Bùi Công Khánh is an artist deeply fascinated by social assumptions of cultural heritage. As one of the first local artists to gain an international reputation during the 1990s, with his performances questioning restrictions of individual expression in communist Vietnam, Bùi’s multifarious practice has since embraced painting, sculpture, installation, video and drawing, with successful showcases across the Southeast Asian region and beyond.
Born in Da Nang, a coastal city dominated by American GIs during the Vietnam War, and having grown up in Hoi An, a nearby historic trading port that was a bustling immigrant town for Chinese and Japanese merchants during the eighteenth century, Bùi often uses his art to reflect the complex interwoven history of Vietnam.
This is evidenced, for example, in his questioning of how authenticity is vouched for when styles, methods and markets merge – as in his series of ceramic vases recalling the largesse of dynastic China, depicting popular romanticised river landscapes with Buddhist pagodas tethered via chaotic electrical wires that are typically found across Vietnam. His desire to document the perspective of the disadvantaged is found in his hand-drawn and photographic portraiture, where Ho Chi Minh City’s rapid urban renewal is forcing families from their homes, their plight unrecorded in state archives kept under tight government control. His rural community engagements, often involving the sharing of a meal, reveal his love of the chef as a metaphorical spirit medium. Here the noodles of ‘Cau Lau’ (a recipe particular to Hoi An) combine the spice of China with French distilled broth using the aromatic ingredients of Vietnam, providing possible redemption to the endurance of foreign control. These are just a few examples of how Bùi’s art examines Vietnam’s resilient yet destructive dance between colonial occupation, political independence and economic progress.
More recently he has been digging further into the social sensitivities surrounding his Chinese/ Vietnamese ancestry via the carving of intricate sculptures made of jackfruit wood – a material traditionally used to fabricate Vietnamese fishing boats, a vessel typically dotting the South China Sea. Today however such maritime regions are military zones increasingly controlled by the ironclad machinery of global trade in defence of regional territorial disputes. In this forthcoming body of work Bùi contrasts military strategy with religious structures of worship in response to the growing tension between China and Vietnam surrounding the ownership of the Spratly Islands. Cannons are placed within the windows of a tiered pagoda, while a bonsai plant threatens to engulf its existence. Questions of control and ethnicity, of who has power over what is natural, manmade or celestial, are thrown into question.
Bùi Công Khánh is a poetically provocative artist, well respected by his community, whose art continues to grow with depth afforded by historical research, a marriage of the plastic arts with conceptual method not taught within the educational system of Vietnam. He currently lives and works between Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An. Selected by Zoe Butt, executive director and curator of Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City.
This article was first published in the March 2015 issue.