Twin brothers Le Duc Hai (L) and Le Ngoc Thanh, better known as the Le Brothers, work at their New Space Arts Foundation, Vietnam’s first artists-in-residence program in Hue. Photo by Tuyet Khoa
The Le Brothers, as they are better known, came from Quang Binh Province but have been residing in nearby Hue since they began studying painting at the Hue College of Arts. Le Ngoc Thanh studied lacquer painting and Le Duc Hai oil painting.
Both wear long hair and a lot of piercings. They not only look identical, but also speak the same language of the arts.
The brothers held exhibitions during their student years and their success brought them across the globe, including a performance at a Lacquer Painting Exhibition in Bangkok in 2009 and one at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea in 2012.
Most of what they’ve done for the past ten years is performance and video art because they said they became bored with painting.
War after the war
One recent project was The Numbers, a series done with volunteers in 2010 and 2011 including three parts that together bridge a link between past and present.
The first part, an installation called “Chen va dua” (Bowls and chopsticks, 1945) placed 1,945 gilded bowls each crossed with a pair of red chopsticks in lines on the ground to commemorate two million Vietnamese victims who died in the famine between 1944 to 1945 during the Japanese occupation of Indochina in World War II.
The brothers said the utensils were painted red and gilded as they wanted to honor the pain and have it remind human beings not to repeat such a crime.
The second part, “Giuong noi tru” (Dorm beds, 1991), glorified their time in college by painting two bunk beds red and decorating them with pieces of red cloth with dragon and phoenix patterns to make it look royal.
“The beautiful and generous youth of millions of Vietnamese students is closely attached with those modest wooden beds in poor dormitories,” the brothers said.
Critics said both works honor memories by making the normal, humble parts of life sparkle.
They also reflect the blurred line between rags and riches.
The third part was one-hour three-channel color video “Cham toi bien” (Into the Sea, 2011) featuring the brothers wrestling on a fishing boat, binding each other with red fabric, and traversing the landscape by the Nhat Le River which runs through their birthplace in Quang Binh and witnessed the worst fighting of the country’s several recent major wars.
Thanh and Hai said they chose to set their video at the river to echo their concerns about the never-ending war between the north and the south of Vietnam.
“Like in Germany, the people are now together, but there are still problems because the north and the south are different. Not just different food, but different in their thinking,” Hai said in an interview with culture and art forum Hyperallergic.
The legend of the origin of Vietnamese people says they were the 100 children of a dragon father and fairy mother but they were separated at sea and half of the children went with the father to the sea and the rest to the mountain with the mother.
“So turning to the sea is always a desire for a forever union of our people,” the artists said in a statement.
They said they represented two parts of one entity in an endless process of unity and separation.
The video is being presented at the region’s prominent contemporary art festival Singapore Biennale 2013 which lasts until February 16, 2014.
“Into the Sea engages Vietnam’s warring histories like a mirror of many mirrors. This is most obvious when one reads the actions of the twin brothers, who in the video wrestle on a fishing boat, bind each other treacherously with red fabric, and at moments, traverse the landscape as if resigned to ill fate,” the Singapore Biennale 2013 organizers said in a statement.
Nguyen Nhu Huy, a co-curator at the festival, said in his introduction that the video could be confusing with multiple, complicated and overlapping metaphors, but it introduces a new trend in local contemporary Vietnamese arts.
“Now they start to stop using contemporary art practice as the ideological weapon which some time falls easily into the trap of political exoticism, but using it as the critical and self-reflexive instrument to investigate some new issues for Vietnamese contemporary art such as the relationship between past and present, memories and reality, fantasy and everyday life, etc.”
The brothers also used re-unification as a theme by making clothes from camouflage uniforms from the Vietnam War.
They have since been working on a project called “The Bridge” which will include three movies — one in Vietnam, one in Korea, and one in Germany, three countries that have been cut in two.
Artists in residence
Thanh and Hai also have been connecting artists across the world through Vietnam’s first artists-in-residence program, the New Space Arts Foundation, which they launched in April 2008, from a gallery they founded in 2000.
The non-profit foundation at 15 Le Loi Street, Hue is open to all artists from all over the world and has been hosting poetry readings, film screenings, painting exhibitions, artist talks and conferences almost every month.
“We have a lacquer studio, an art studio, and a new media studio for film and for photography. It’s also a place for people to meet and create workshops for a week or a month. An artist can live there from one to six months,” Hai said.
All money the brothers get from selling their paintings at the gallery goes into the foundation, which has attracted around 100 artists from across Vietnam, several European countries, the US, Brazil, Croatia and those in the region.
Young painter Hoang Anh from the Central Highlands resort town of Da Lat said New Space has become a prestigious destination for artists to come, create and introduce their works to the public.
Through the foundation, the brothers have built relationships with fresh as well as established artists in Hue, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City.
Thanh said their idea of the foundation was not supported in the beginning.
Some people called them crazy for putting their own money in a project instead of waiting for sponsorship or government funds, he said.
“But we want this to be an independent art center that satisfies the creative desires of artists and connects them.”
The foundation now hosts one or two artists at a time, but the brothers said they can have up to six artists.
It is now connected with similar centers in the region for artists exchange such as HIVE in South Korea, and The Artists Village in Singapore.
Art lecturer Huy said introducing their works to the public is already a hard job for an artist but the Le brothers have done much more than that by promoting their colleagues.
“New Space is now a rare playground for young artists.”
Artists used to consider Hue only a peripheral location when it came to contemporary art in Vietnam. Now that’s changing with New Space, he said.
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