The City in Mind

(originally published in Word Vietnam, August 2014)

It’s common knowledge that our cities aren’t unchangeable. But it’s not just knocking down buildings that changes them — for these city artists, it’s as simple as shifting one’s perspective.

Photos by Kyle Phanroy, images provided by the artists

“These aren’t the things we see printed on postcards… these are private interpretations made public, personal definitions of the monolithic.”

When Barbara Pellizzari sees a city, she sees its people. “What impresses me the most,” she says, “is the fact that people have their own rhythm, they have their own time… They go with nature.” She measures the built environment by people’s reactions to it. “My work is the means of revealing how we can all be as deeply involved in our surroundings as I feel myself to be.”

When Ha Manh Thang sees a city, he sees the things it contains. “The first scent of a city,” he says, “is always the first impression to me when I arrive there.” He paints the city’s buildings and aura, but what he’s really getting at it is what people made in their image.

When Mike Hern sees a city, he sees it in layers, like the rings of a tree. “Neglect of restoration results in the building’s patina,” he says, “which gives evidence of its age. I see developments in the neighbourhoods at random with no fear of simply building on top of existing rooftops. The only concern is using up as much space as they can.”

When Lys Bui sees a city, she sees its memory. “The new Vincom [Union Square], it’s actually a replacement of the beautiful Eden Mall,” she says. “It was very beautiful. I had a lot of connection with the building.” Its demolition inspired her to start drawing the old buildings that are fast disappearing in Saigon. “I don’t have a picture of it, all I have is the memory.”

When Cristina Nualart sees a city, she sees those things whose absence allowed it to be. “Loss isn’t always necessarily a negative occurrence,” she says. “Demolition affects insignificant houses, huts in a slum or even colonial architectural gems. There is an equality in the destruction which is a model for a balanced society.”

These aren’t the things we see printed on postcards — well, with the exception of Bui’s postcard series — these are private interpretations made public, personal definitions of the monolithic. And they’re perhaps truer to the way we experience our built environment, which is the whole point anyway.

“Most of the time they say they didn’t realise it’s the same building. They saw it every day, they just didn’t recognise it at all.”

Cultural Touchstones

Part of our shared heritage are those things we all have in common — whether they’re nostalgia for how the light falls across a certain building at 5pm on a summer’s day or other circumstances that accompany specific moments in our lives. These are the basic materials for the city artist, the clichés they play off to get you to see what they see.

In Thang’s Galerie Quynh solo show last year, Heaven is a Place, he silhouetted iconic architecture and focused on its effects on the total scene. “Vulnerable and exposed,” the show’s press release read, “their physical, imposing stature may seem diminished but their symbolic power still exists. That their identities cannot be stripped entirely reveals how deeply the images and ideals are ingrained in our collective consciousness.”

It’s not an entirely ominous exercise. He reduces Hanoi’s cityscape to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum “because it marks a special period of time when Vietnam united through many difficulties,” Thang says. “When I was 13, as a student, I visited the mausoleum and felt it special, and I was so proud of it. Now, whenever I am on Hung Vuong and look at it, I still feel that it’s special and attractive. It’s a part of Vietnamese history, this city, this country and the people.”


Reconceptualising the Everyday

“Most of the time they say they didn’t realise it’s [the same] building,” Bui says about those who look for the inspiration to her whimsical building sketches. “They saw it every day, they just didn’t recognise it at all.”

Part of this is artistic license, but part of this is taking a closer look. “When I got back from New York I was jobless for a year,” she says. “So I spent a lot of time walking around [Ho Chi Minh City]. Then I was riding my motorbike in District 5, and purposely looking for these houses. That’s the moment when I paid attention to the details on the houses.

“And naturally, it became my habit.”

Nualart looked at the remains of some of these forgotten houses for her latest work, the rubble mural Sai Gone that’s currently on display at LIN Center. Based on the long-running rezoning evictions in Ho Chi Minh City’s Thu Thiem area in District 2, the mural is a collage of demolished brick, cement, floor tiles and wall pieces that forms the Saigon skyline, with Thu Thiem fading in the background.

In the artist’s statement, Nualart says, “It seemed appropriate to make an artwork with the rubble, as a way of keeping together some fragments of the community that was dispersing.”

And sometimes these new associations can become more than just concepts. As the architect Mies van der Rohe famously said, “Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together.”

Read More