An installation of 16 large-scale lacquer boxes.
Black Box is a stroll through memories of scenes so commonplace and recurring they are overlooked in our everyday lives. Yet over time, the sum of these instants forms the structure for the collective impression of an experience: a place, a culture, a period in one’s life.
A metaphor for the process of embedding memories, the medium of lacquer involves applying multiple coats of semi-transparent organic resin to a wooden surface, then sanding and polishing it to create the final image. Each stage of this labor-intensive and introspective process leaves vestiges that trace the experiences and changes that occurred in both the artist and the surrounding environment during the creation of the piece. A memory is formed in similar additive and subtractive processes, not only being influenced by the event itself, but also by external factors when those memories are recalled.
The bases of these large-scale boxes resemble treasure chests which act as vessels for these valuable mementos. The sixteen lacquered wooden boxes are arranged in a grid that allows the spectator to experience the space and the images by weaving through the boxes without any preordained direction.
Mysterious and sensual, the lacquer resin has unique characteristics that make it incomparable to any other image-creating medium found in the West. Temperamental to its environment, lacquer remains at the mercy of humidity, heat, time, and space. This can be demonstrated by the fact that depending on the percentage of natural humidity on a given day or place, the resin may or may not set. Even when it does, the colors may vary greatly. The artist is powerless to control completely the outcome of each image and must allow chance to play its part. Thus, this body of work serves not only as a metaphor of memory formation, but also as a direct and active witness to one’s immediate environment.
The resin itself, the color of dark amber or molasses, comes from the earth. A painting encompasses in its production all the main elements: water, air, earth, and wood. As a result, the finished painting is the accumulation of time, environmental factors, state of mind and reflections of a memory that symbiotically form a single meditative image. To the touch, the surface may seem smooth and flat like a mirror, but the rich textures and deep colors beneath the surface evoke the mind’s eye gazing upon a memory.
This body of work examines the themes of exploration and passage that have affected me directly on a personal level. Born in Houston to Vietnamese parents, I have always been struck the stark contrast between Vietnamese culture and Western values. In late 2004, I was awarded the Fulbright Student Grant which allowed me to travel to Vietnam for the first time and to begin my exploration of traditional Vietnamese lacquer painting. This installation was created in Hanoi.
Aesthetically, I approach the medium of lacquer through my training in Western art. In Black Box, I use organic Vietnamese lacquer as the basic raw material for an installation piece that simultaneously challenges the ideas of local craft traditions and celebrates the utilitarian objet d’art. It was my intention to re-explore the critical possibilities of painting and the functional objet d’art, while freely exploring the more poetic and visceral aspects of art. These boxes belong to a space that cannot be clearly defined as either artisanal or conceptual, traditional or modern (and everything after), “East” or “West”, cerebral or sentimental and lastly, male or female. The freeze-frame moments depicted on the box lids echo this indeterminate feeling.
Statement from Black Box exhibition catalog, 2007.