Communal houses reflect the past
Remnants of altars, carved letters in the old Nom script, carvings, architectural posts and beams have been collected together to honour dinh lang, the ancient Vietnamese communal houses that still dot the country. They are being displayed at an exhibition that opened late last week in Hanoi.
The exhibition "Vestige of a Land" explores the life of communal houses along the Red River plains, a major birthplace of Kinh (Vietnamese) culture.
The ruins of a communal house at artist Le Giang’s exhibition. (VNS Photo Minh Thu)
Artist Le Giang has made plaster models of some objects to inform visitors of the use of dinh lang in the past - as accommodation for visiting dignitaries, including nobles and kings, as places to pay respects to village deities and village scholars, and as a place for villagers to gather on special occasions.
The show reflects the cyclical fluctuations of the Red River and how they influenced the modification of spiritual monuments.
The artist acknowledged that social and cultural changes have loosened bonds between past and present. Social activities that used to take place within the walls of such monuments have drastically altered to the point that many of surviving structures are falling into decay and are losing their identities.
“Recognising the eventual disappearance of spiritual relics, the exhibition raises questions on how Vietnam can draw from the past to refresh the new. We must ask ourselves where we stand today and what visions we have,” said Giang. “We may not have definite answers, but unearthing artefacts from the past may give us some clues to the quest.”
An altar ruined by termites disappears slowly into the dust. (VNS Photo Minh Thu)
Giang said ruins were a long-standing aesthetic fascination for her. "In many ways, ruins constitute an embodiment of the past, while remaining temporally linked to our present time," she said.
“This is how I choose to question the relationship between humankind and the natural world. The excavated reconstructed communal houses use the architectural ornamentation found in my father’s hometown village in Dong Anh district, Hanoi.”
The ruins of a communal house, altar, cuon thu (wooden scroll placards) and wooden beams have been cast in plaster.
“Perhaps, this is a futile act of personal attachment to an incessant river moving us forward in an ever-changing nature and society," said Giang.
The exhibition is the result of six months cooperation between the artist, Sino-Nom researcher Nguyen Dinh Hung, vernacular architect Pham Thanh Thuy and environmental consultant Nguyen Thuy Duong.
They joined the project, Shaping the Future – A Cultural Perspective, which was founded by the Goethe Institute.
A plaster replica of cuon thu (wooden scrolls) damaged by termites. (VNS Photo Minh Thu)
After completing her MA in Fine Arts in London, Giang returned to her native Hanoi.
Her works range from installations to illustration, often feature fragile materials like ash, glass, coal and plaster. Giang has exhibited in groups and solo in Britain, Singapore, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The exhibition will run until January 12th at the Hanoi Goethe Institute (56-58 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Ba Dinh District).
The wooden structure of a communal house is remade with plaster. (VNS Photo Minh Thu)
A talk show by researcher Hung will take place on December 20th. He will talk about woodblocks used for Sino-Nom script.
After the initiation of other printing techniques from Europe as well as the disappearance of Sino-Nom, the wooden blocks soon lost their established function as the only way of producing manuscripts. Under harsh conditions such as climates and termites, these relics slowly dematerialised over time which resulted in substantial loss of knowledge./.