Humans need art to be humans again

(No.4, Vol.7,Aug-Sep 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

“There is something so close, so intimate and so untouchable in Nguyen Trung’s soft, light gray clouds. So real, so beautiful, they are also so fragile and can vaporize and vanish anytime. Those clouds are illusions accompanying symbolic images, much like meditative visions. Sensations of pain, horror, war, love, joy, and innocence of youth, buried beneath the mundane, forgotten and lost under hardened numbness, subtly resurface again. Time, now, indifferent now sensitive, like thin strokes of white paint on a wall, one on top of another, disappears under colorless mould and dirt, just to one day ooze out layer by layer, clearing the gray area between the subconscious and reality. Nothing was erased, things just get richer, more alluring. Clumsy strokes, innocent letters, circles hitched to one another etc. are like riddles, taking us to a new adventure, and another and another to find our own self. Life reincarnates in a new, more significant form.
There is a set of stormy scenes. Pure and immense forces of the supernatural, rage and subsidence come and go in successions, rendering words meaningless and unable to stand between us and the grandeur and magnificence of nothingness. It’s unreachable and untouchable, as if seen beyond the screen separating us and other worlds, beyond the material reality. Curiosity, and the urge of unveiling what is hidden behind that delicate whiteness transport us to indefinite domains that even the artist himself cannot predict...
I have never, perhaps, seen anything so down-to-earth, so dusty and sensual in Nguyen Trung’s paintings. He lulls us to sleep with luxurious beauty and salvation no more. Here is a set of paintings that are so rousing. One is pulled into a back point amid an eye-blindingly white entirety, hypnotized, swept away by imagination. It’s a white valley of loneliness where black spots overflow and emit light, the down pouring light of desire which comes from the voluptuous beauty of a woman just ecstatically fulfilled. A very mundane, very sensual kind of fulfillment...
Flowing with time and growing older, Nguyen Trung accumulates more and more feelings and energy to dedicate to art. His freedom, self-reliance and rediscovered inner resources made his 19 showcased abstract paintings a peculiar beauty of an otherworldly, sensual and at the same time innocent reality. May be that is the way he sees and lives life”
Huong Xuan
Impression of the writer about the Shades of Gray Exhibition by Nguyen Trung at Quynh Gallery (65 De Tham) from Dec 9 2010 to Dec 1 2011 (-Ed)

Artist Nguyen Trung
Portrait by Hoang Tuong

For a long time, artist Nguyen Trung dove into silence and lived a hermetic life. Rumors and speculations surrounding this phenomenon of Vietnamese art made him an enigmatic figure.
Thanks to writer Huong Xuan, who has been a keen admirer and follower of the artist for many years, Vietnam Heritage is proud to share some insights from her latest interview with the artist.

With a warm smile in his flickering eyes, his youth and passion is obvious when it comes to beauty and his many other pursuits.

- Contemplating your works the last few days, I feel much comforted, as if having found lost dreams and visions again. How did you find such a way to reach one’s most pristine and vulnerable recesses of the soul?
That is hard to explain, just like the subconscious itself. Art is a process of awakening and blossoming of the subconscious, not something outside. Nostalgic memories fall deep into the past, smouldering, fermenting and one day it becomes wine. It takes nothing to paint a portrait of the woman you love, and such a portrait has no value. Art is not an immediate surge of inspiration like an unripe fruit. Let it take time, slowly. When the subconscious awakens, take your hand to guide your brush strokes without you knowing it, that’s art.

How do you remain yourself and live by your talent and dignity in this rapidly changing world?
I don’t resist or hold defence lines, but only go with the flow, preserving inner comfort. How can one resist a colossal wheel? Dramatic things happen, but I don’t use force, nor do I become fierce. Just like when you are meditating. Resistance is violence too, and violence never brings tranquility. The idea of defence only comes when you are weak. Only the weak look for a fight. Those who can control themselves don’t need to ponder on countermeasures and can keep cool.

