Art In Conversation
TOMAS VU with Phong Bui
BerlinXc Hua Gallerie
Space Oddity 69/19/45
September 11 – October 20, 2019
I’ve known the artist Tomas Vu for nearly 20 years—I first heard of him through our mutual and artist friends the late Gandalf Gaván and his partner Nicola López in 1998, then in 2000 we were introduced by the painter Gregory Amenoff (Chair of Visual Arts at Columbia University), Vu’s teaching colleague, at Amenoff’s opening reception of his solo exhibit at now defunct gallery Salander–O’Reilly. My knowledge of Vu’s work, however, truly begun with his solo exhibit Black Ice at Von Lintel Gallery in 2006, which led to an enduring friendship ever since. We’ve been through many struggles, up and down and sideways; and endless stories, short and long, his and mine, had been mutually exchanged and meditated on for the well-being of our sanity. (We both were born in Vietnam and have survived the war in our formative years; we, like other immigrants, in our maturity fought hard to find our calling as artists in a new and adopted culture.)
On the occasion of Vu’s new solo exhibit Space Oddity 69/19/45, and while he’s in the midst of working on a large site-specific installation, we both managed on a quiet Sunday morning to have a long Skype conversation about his life and work. The following is an edited version for publication.
Phong Bui (Rail): Among what has been written about your work, the late Gandalf Gavan’s review of your show at Von Lintel Gallery (May 4 – June 3, 2006), published in the Rail in the May issue, remains the most thoughtful and perceptive. I appreciate his several references, one being the idea of cosmic totality or cosmic unity, which relates to a pantheistic god that is not personal, but a nonpersonal divinity that dwells in all things. This inevitably leads to the idea of immensity or the sublime, which Immanuel Kant spoke of as a condition of being free from insignificant details, from other forms of contingency. Hence a person is completely immersed in this totality of such experience. Gandalf mentioned Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape paintings as examples. You spoke in an interview about your growing up in the dense and green jungle, and the gorgeous open-air of China Beach in Vietnam until 1973, then having grown up in the dry desert landscape of El Paso, Texas. As an artist you’ve been looking to find ways to mediate those strong contrasts of different geographies, all relating to your feeling of being dislocated.
Tomas Vu: My feeling of dislocation has always been associated with landscapes in that I romanticize what isn’t there or what doesn’t exist in real life. It’s partly relating to old memories that never match reality. For example, when I was in Vietnam I would watch John Ford’s western movies, like Stagecoach or The Searchers. There were always big desert landscapes and tall, peaky stone mountains. Then as soon as I got to El Paso, I longed for the mosquito-infested jungles. So I’m always fluctuating between the two. The painting always chases after something that isn’t there at all. An artist I was looking at while I was in graduate school was Anselm Kiefer, whose work, in some ways are his responses to Caspar David Friedrich and the whole German tradition of Romantic landscape painting, and everything else that deals with the idea of nostalgia. After all, it’s very seductive to long for the Fatherland and Mother Earth.
Rail: Both are part of the landscape, which makes total sense. What was the first reaction you had with Kiefer?
Vu: I was taken with how he deals with the residue of memory, and especially the memory of war so physically through his use of materials, whether it’s dirt, mud, straw, and other objects. I also love his sense of scale. As far as dealing with past history of Germany, sometimes you would see Kiefer himself in a photograph saluting the landscape.
Rail: Which can easily be misread in reference to Wagner, Albert Speer, and Hitler. No more and no less than the way people can be lazy in misreading Nietzsche’s intention and idea of the superman without knowing how manipulative his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, was in altering her brother’s intended philosophical concerns. At any rate, in reference to the notion or the history of landscape painting, which has roots as far back as 60–40 B.C. in ancient Rome metropolitan areas were densely populated, so homes were small. The upper-class had the interiors painted to bring comfort to transport residents from the wear and tear of everyday life of the city. You can see how tiny the rooms were at the Met, decorated with frescoes with scenes from the Odyssey landscapes at the imperial villa at Boscotrecase in Pompeii. We also know the best landscape painters were from the cities, not from the country, in either the East or West. In any case, my point is Gandalf did also elude our tendency when viewing work like Friedrich’s, who was after the result of nostalgic memory. And nostalgia for most artists is something to be avoided at all costs. But to you it’s not a considered a hindrance or a barrier for your creative drive at all. Am I right?
