Master at work: Dang Tri Duc. Photo by Do Tuan
They could not afford nannies back then, so Dang Tri Duc followed his father to work from when he was just three to when he was all of 12 years old.
That was when his father, late artist Dang Loi, was setting up the foundation for puppetry in Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War, following a job he had done in Hanoi since 1959.
“My father was my first teacher, the one who gave me the love for art, setting the bar for how an artist should work.
“It’s all about focus – how you can get better,” he said.
The 42-year-old kept to this simple theme and tone during the interview. He laughed more than he talked, as if he had little to say about being one of the first sand animation artists in Vietnam and achieving national fame within a couple of years.
“I don’t know what chances have come my way,” he said, laughing.
Duc said he learnt sand animation indirectly from the world famous Hungarian Frecenc Cakó.
Duc was a stage designer, his main job after graduating from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts. Once, when his team watched YouTube videos during a break, Cakó’s work caught his interest.
“They were beautiful, so I came back home and tried to do it.”
Sand animation is a modern art where performers use a lightbox, applying sand to the surface and drawing lines and figures in the sand with their hands to create a series of images, the silhouettes of which are shown on a projected surface. A sand animation performance often goes along with music.
Duc does not remember how much time it took him to be able to animate a sand painting, but his debut happened soon after his introduction to the art. In 2008, he was called by a company for a promotion event.
His first big work was in late 2009, on the stage of the 21st edition of Charming Vietnam, an annual music gala organized by Thanh Nien Newspaper.
He painted a portrait of its late music director Huynh Phuc Dien (1970-2009), also a friend, as the background for a duet.
A similar performance in 2012 gave him nationwide fame, when he illustrated the song “Nhat ky cua me” (Mother’s diary) live on stage for a monthly musical gala on Ho Chi Minh City Television. As the singer sang, sandy pictures emerged one after another, from that of the days a mother expects her baby until the day she welcomes the child back into her lap after all life’s tortures.
Other sandy illustrations of the song were made later by several people, including one version by the song’s writer Nguyen Van Chung, all with Duc’s guidance.
Later last year, he won a gold medal for an individual artist at the national Professional Stage Festival, for his role in “Am binh,” a drama about a love story between a woman and two soldiers from opposite sides during the Vietnam War. The woman saves both of them during the war.
Duc said his part was just a tree that spoke one line. The medal was for his sand animation work in the background, which, according to many artists, saved the drama.
His fame reached London in July 2012 during the celebrations held for the 59th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
A Vietnamese company in England that he used to work for invited him over for the event.
The story he painted was about the queen staying with her husband King George VI in Buckingham Palace throughout the Battle of Britain in 1940, instead of fleeing to Canada as had been suggested.
“As I was telling it, many British people cried, and that made me happy that at least I was doing something meaningful.”
Duc said the thing he liked most about the event was that a Vietnamese company was selected as an organizer.
He does not hide his pride for the country, saying he has created hundreds of sand animation videos and most of them are about Vietnam and its people, especially women. A lot of them are not available online for copyright reasons.
Although the art is new in Vietnam, Duc is not walking a lone path.
He runs the Sand Animation Club in HCMC with Nguyen The Nhan and Phan Anh Vu.
Nhan and Vu praised Duc for his talent in building a storyline.
“He has great skills in graphic design and scriptwriting. He has managed to be both a painter and a director,” Vu said.
As an insider, Vu said he knows Duc deserves more compliments than a talented artist. “The brother’s a real hard worker.”
He said a sand animation performer has many tasks to do, from choosing the materials, making the lightbox and adjusting the light to proper level and combining the scenes with music. Moreover, they have to work in hot and dark conditions that can badly affect one’s heath.
“Most of all, being the first sand animation performer in Vietnam, Duc must have been very devoted and would have had to do a lot of research on his own.”
The 29-year-old also came to sand animation after watching foreign videos online, in 2009.
“I had just graduated (from an art school) and was looking for something interesting to pursue.”
He posted a video on YouTube and soon after, received a phone call from Duc, and they bonded over their love for sand.
Nhan said the three of them coming together might bring the art broader recognition.
“Sand animation has won widespread attention as it is strange, but it’s still unofficial.
“People give standing ovations anytime they see a performance, but it’s still not institutionalized.”
Since the Internet and the media has spread the word about the three artists, their club has received commercial invitations for launching events, anniversaries, weddings and birthdays.
Nhan said they used to joke that a funeral would complete the list, and in early October, they made sand animation videos as a tribute to General Vo Nguyen Giap (August 25, 1911 - October 4, 2013), 59 years after he led the Vietnamese army in the Dien Bien Phu battle to defeat French colonialists.
But Nhan said he has a bigger dream than making a living out of sand.
Nhan said he is aware any kind of art has it time, and he would accept that sand animation in Vietnam can fade out someday, but it needs to flourish first.
He said only around 60 percent of people he met knew about sand animation, so there was still space for it to grow.
He wants sand animation to be part of mainstream pop culture, that there are official contests held, that it is included in national art and entertainment events, and the world to know Vietnam has sand animation, Nhan said.
Many young people, some from as far as Hanoi, have visited their club to know about the art, many to learn it, and they have been given free training.
Duc seemed to be more at ease with the art and the short-lived nature of things, being the son of a puppeteer whose art has all but disappeared in its original form.
“I used to watch serious shows back then. I cried a lot. But now I rarely get to see a real mature puppet show.”
Sand represents movement and mortality at the same time, Duc said.
“It reminds me that nothing lasts forever. Only love remains.”
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By Thuy Vi, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the November 1 issue of our print edition, Vietweek)