What touches you the most in a woman ? How to protect the material and spiritual purity of beauty and love in such a time when the world is getting more and more crude?
I value purity of the heart, sincerity, and then the appearance. The female portraits I paint are usually idealized, with a religious touch. I often contemplate religious paintings and sculptures in the temples, with a sorrowful light cast on their gestures, with lively, breathing lines on their necks. I am greatly influenced by religions. I also owe the beauty of my female portraits to Kim Zung, partly. The women he described were all perfect and transparent. Another reason is that I love their beauty, I know how to cherish and preserve it. I never forget a beautiful female face I have once seen. I keep those images, let them ferment, and they one day come out in my paintings.

It seems, in your eyes life is very beautiful ?
It’s beautiful at times, and sometimes ugly too. But if you love and cherish it, you will be able to see beauty in that ugliness.

Where are the noble souls, like the ones Kim Zung described in his martial art novels? What saddens you the most, when the values you cherish diminish in today’s society?
Noble souls are always few. I see people rolling downhill, losing everything on the way from kindness to humanity. They only rush to grab wealth for themselves, and they even violate the deities to force out their granting of quick bucks. That’s why I live in loneliness and have few friends. I break up with the non-like-minded. That may be a little too stringent. A gentleman shouldn’t be too stringent, but I’m not that good. I am very categorical. People fake too much already. Vietnamese art is « heroically in peril » also because the mountains of fake and forgery are burying real values. Most people only look for material gain, disregarding feelings, emotions and love. Material pursuits also kills sincerity in people. They become so easy-going. Wealth devalues humans, and they belittle themselves and those around them.
But what the heck, just let it go and the truth will resurface. People with purpose are always transparent and consistent, inside and out. What we need the most now is a healthy education system to make people come back to the true beauty.

Famous and respected by peers at the age of 19, but you dropped out of the School of Arts. Why?
My youth was full of fun. I lived free and did what I wanted. But the teaching methods at the School of Arts were never smart! It’s my fate to be bullied everywhere I go. In my neighborhood, at school or in the streets... People took my respect for fear. I knew I did well, but the teachers always denied it. Maybe I was subjective, but it was depressing to feel bullied. When I failed the sophomore year exams and had to stay one more year, the first day at school was so sad. I didn’t think I was a genius, nor did I hold grudge on my teachers. I just disliked their way of teaching. I had a constant impression that I was too incompetent. Finally I decided to learn by myself. Art to me means to be alone, independent.

To make your own marks requires a great determination. How did you self-study for such a long time when information was so scarce and hard to access?
Passion, and self-confidence  gives you the strength to pursue and follow up. Some books can change your life. At that time, art literature was scarce, but I was lucky to find some that enlightened me, such as those of French philosophers Bergson and Alain. I learned something about modern trends of art through the book The Birth of A New Art of Michel Ragon, a writer, art historian, critic, a man who was dedicated to modern art, especially abstract art. Tagor’s essays also showed me the purposes of art… I read and discovered many things for myself. And then I stopped and forgot all.
What pivoting moments have changed your personal perception of art?
Hard to tell the clear time period. It was a natural shift. I moved back and forth between realism the abstractionism all the time. But I abandoned neither, and never threw away everything I had. In art I am a dangerous man (smiling humorously), always torn into halves, because I always pursue immediately whomever I found good, and quit right away to pursue another when I found it hard. Perhaps that’s my way, just to avoid being too stretched. But I always kept abstract art in mind, because to the best of my knowledge, abstractionism originated in the Orient. Michel Ragon wrote, « There is always an element of Zen in abstract paintings. » In 1990, seeing first hand abstract paintings in France, I thought that was fit for my Oriental nature, compatible with what I have lived and experienced. It was more inspiring to me.
I never predetermine what a good painting should be like. Finishing a painting, I am most happy when I feel satisfied and glad. Only then I sign to complete it. There are paintings I finished long ago, but have not signed because they were incomplete. Being true also means troubling oneself. Don’t ask yourself what beautiful means because there is no answer. Principles will become rigid, outdated, unfit for our persona, because we are different from what we were yesterday, and we will never stop changing. Don’t talk about this school or that trend either. To me, art has to be very spontaneous. The artist has to listen to the voice deep inside himself, calmly and slowly contemplate… in order to be able to change constantly and not to repeat yesterday, not to become boring. A psychoanalyst who collected my works and whom I highly regarded said something I liked very much, « I didn’t like it at all when you moved to abstractionism. But that means you are changing, which means you are alive, and I am glad about that. »