Vu: That’s right. I tend to substitute nostalgia with fantasy, and vice versa. It’s the same word to me sometimes. Not having a strict distinction or a boundary has allowed me to have the freedom to move in and out of spaces. Time works in the same way, in my case. For me it’s always about finding out what was in that particular landscape and what’s happening at that moment in time, as a starting point, from which I can move forward. That’s how all of my projects begin, actually. I was always yearning for my yesterday. For a long time I was very embarrassed about my Vietnamese identity, partly because when my family arrived to El Paso, Texas with my stepfather, we all had a hard time blending in. It was all about how to survive in a foreign land for all of us. And survival can strip away your dignity at time. We soon realized growing up during the war in Vietnam was nothing. It was in fact my playground. It may sound insane looking back now but I really enjoyed the things I was doing at the time as an eight or nine-year old: looking for grenades, using them as a fishing tool, digging tiger traps to catch dogs and other animals. And then El Paso was a totally different kind of psychological landscape. There’s no bomb going off, there’s no war. Except, wherever we went we would get chased by local white kids who thought we were either Mexican or Chinese. Anything but Vietnamese. You have to remember we got to El Paso two years before the fall of Saigon in ’75, so they saw us as the enemy still. Our home was in Fort Bliss, which is the biggest military base in the US, where there were large populations of families of those who were killed in the war, and it’s not like we were the VC (Việt Cộng) or anything, they just knew us as Vietnamese so we were the enemy to them. That was the complicated part, and as a child I didn’t understand any of this stuff. I didn’t understand what racism was. I just knew that we were being picked on, so the whole experience of growing up in Texas was pretty intense to say the least.
Rail: I certainly can relate since my Vietnamese family migrated, as most people, by way of Malaysia, to Bensalem Township in Pennsylvania, and we had less racial experience but it was not quite as intense as yours. At any rate, when I first saw your work in the show at Von Lintel in 2006, Black Ice, I remember, even though the works were made with endless layers of silk screenings and hand painted image over flat backgrounds on wood panel, I thought immediately of Vietnamese lacquer paintings for both technical reasons and their hybrid nature. I remember having watched someone making a lacquer painting. It was very laborious because of process of layering and drying, and the precision it required to inlay pearl, eggshell, and not to mention the limited palette of brown, black, and vermillion, and so on. What I find so interesting is that, despite 1000 years of Chinese domination, and 200 years of French colonization—I should add the invasions of the Mongolian and Japanese in between—somehow it has always retained its distinctive Vietnamese characteristics. Have you thought of any particular references in your deployment of flatness, and whether it has any correlation, even at a subconscious level, to lacquer painting?
Vu: Yes. First of all, I’ve always preferred to work on hard surfaces. It allows me to be physical, including applying plaster, sanding it down, repainting, and so on. But you’re right, as soon as I began to apply wood veneers and pour resin on top of the wooden panels, I realized I was doing it unconsciously to simulate the look of lacquer painting. Even though, as much as I wanted to get away from being labeled a Vietnamese artist, the so–called identity politics reference, I remember also telling myself, “No, I’m a trained Yale painter, I’m a painter-painter,” not to be labeled so easily. But then I came to realize I do have strong affection for these lacquer paintings, especially the way the surface is made and how it looks, especially after having returned to the old country a few times in the last two decades. I also came to discover that my tendency to misregister any image—to have you look at it without knowing its source—during the silk screening process is an automatic impulse, for sure. It’s an unconscious way to relate to my sense of dislocation.
Rail: That’s intense! Before we go further with the evolution of the work, I thought it’d be useful to learn more of its early formation, even though the whole epic was written into a screenplay by your former student, Beau Willimon, who I now know as the creator of the popular show on Netflix House of Cards.
Vu: The screenplay is still being worked on, actually. It’s one of those complicated narratives where it’s been over ten years in the making. We started when Beau was an undergraduate—he’s actually a really good painter—but decided that he was better at storytelling than painting. Anyway, we’ve never managed to agree on an ending, partly because Beau’s version is too attached to the American idealization of Vietnam with the white GI returning from the war. I’ve been telling him, “No, no, no, this is a Vietnamese narrative.” We’re now picking it back up again. We both want to see where it goes from here.
Rail: You were born in ’63, in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. What was your upbringing like before your family left for El Paso, Texas in ’73?
Vu: I was born in Saigon but we moved to Da Nang in 1966 because my real father, a soldier of the South Vietnamese army, was based there. We lived right next to China Beach where a huge US Marine base was. It was also where thousands of American GIs spent their leave surfing during their R&R. You remember? It was where the reference “Charlie don’t surf” in Apocalypse Now (1979) came from.
Rail: Yes, I do indeed. From Colonel Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, even though it was filmed somewhere in the Philippines. China Beach was also made into a TV show in the late ’80s.
