“There’s something else I forgot to show you,” Van says.
I met the softly spoken Vietnamese artist two days ago, and now, I’m stood in the hallway of his impressive house. While waiting, I stare up at a five-foot picture of a ballerina hung on the wall. She is in full flow, her arm painted to capture her movement with exquisite attention to detail.
Van emerges from his room with a handful of CDs, all album artwork that he has designed for Vietnamese metal band Black Infinity and popular Vietnamese singer, My Tam. He hands them to me proudly, and I look through them.
“Wow, these are beautiful,” I say, then wince at myself, realising that I’ve used that word to describe a lot of his work throughout our conversations. But that’s what it is: beautiful.
The Writing on the Wall
I first came upon Van’s work when visiting a friend’s house in the same gated compound in which Van lives in Ho Chi Minh City. He draws faces onto a large wall opposite his front door — faces that change every so often. Every time I visit, I gaze at the wall for a few moments and try to find what’s changed since the last time I saw it.
The faces look like a part of the wall, as though they appeared from nowhere, although it’s no secret that Van is the artist behind it. Since the first time I saw the mural, I hoped to one day catch a glimpse of the ‘face behind the faces’.
So, when Van finally appeared from his house one day and invited me in to look at his portfolio, I felt privileged to be meeting this creative recluse.
Under the Cover of Darkness
On my second visit it’s late. We had planned to talk while Van worked on the wall, but now he says he’s too sleepy. At first I’m a little disappointed, but throughout the night it becomes clear that the wall is a side project, an opportunity to experiment and express himself.
He works on the wall at night because it isn’t as hot as the day, he says, although having new faces appear in the morning does give the wall an unearthly quality. For Van it’s a meditative, fun process.
“At night when people sleep I face the wall and see which bits look like a nose or an eye,” he says. “It’s like a game — find the face. At first it’s for myself, to release the picture in my mind. And then it grows to another level and is for other people.”
He shapes the faces by using the existing contours and shades of the wall, and then drawing in the detail. He got the idea while working with acrylic on canvas at art school. On canvas, the bottom layer is always white — the more layers you put on the darker it is and the more you take away the lighter it is. He saw similarities between this and the wall, and uses nothing more than a small black rock to chip away at the concrete and a whiteboard marker to draw in the details.
The faces wear the expressions of people who are alone in their thoughts, and that is what interests Van.
“I think everybody has sad feelings, although they can smile and be happy and in the moment,” he says. “But when they are alone at night they are in their mind and that is when they feel sad.”
In a world that is lived very much in the public eye, saving face — being in control of your emotions or at least looking like you are — is central to having respect. To relinquish control of your emotions is seen as a sign of weakness.
“Vietnamese culture is very much about the mind,” Van says. “[People] can be happy outside but they can be sad inside.”
Art for Art’s Sake
I’m enjoying a rare look at these faces before they’re paved over by Van’s latest muse, having only been seen by a few passers-by. And already I feel a sense of nostalgia for them, hidden away in this tiny pocket of the city. Public art like Van’s can provide an escape from the daily grind and a kick to the imagination — an important faculty that is often neglected, particularly in a fast-paced city like Saigon, built on certainty and straightforwardness.
“I would love for many people to see it — if it’s public and people like it then they understand me,” Van says. This is the way he puts his perspective out there, as “my character is not very social”. But he doesn’t have ambitions to make this art viewable to more people. This project is essentially a private one.
But if you’re interested in impractical perspectives like Van’s, with values like solitude and emotional honesty, sometimes you have to take the long way home and look in any direction but straight ahead.