BÙI CÔNG KHÁNHHymne National, 2010/2015, performance. Photo still from performance for “Fortress Temple” at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

Fortress Temple

Bùi Công Khánh

10 Chancery Lane
Vietnam Hong Kong

A haunting melody filled the space of Hong Kong’s 10 Chancery Lane. All eyes were on the young boy whose beautiful vocals singing the French National anthem La Marsailles silenced the chattering of guests inside the gallery. Standing beside him was Vietnamese artist Bùi Công Khánh, who simultaneously sang Vietnam’s national anthem in an equally compelling voice. As the room fell silent, the young boy began to write the lyrics of La Marsailles on the artist’s bare back, as he in turn wrote the lyrics of Tiến Quân Ca on a full length mirror in Chinese ink. A hypnotic performance weaving two countries with a complex history of colonial oppression and cultural borrowing, Hymne National (2010/2015), performed on opening night, was one of four works in Bùi’s solo exhibition curated by Singapore-based Southeast Asian art specialist Iola Lenzi. “Fortress Temple” presented new works by the Saigon-based artist reflecting his latest explorations of Vietnam’s multifaceted narrative and the modern-day rebuilding in the aftermath of war.

Central in the glass-fronted gallery was the arresting Prayer on the Wind (2015). Patchwork squares made from Burmese military uniforms and Buddhist monk robes—two opposing parties of power in Myanmar—are sewn together and constructed into a temple-like structure. Suspended from the ceiling, the temple hovered just enough above the ground to see a small, thin mattress and pillow, covered in a sheet and pillowcase made from pieces of monk robes. A participatory installation conceived originally for a group exhibition earlier this year in Yangon at the new Goethe-Institut—housed in the former residence of General Aung San (1915–1947) who led Burma to independence from British rule in 1947—Prayer on the Wind required activation by visitors who were invited to write a wish on a blank sheet of paper, which was placed inside one of the many pockets sewn into the fabric temple. Gallerygoers were encouraged to enter the temple and lie on the mattress to experience the kaleidoscopic shaft of colors cast by the ceiling lights shining through the sculpture. Prayer on the Wind is Bui’s response to the political tensions straining the Burmese people but its poetic soul-searching message is one that extends to any city dweller, offering a respite from everyday hubbub.

BÙI CÔNG KHÁNH, Hymne National (detail), 2010/2015, performance. Photo still from performance for “Fortress Temple” at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
BÙI CÔNG KHÁNH, Hymne National (detail), 2010/2015, performance. Photo still from performance for “Fortress Temple” at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

Born near the end of the Vietnam War to a Chinese father and a Vietnamese mother, Bùi’s mixed heritage and sentiments toward the rebuilding of his country was echoed in “Fortress Temple: The Story of Blue, White and Red” (2013). Crafted in porcelain, five impressively sized vases—two standing at nearly 1.3 meters tall and three at almost 1.6 meters—are evocative of China and Vietnam’s shared history of ceramics. Moving away from earlier vase works, which featured popular icons of consumerism in Vietnamese daily life, these new vases addressed the current geo-political tensions plaguing Asia as China wages military control of the South China Sea. Hand-painted in blue and red glaze, Bùi portrayed various islands being violently defended by different countries in Asia, the most easily discernible being Japan, Korea, China and Vietnam. Helicopters, pagodas charged with cannons, submarines, military tanks and missiles adorns the vases while on one vase, the Great Wall of China can be seen loaded with mortars ready to wage war. The vases are remarkable for their poignant beauty yet its motifs expose the tensions and the struggle for power among first-world Asian countries.

BÙI CÔNG KHÁNHPrayer on the Wind, 2015, participative installation monk’s robes, camouflage textile, handwritten notes, mat and pillow, 260 × 218 × 223 cm. Installation view for “Fortress Temple” at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

Toward the back of the gallery mock archaeological shards were laid out atop three wooden tables. Made from porcelain, “Fortress Temple” was accompanied by a documentation video conceived especially for the exhibition. Recalling Chinese and Vietnamese cargo shipwrecks and the entangled histories of both countries, Bùi displayed three sets of porcelain objects modelled after submarines, pagodas and military canons, one in beautiful glazed porcelain, the other identical albeit after ocean submersion, encrusted with algae and crustaceans. In the video, Bùi journeys to a remote island in search for an oyster-farming site and subsequently dives into the clear-blue ocean to bury his porcelain treasures. The film followed Bùi’s return, one year later, to locate and unearth his sculptures, a task, he told me during our conversation at the show’s opening, that he found rather difficult. He also recalled his surprise at the amount of aging that happened to those porcelain pieces after those 12 months.

Reflecting upon Vietnam’s history, “Fortress Temple” revealed the complicated narrative and connections between China and France, and broader socio-political issues Asia is currently facing. Conceptualized by an artist whose beliefs are clearly rooted in Buddhist philosophies, each work offered visitors a much-welcomed moment of stillness and contemplation.

“Fortress Temple” was on view at 10 Chancery Lane, Hong Kong, until October 10, 2015.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.