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Bùi Công Khánh
In line with her previous commercial and institution exhibitions which have provided engaging social and political commentary on Southeast Asia, curator Iola Lenzi collaborated with the Vietnamese artist Bùi Công Khánh on his exhibition For Home and Country, for which he created new installations.
Viewers walk into the gallery and observe a miniature slum, only to find that they are being surveilled by two CCTV cameras at either end of the room, while two large screens project this audience surveillance in real time. Khánh tackles issues of social inclusion/exclusion through painstakingly replicating a real ghetto which stands in the centre of a city and on prime real estate. Conversationally, he mentions how his visit there was interrupted by a group of men who immediately assessed him as an outsider, asked him a number of questions, deleted images from his camera and escorted him home (police or mafia? It was unclear); however a discreet voice recorder in Khánh’s pocket captured this aggression. This cacophony of abuse is cleverly run over a video of a shanty town being submerged in torrential rain. Plastic red chairs float away while clothes hanging on a wire are drenched by an intense rainfall, noisily ricocheting off tin roofs. But is this vision real or simulated?
Viewers also have to move through a swinging doorway, Commitment Culture, on which are inscribed the official rules every Vietnamese citizen must abide by. A box containing alphabets from this very contract invites audiences to rearrange them into a phrase of their choosing, thereby involving the otherwise passive viewer in a small but subversive act of resistance and individual thinking. The context of this performance in Singapore is significant, as the city-state does not permit public protest.
In contrast to the slums, six large oil paintings display lush atmospheric renditions of countryside homes, each bearing a mandatory banner which proclaims truisms such as ‘Determined to build a well-cultured family’. With each family proclaiming to be better than the next, each watching the other for any immoral behaviour and each coming together to bind as a community, these impastos reveal layers of insidious meaning. Giving further critical sub-text to these paintings are ceramic plates, each bearing a portrait of an individual living in the depicted house. Khánh’s choice of medium—hand painted, kiln fired ceramic—subverts traditional commemorative plates, state souvenirs or propaganda elements, to lay emphasis on individuality through mass culture vernacular.
Lenzi asserts that this show fits into a bigger Southeast Asian frame where the best regional artists use conceptual languages to translate local narratives, so in practice transcending the parochial. For Home and Country certainly provides a political under-reading. The presence of a slum in an upscale urban sprawl brings to question the meaning of modernity and progress, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, the impotency of governments unable or unwilling to promote an egalitarian society, leaving their poor behind. And yet, the presence of the slum offers a final stance of resistance by thriving instead of perishing. Several Singaporean audiences who were old enough to remember, recalled how whole communities in little villages were uprooted, their land being forcefully repossessed for urbanisation, stressing that even when the issues are quite Vietnam-centric, this conceptualism and its visual language make the work universally relevant.
Bùi Công Khánh, Saigon Slum, 2012. Installation. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy Yavuz Fine Art, Singapore.
Bùi Công Khánh, Lien to van hoa, 2013. Oil on canvas, 170 x 200cm, hand painted and signed porcelain plate, 40cm diameter. Courtesy Yavuz Fine Art, Singapore.
Bùi Công Khánh, Quyet tam xay dung gia dinh ban hoa, 2013. Oil on canvas, 170 x 200cm, hand painted and signed porcelain plate, 40cm diameter. Courtesy Yavuz Fine Art, Singapore.