Vu: Exactly! You can imagine: My mother was at work. My father was fighting alongside the Americans, and was always away. I never really saw much of him. My days would be just filled with running around with my friends, sneaking into the military bases, stealing ammunition to make little mountains of gun powder so we could blow it up at dusk. It created this beautiful black mushroom cloud. And once in a while we’d get lucky and find a grenade. When that happened we just all ran to the beach, you know, with our nets on, and the biggest boys would throw the grenade as far as they could into the water. It blew up, shocked the fish, and we’d all swim out there and gather them up. That was pretty much the day. And then I got into this little business of taking care of surfboards for the American GIs. And that’s where I met this American GI, who introduced himself as Jerry—I never knew his last name. It was Jerry who turned me on to the Beatles.
Rail: This is where your surfboard project comes from!
Vu: Yeah, I’m almost halfway through the project. My goal is to complete the Beatles anthology of 210 songs in total. I’ve thus far finished the White Album, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Magical Mystery Tour. I’m going down the line one board at a time. Each is built and hand-shaped from scratch. Each is a sculpture and a working board. Any way, Jerry was a nice guy and we liked each other’s company. I remember Jerry once took me back to his barrack at the base, and it turned out he was a sniper. It was a real discovery because I never saw him wearing his uniform. Every time I would go with Jerry I got through everything, it’s like one of those codes where you know his name and you can get through everything. It was only later I realized that he was trained to be a killing machine, and his only escape was his music and he only listened to the Beatles. Nothing else.
Rail: How did your family get out of Vietnam eventually?
Vu: After my father was killed in the war, my mother started working for the American military and became a translator. She then met an American sergeant major in the army named Larry Daniel. You probably remember when Richard Nixon announced the end of US involvement in Vietnam.
Rail: On January 23rd, 1973, at the Paris Peace Accords, and the American troops were pulling out during the 60-day withdrawal.
Vu: That’s right. It was during the 60-day interval that my mother married Larry and he was crazy enough to adopt all six of us and plucked us from the jungle of Vietnam out of the desert of El Paso, Texas. And once he adopted all of us, and as soon as we arrived to El Paso, he wiped all of our Vietnamese names out, first and last. I still remember Larry opening up the bible, and hearing Peter, Paul, John, Joseph, Patrick, Thomas, all the names of the saints, which became our names.
Rail: I’m glad you dropped the letter H in your first name. Tomas as we know you is better than Thomas. At any rate, when were you first exposed to art?
Vu: Almost immediately. Because while we were learning English and Spanish there was nothing else to do but make drawing. Early on I knew that I had some agency in the drawings because every time I would draw these great big epic battle scenes with tanks and helicopters—from my imagination and from what I had remembered from the war—the kids would go crazy over it. They would surround me as though I was a rock star or something [laughs]. I knew there was some power in the image and storytelling. Even though I couldn’t communicate with them through spoken language, I could communicate with them visually.
Rail: Were you an art major at The University of Texas at El Paso?
Vu: No man, that’d be considered a luxury that we didn’t have. I studied political science, then halfway through I changed to study photojournalism partly because at the time I was going to Ciudad Juarez, which was just a 15 minute walk across a bridge from my apartment, to work with a group of refugees from El Salvador at the time. It was during the Salvadoran Civil War and the crisis of the death squads killing thousands of peasants and activists. They were coming from El Salvador all the way up to Juarez trying to cross over. I went over to help them build shantytowns, and cook for them. It was part of what we did in college, which turned out to be the very beginning of my social consciousness. I was really attracted to helping others in need immediately. I took lots of pictures, and sent them to school newspapers of course, to share what was going on with these refugees. Then it was in my junior year that I met a professor named Kurt Kemp who was teaching printmaking and he introduced me to Goya. That was it. Goya is an artist that dealt with the human condition, and all the things that I was interested in. Looking at his prints, especially the “Disasters of War” series, learning how to make etching and aquatint really fueled my fire. I immediately changed my major from photojournalism to art. And it was Kurt who encouraged me to apply to graduate school at Yale.
Rail: What was your experience at Yale?
