New Currents: Lê Hien Minh
By Peter Chung
Five female figures find repose under the trees and awning of the Myoraku-ji temple in Fukuoka. Titled The States of Mind (2019), these sculptures were crafted with Vietnamese handmade Dó paper, and were inspired by ancient icons from various cultures, including the Venus of Willendorf. Glued onto the works are circular Dó pieces, inscribed with viewers’ responses to Lê Hiền Minh’s five questions: who, what, where, why, and when is woman? Answers include “caretaker,” “source of life,” “love,” and “women are sea; men are mountains; children are rivers.” By sharing the power of creation with audiences, Lê Hiền Minh catalyzes a process to seek common emotional experiences beyond cultural boundaries, while questioning our collective understanding of female existence—one that is as impermanent as Dó itself.
The relationship between divine feminine power and expected societal roles is at the center of Lê Hiền Minh’s artistic explorations. Displayed at the 2021 exhibition “Within / Between / Beneath / Upon” at Ho Chi Minh City’s The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, The Gods of Expectation (2021) is an amalgamation of Vietnamese matriarchal icons and symbols of domestic duty. An umbilical cord connects the three parts of the installation: goddess statues sitting atop a washing machine, meditating near a kitchen sink mounted into an altar table, and reclining on a bed (a pose traditionally reserved for male Buddhas). Questions breaking down perceptions of womanhood were painted on the wall, challenging the Confucian ideal of the woman as homemaker in servitude to the patriarch.
Lê Hiền Minh had tackled Confucian gender values in an earlier work. Reflecting her mindful approach, the installation Balls (2004/2016) comprises over 20,000 spheres that she painstakingly hand-formed out of tough Dó papers, all overflowing from a glass jar on a lacquer Buddhist altar to the floor, alluding to Vietnamese rice spirits widely believed to boost male vitality. On a wall, a Confucian maxim reads, “Women’s greatest duty is to produce a son.” Through her meditative creative process, the artist ponders the burden of femaleness as a biological function. In so doing, she connects her social reality to a universally pertinent re-evaluation of femininity.