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On Nguyễn Hưng Trinh's Art
(opening speech for the exhibition Timeless Refrain at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 12.1.02)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It has been a privilege to be asked to speak here today, and clearly as we experience the exhibition that surrounds us, it is a privilege for us all to experience the genius of Mr Nguyễn Hưng Trinh. He is a significant Vietnamese artist – and from today we see that he is also a significant international artist.

Mr Trinh is seen as a radical reformer of Vietnamese visual arts – turning his back on the dominant Socialist Realism style and embracing the emotion and complexity of Abstraction. Mr Trinh has said “My work is a journey inwards. I don’t like to portray Reality, whatever Reality is. I prefer to look for something I met in a dream, something found accidentally at the corner of my heart. I try to paint intuitively, a lyrical feeling or a metaphysical thought. I am only aware of what I do when I have finished doing it. Paraphrasing Descartes, I want to say ‘I paint, therefore I am.’”

In conversation with Mr Trinh, I heard him speaking of his way of working. Of how he begins with an idea, then connects with paint and canvas using only his finger and a knife. Only when he has finished does he assess what he has created.

This revelation prompted in me parallel concepts of creativity expressed by the Western philosopher Fredric Nietzsche in his 1872 work The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. Here he claimed that, to a lesser or greater degree, all creative work is a combination of Apollonian and Dionysian impulses.

Apollonian – from the god Apollo, representing the Sun, Order and Structure.

Dionysian – from the god Dionysis, representing Wine, Emotion, the Illogical, the Irrational, Chaos.

All creative activity, Nietschze claimed, is inevitably a combination of both – to a lesser or greater extent. With no Apollonian – there can be no structure (indeed, the very awareness that there is creative activity is itself Apollonian). With no Dionysian – all is arid, barren, cold.

Trinh’s work displays strong evidence of the Apollonian, yet it is also very much in touch with the Dionysian. But while these opposites in his work provoke a Western philosophical model in their interpretation, they of course also provoke an even greater Eastern philosophical Model – that of Yin Yang.

And, indeed, when we survey Trinh’s work, we see many of the binaries and dualities of Yin Yang:








The Curved/The Angular

The Finger and the Knife

…. And many others which you will find for yourself.

Each of these concepts is encased in their other, each opposite embraces and becomes its opposite… and these present artworks speak to us across nationality, race and belief. Yet, at the same time, they are extremely Vietnamese. In their abstraction can be glimpsed a myriad culturally loaded images:

Rice fields and conical hats

The boy and the buffalo

The eternal presence of the Moon

Images of past war and suffering.

And yet, at the same time, these artworks are universal. For non-Vietnamese, their effect is also very powerful. Thus, their themes are universal, but our response to them is personal. Each of these artworks prompts our own cultural responses.

For example, in the present collection, there is the continual presence of elongated, dark, twisted human figures. I know that they are human; but as a Sydney-sider, I also see, in memory of the recent bushfires, blackened trees on a smoky landscape.

As you absorb Trinh’s paintings, note his human figures – contorted, reptilian, stretched, elongated, the metallic complexity within the bodies (“… the working of the knife…”) In particular, note Trinh’s artwork Human Shadows , where there are clearly several bodies on the canvas, but it could also be a single body torn apart. This canvas conjures forth a battlefield.

Trinh’s work is remarkable for the diversity of its theme and expression, but when it is surveyed as a collection, clear and distinctive motifs appear. For example, examine three works displayed in the present collection:

Timeless Refrain:

In the background, we see smoke and flame – chaos … the domain of the Dionysian.

But the structure of the work has a sense of layers, of the 3-dimensional … and floating above this chaos is a square (a square within a square), representing Trinh’s place of calm. This sanctuary is Apollonian and constructed. The chaos is that of nature and animal emotion. The square is the intellect, the cultivated – because no straight lines appear in nature.

But above this layer is another – figures/muses dancing in celebration. Dancing the dance of life – and co-incidentally provoking thoughts of Matisse’s 1909 work

The Dance. But in this case – observe the colour and the shading. With Trinh, even his ecstasy is sombre.

And observe again the 3-dimensional quality of the work – above, the muses dancing their sombre dance; below, the chaos of nature, emotion and the sub-conscious; and suspended in-between the individual, encased in a constructed, balanced calm.


Again, we confront the square of constructed calm – but this time it is red and russet, and the proportions are very different. We are clearly in an urban landscape – and there are many windows. Again, as with Timeless Refrain, we see the presence of dancers with outstretched hands. But this time, they are more formal. They could be buffalo skulls. And if we take a step back and survey the landscape from a farther perspective, we find that faces are staring back at us. And above all this, the Moon is a hurtling meteor. And below, a thin crescent of yellow Sun is eclipsed by the Moon.

Yin Yang, Square and Crescent – these are my responses to the artwork. You will find your own. And finally, we come to the third example:

I and I:

This artwork is more representational, more practical, than many of the other works presently displayed. In this piece, we see the artist surrounded by his tools of trade, reclining and gazing at the mirror that is the canvas.

The constructed square of previous work has become the canvas. The figure represented upon it has become a female figure. But what is she doing? Kneeling in supplication? Or kneading some malleable substance?

Yin Yang… Male Female… Spirituality and Sexuality. All are opposites combined. All are created by finger and knife. And this conclusion reminds us of Trinh’s compatriot Nguyễn Quang Thiều, who has written:

On my writing desk the paper knife
Is the teeth of a smiling stranger.
The cry of a cricket imprisoned
In the corner of the house opens a path
Through wild grass to suburban fields.
I am a clump of moss, old and new,
On the wall of the little ancient temple.
The pile of grapefruit leaves has not burned for ten years;
For ten years I’ve been pressed back to my childhood.
The lovely wounds have been asleep
But now the mouth of the wounds opens two pink petals.
Something stirs in the veins of the wall,
Something glides on the smile of the knife
Like a swan on a lake.
Pain is less than … less than ….
Pain stands up reluctantly
In the laughing light of the sharp knife
And in poems.

…. And also in paintings.

Trinh is like a lightning rod – a conductor of electricity. But this electricity is of a more primitive, more supernatural kind. It is indeed the contrary essence of the Human Experience.

It hovers invisible in the air … it passes through Trinh into the earth – our World.

It is unconscious, illogical – and it shocks and jolts our emotions, reminding our logical selves of the pain and joy of existence. Let us celebrate these canvasses.

Bruce Keller

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre


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