Vu: It was brutal. Vietnam and El Paso was nothing compared to Yale [laughs]. You’ve probably heard this too often: on one side, it’s highly conceptual, you got Mel Bochner, the godfather of that camp, and on the other side you got Bill Bailey and Bernie Chaet, and there’s a few in the middle like Andrew Forge, but you have to take sides. And I was neither one of those. My work was highly political. I was plastering buildings with prints, doing things of that nature. And I got there and I’m wondering why they even accepted me to the program. Because the language wasn’t there, certainly I wasn’t as interested in what they were talking about. Color theory was as interesting as it got to a certain point, which was what I had learned, till meeting John Walker and Jake Berthot. They were the two I could relate to the most. John is much more expressionistic, less cool, and Jack was more cool, less expressionistic. Both were equally invested in real painting with substantive surfaces and the painterly, and so on. Yale was less insulated at the time so both undergraduates and graduates hung out with each other. Both Matthew Barney and Sarah Sze were undergraduates. Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, Matvey Levenstein were two years ahead of us. Michael Joo was a class behind me. Anyway, I almost quit Yale. In fact, Bill Bailey came in at the end of the first year and told me that maybe I should leave, that I didn’t belong at Yale. That I couldn’t make up my mind between being an activist or an artist. So maybe I should just go and save my money and go save the world, he said, through activism. The funny thing is, by saying that, he triggered something else in me: “Wait a minute, you’re saying I don’t belong here? No, no, no, I’m staying.” It was then that I moved away from the political activism and started trying to understand what Yale was offering. I spent all my days trying to figure out colors, mixing fifty colors, different grays. And I took satisfaction in doing that till I graduated, really.
Rail: Did you move to New York right away after Yale?
Vu: Yea a group of us, me: Greg Kessler, Jennifer Nuss, Brian Novatny, Predrag Dimitrijevic, and Don Carol we all just basically got a U-Haul, drove to New York, and moved in together. I’d also admit it took four or five years after graduate school to digest what I was fed. The ghosts began to disappear very slowly.
Rail: What did you do in those four or five years?
Vu: Like most artists I knew I bused tables, hustled, played cards, shot pool for money, worked as a part-time studio assistant whenever I could get it, and then taught as an adjunct. Actually, my first teaching gig was up in Bennington College. Rochelle Feinstein was taking her sabbatical. She offered Amy Sillman a drawing class, and she offered me the printmaking class so Amy and I commuted for a year and a half up to Bennington College together. Again, I didn’t get to make work much in those days.
Rail: What would be considered mature works? The four series “Napalm Morning” (1995–1999), “Hamburger Hill” (2001–2003), “Octopussy” (2001), and “Killing Fields” (2001)?
Vu: They all were overtly social and political, and to some extent were autobiographical. For example, Hamburger Hill was where my father was killed. The “Killing Fields” was about my grandfather. I should add the “Opium Dreams” series, which was about my grandmother, who ran an opium den. Those bodies of work allowed me to dive deep into my personal narratives, which eventually was a serious awakening. I’m no longer feeling embarrassed about my true identity, a Vietnamese-born American. Those series were my psychoanalysis. I needed to work it out for myself. I should say that “Napalm Morning” was about working out my being influenced by John Walker and Ross Bleckner. The rest were about absorbing everything that was going on in New York, including installation and so on.
Rail: I find the “Opium Dreams” series interesting partly because it was the first you began to explore a new language of combining printing and painting simultaneously. The images were floating, and more or less centralized consistently, which then led to the “Black Ice” (2006) series, and that became more immersive, more exploratory in new iconography. There were parachutes, helicopters, and all types of constellations.
Vu: There’s architecture.
Rail: Yes, the top of the Chrysler Building, for example. Also unnamable objects, things from digital technology mixing with trees, occasional vortexes, painted bubbles that referenced art historical moments. In other words, the “Black Ice” series seems to signal a new beginning where everything from man-made objects to natural creation becomes decentralized. Not only are they more integrated, they also shift off the center.
Vu: Yea, without gravity.
Rail: I like Gandalf’s term “psychogeography.” Where does this impulse come from?
Vu: Part of my training back then was when you paint, you paint. And printmaking has its own separate domain. But seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s ’97 retrospective at the Guggenheim in SoHo blew me away. He incorporated any object, technique, and material—old or new, found and made. Everything he could get his hands on, especially the paintings and collages on aluminum. That show gave me the permission to get excited about things that I love and allow them to be in the work. I remember saying to myself, “Wait a minute, this is what I should be doing, incorporating the strengths that I have.” I was very strong in printmaking and so getting it mixed with the painting was the first time I was very comfortable using it, and that’s when the new vortex opens up in a way that I was able to navigate the whole new beginning. It was the first time I felt I had absolute confidence in what I was making. All the biographical work earlier, which you were referring to, I was getting my grounding down on that, but Black Ice was the first where I was absolute about a vision that I had.
Rail: So Black Ice meant you were gliding on top without caring to control the speed.
