has had several impressive personal exhibitions: Human manuscript (2008), Feast of Art (2009), Nguyen Tuan’s Ceramics (2010), Migration (2013).  In 2014 he joined the artists representing different strains of ceramics such as Nguyen Khac Quan, Le Quoc Viet, Nguyen Quang Thu and Pham Anh Dao in the Davines Art Series program, which is overseen by artist Le Thiet Cuong, on the theme Vietnamese Ceramic Art.

An expert on many purely Vietnamese strains of ceramics, what brought you to Phu Lang ceramics and bonded all your young years with the village?
Phu Lang’s land and people mesmerized me the very first time I put my feet on that soil. I was an art school student on a field trip. Phu Lang at the time was still very vibrant. The scenes of women gracefully shouldering loads of things in the fields, strong young men loading kneaded clay into kilns or carrying ceramics to the bazaar, fuming kilns, boats going back and forth busily in the Cau River, the hard and strong feel of the ceramics, the strong, pristine smell of clay and fuel wood...all of it excited me so. A prosperous, vibrant countryside by a river, a chance for me to learn about the trade and the materials for artistic creation, that’s all I needed. As a child, I always wished to have a piece of clay to knead. Now I can have a whole field of clay to play with. Love was ignited, and I pedaled long distances back to the village whenever I had spare time.
In those days that you shared hardship with the pottery workers, what mementos helped form your artistic personality?
I was almost expelled for skipping classes to go and learn the trade. Lucky me, my advisor appreciated my method of learning by doing, by living on the field with those who do it for a living. He defended me and made sure I was granted the right to graduate with a real product.
I did not bury or waste my young years in the countryside. I learned my trade there. Many thought I was a village boy. Sure, I drank the water there; I even acquired the local accent. Our fates are predetermined. As my grandpa was an antique collector, I came to love ceramics since my childhood. The soil and ceramics here are extremely mystical and alluring. At that time, there were no roads to the big kilns. I had to swim across the river Cau to reach them. I stayed with each family for some time, sharing the workers’ meals and beds. It was quite hard.
For that price, they loved me as one of their own. They generously taught me all their trade secrets. Our century-old ceramics remain so rare in the whole world. And our people made mostly jars, urns and ossuaries, rarely any elements of art. My obsession in those years was about learning to make ceramics and create new things of my own, things that only I can make. The idea of creating works of art seemed crazy to most pottery workers, until I met Mr Pham Thang, owner of a generations-old kiln, who understands the miracle of clay, water and fire. He joined my dance, facing all challenges to make oversized pieces with a lot of details. It’s not like sculpting at all, because ceramics are hollow. Finding the formula of materials and conditions for molding and baking, is a long process full of pain, failure and awakening. Those are the most valuable lessons to me.
Given the situation of the ceramic trade villages today, what worries you the most? Is it what motivated you to give a new life to Phu Lang ceramics, making it your life’s mission?
The villages forget their traditions, looking for something new without any definite direction. Worse, they don’t believe in simple beauty anymore. Only the mud from the convex side of the river, mixed with charcoal, lime and rice husk ash in a certain proportion that only masters can feel can make the Phu Lang enamel colors. Mud of this same river but from another place would have a different spirit. The form can be bell-mouthed, bee-waisted, with a rope winding around or some modern deco element added. All goes well with the traditional eel skin enamel. But some learned nerds come from god knows where and tell folks here to use garish chemical colors and paint god knows what, destroying the inherent beauty of Phu Lang ceramics. Only knowing one’s own blood and bones and skin can one love and be oneself.
Bringing the West closer to the East, expressing Buddhist dharma in colors of life, taking humans back to their pristine self ... is the art of your strain of ceramics a kind of ‘Vietnamese sutra’, perhaps?
To use the language of Western forms on traditional materials of the East, I have chosen Phu Lang ceramics and the language of Buddhism to tell my story, to bring Buddhism nearer to the people. I am telling the story of society today with so many losses and damages that the soul has to endure. After 14 years of silent wandering around so many ceramics-making villages, flaring and subsiding, getting hurt and challenging the traditions again, in 2013 the exhibition at the National Museum of Art titled Migration was my pilgrimage to the Buddhist nature of humans. People seem to be scrambling against their own nature, against what used to be their best values, and the society piles materialistic waste upon human soul and body, fracturing human spirit.
In this exhibition, I have found the infinitely strong but invisible tie between Buddha and the living world through the three compositions. ‘Bird-shaped Buddha’, ‘Plant soul’ and ‘Forest of Buddha’. Buddha takes a bird form to migrate to a different world because the Earth is getting more and more exhausted in the race with mankind, and perhaps one day, the human race will have to put its own name into the Red List. Plant soul and Forest of Buddha are nowhere far away as superstition points. Buddha is in every person’s self, in the plants and in everything around us.
What thoughts, what emotions helped you remove the boundaries?
Avoid looking for strange new things if they are detached from real life. My principle is to develop traditions based on traditions. And sometimes one has to have courage to discard some old traditions to build new ones.
Would you share some technical secrets of how to make big ceramic sculptures with meticulous details and miens of utmost tranquility and purest innocence at the same time?
At first, everybody found the idea completely...crazy! But we managed to do it, and even the village masters were astounded. We reversed not only the way of thinking, but the thousand-year-old procedures too. Instead of transporting the dried clay forms through the kiln mouth, we broke a big hole on the wall, moved the works of art in through it and then made a door to close it. Making hundreds of such big bird wings requires money, materials, strength and passion. My ceramic workshop is like a factory and everybody can visit it.
Being highly dynamic helped make perfectly still works of art. The tranquility and innocence comes from the soil to the ceramics. The soil is where I plunged into, ate, lived and shared everything with the people and the spirit of Phu Lang. I encourage myself everyday by diligence, patience and determination. Being free to live with my own emotions was a process of hoarding I had to experience in order to succeed.
What motto helped you pursue to the end the road you have chosen?
Take the plunge while young, and overcome your own self.
What makes you fear the most?
Living without health and without love to artistic creation.
What do you think of the beauty of love?
There is no beauty of love. Love creates beauty.
What is your biggest dream?
To have a last exhibition in which each village will be represented by a ceramic sculpture. I want Vietnamese ceramics to manifest itself in every famous architectural achievement of the world. Coming to the Garden by the bay in Singapore, I only thought of very big sculptures. In my vision, the pure white beach of the bay was a roofed stadium which is a gallery of rows after rows of Phu Lang ceramic sculptures. That would be visually impressive!

Photos provided by Nguyen Tuan

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