Seeing clearly societal movements, sensing deeply the gains and losses of the whole nation and each human life, what torments you the most that enables you to express in such a heartfelt way human suffering, setting new milestones in abstract art?
The most tormenting thing to me is the perpetual gnawing question of history, which is how to stop wars. Art has to have enough power to help people understand and love each other better.

Looking at today’s artistic life, what worries you most about the young generation?
Vietnamese art is becoming more and more diversified. Having access to European and American art, the young artists tend to follow many different modern trends. But one should not just learn a little here, a little there. Things have to be taken seriously, studied in depth, distilled and combined with one’s own talent and wisdom. Vietnamese art community is very small, and it’s easy for an artist to become well-known. The media tend to rush to create early fame immaturely by pouring out loud words of praise arbitrarily, implanting wrong illusions in young people. But to what end?

… the lack of keen and seasoned art critics?
Yes. We don’t have a culture of art critique for the sake of the arts yet. There are only a few learned writers who care to update themselves about some issues of the world such as Nguyen Quan, Bui Nhu Huong…
Do you think Vietnam has developed a proper art market?
Vietnam art market has been formed, but it is very fragile. We don’t have knowledgeable professional art dealers who are well-versed in art. An art collector has to really love and be able to enjoy the paintings, not just for the sole purpose of commercial benefit, It’s easy to deceive oneself if one only runs after big names without true love for art.

Going through Saigon’s upheavals within the ups and downs of history, what do you think when you look at the city now?
I have a strong nomadic nature. Back in my childhood, living near the sixth train station gate, I constantly felt the urge to follow the trains’ whistle. But away from Saigon, I always missed the city. Nothing in particular, I just wanted to be back. It hurts to see the familiar street corners unrecognizably change… Saigon is being treated so badly…

Having been teaching, writing papers and practicing many professions, being an intrepid person in life, why do you often time choose to be silent? Are you running away from something?
Silent doesn’t mean dead. Sometimes that’s when one is most rebellious. Silence is good for contemplation, growing up, thinking things through. Sometimes I want to make a big picture, but it has to wait. There must be ideas, which must be arranged… at those times, silence is like planning a city. Sometimes the plan is horrible, and has to be redone from the scratch. But in life, silence is reconciliation, integration and going with the flow.

Do you fear anything?
Not right now, but I did. The most haunting was the fear of being called up to the blackboard by a teacher. I was a lazy student, only good at the subjects I liked, such as literature and languages. My math was a total zero. The year 2004 with my exhibition Blackboard was my important transition period, full of unconscious undercurrents. A collector commented, « the paintings remind me of the times in the classroom, just as the teacher turns his back, kites started flying in all directions… » The Blackboard series was about nostalgic recollections of childhood.

At the most mature stage of life, what is the dearest to you? Which is the way for you to come back to love ?
It’s time. I have wasted too much of it and now there is just a little left. I need quiet and health to keep my creativity vibrant. Nobody can give me that; I have to secure it for myself. As for time, it’s given by heaven and can be taken away by heaven. It’s none of my business.
You ask me about love? To me love is art. I never quit, so why talk about coming back? We humans are very much in need of art to regain our humanity.

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