Vu: That’s right. Just floating.
Rail: That was the moment the idea of the “unbuildable”—things that don’t have to be constructed rationally—became a possibility.
Vu: Yes. I became interested in all kinds of unbuildable projects, from Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon (1956–1974) to Archigram, to everything new and futuristic, where the collision of man and nature occurs as a possible hybrid. I was interested in things that didn’t becoming sterile and orderly. I also saw Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1510) at the Prado in 2004, two years before the Black Ice show. I would say the experience was profound in that it was probably the beginning of how this irrational world could be constructed in a rational, visual way. The irrational, the absurd, is what I was interested in, but seeing all three panels with different narratives next to each other as one visual unity, as one painting, was so exciting for me. That was when I came to realize I could include everything in the painting, even human tragedy.
Rail: I thought the top of the Chrysler Building with black smoke in the painting X-1 (2006) was the reference to the Twin Towers for sure.
Vu: It is. I’ve suffered my own personal tragedy growing up in the old country so I wouldn’t dare to make any direct reference to 9/11 or anything else that involves human suffering. There’s no need to amplify what’s already apocalyptic in the work.
Rail: When and how did your collaboration with Rirkrit Tiravanija begin? And how does the sharing of meals, playing music, social activism, everything relational aesthetic, shape your current thinking and imagining?
Vu: First of all, we’re both Asian. He is Thai, I’m Vietnamese. Secondly, we each teach together at Columbia. Thirdly, we’re both highly political. I mean everything about us is almost identical. This working performance is a legendary art practice. I love cooking too, but mostly for fun and for the pleasure of feeding people. Also, an opportunity came up in Bogotá in 2014 where we were invited to go over there and a big student protest was going on at the time. We were asked to engage with them, and so Rirkrit always used text, and I always used images. It was then that we both decided to collaborate. Together with Miguel Cardenas and Angélica Teuta we plastered printed images and text at the ARTBO Fair. That was the beginning of our collaboration Green Go Home, and it has continued to travel all over the world, to Milwaukee, Miami, Spain, Puerto Rico, Slovenia, Detroit, etc. etc. It’s gone everywhere, wherever we’re needed in a way, oddly enough. I love collaborating with Rirkrit because it brings out the interactive and nurturing aspect of my being in the world. Besides, I love cooking. I’ve always cooked, ever since I can remember I’m always cooking, especially for larger crowds. I was pleased to have won the first prize for an amateur in a cooking championship in Texas in 1987 when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at El Paso. At the end of the day we’re dealing with the same issue: namely bringing together people over a meal. It’s a nice thing to do, ultimately.
Rail: Can you share with us what this show, Space Oddity, is about?
Vu: When Xiaochan, the owner, asked me to do this show at XC HuA Gallerie here, in Berlin, they said I could do anything I want. There are two fairly large floors, so I’ve been planning the show for almost a year, and of course, I always work with the idea of locating the timeline for time, space, and landscape, so the idea of Space Oddity came up. It’s about the promise of the future. I still remember vividly, when I was in Vietnam, my brother grabbing my hand and us running around looking for a television so we could watch the moon landing in ’69. In fact, David Bowie released Space Oddity as a single On July 11th, 1969, nine days before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. I want to carry these two events all the way to 2045. Moving from the beginning promise of a brave new world, all the way to the dark apocalyptic future where machines will control us. There are three rooms in the two floors so each one is divided into this particular moment, past from 1969, present 2019, and future 2045. I’m working with cyanotype, which is an old process Rauschenberg used. It’s not exactly silkscreen but it applies photo motions and gets printed with acrylic ink. Also, I’m working on honeycomb aluminum panels instead of wood panels. I’m referencing a lot of different things in this body of work. There are no rules. It starts out with images from the Cold War, between the Soviets and Americans, including tanks, fighter aircraft, rockets, space shuttles, etc. Then moving onward to when we are now. From my own research, I now have an inventory of about a couple thousand images, which share more or less a visual connection to one another. What’s so different about this specific installation is that I didn’t want to make the work in advance in my New York studio and transport it here. I want to come to Berlin and make the work for the space. The same way that Bowie came to Berlin in 1976 and did his work for the Berlin Trilogy (1976–1979). In fact his recording studio here is about a five-minute walk from where he lived in West Berlin. I’m working on ten new and fairly large-scale paintings, on honeycomb aluminum panels. Then the rest are installation within the space, I’m reshaping the gallery space as we speak. Living through the Trump administration as an immigrant, I’ve never felt so motivated to activate my participation in the public sphere. This installation is intended in this spirit.