A Decade with Dó

“I don’t know how to use a drill, I don’t know how to cut wood,” says Le Hien Minh, who refuses to call herself a sculptor because she doesn’t know how to use workshop machinery. And yet the Hanoi-born artist’s Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum exhibition of Jul. 20 to Jul. 25 was full of surprising 3D objects.

Minh labels ‘real’ sculpture as a noisy activity requiring power tools. Her artwork consists mostly of squashing paper softened with glue into shapes. It can be done quietly, with no tools except her hands. But this simple activity makes her partly responsible for keeping afloat the few northern villages that still handcraft do paper — a thin, soft paper made from tree bark.

Over 500kg of traditional Vietnamese do paper were needed to make one of the installations here. 1,000 handmade dictionaries in a neat labyrinth cover the floor of the largest room at the back of the 1930s building.

Dictionaries were the tools of Minh’s father, a linguist. Her father passed away 10 years ago, but the exhibition title, Dó10, refers to the 10 years that Minh has been creating art using do paper.

After training in lacquer painting in Saigon, Minh studied art in the US. Far away from family, Minh received a surprise parcel containing some do paper. Her mother’s gift was more influential than either of them might have guessed at the time. Minh felt immediately connected to her homeland’s traditional paper, and started painting on it.

A few more experiments resulted in the first sculptures, and she’s never looked back. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have do paper,” she says.


A Heavy Load

Each finished sculpture is put outside to dry and to age. The weathering effects of sun, humidity and wind change their surface. After a few months, the paper objects look like ceramics, stones or other treasures unearthed from the dusty depths of history.

This process gives a solid, weighty appearance to the hollow art objects. The weight is also psychological.

She laments that women carry a heavy load in life. “Do we have to carry that much weight with us? We don’t know! We’re always asking ourselves,” she exclaims, pointing to the sculpture of a woman floored by her struggle, with ropes hanging down on her.

Weight doesn’t floor Minh, though. She sometimes wonders if, being a woman, she carries too much baggage, but as a feminist, she looks for balance. In fact, she says, the underlying concept for all her artwork is looking for balance. Not just the balance of a fair society, but internal balance as a person, and balance with nature.

Minh makes work that will return to earth. “The paper will disintegrate and disappear, like me. Accept and make peace with nature.” — Christina Nualart

Some of the artworks in this show have appeared in previous exhibitions in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Korea and the US. For more on the artist, visit lehienminh.com

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