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HÀ NINH PHAM

I NSTITUTE 

OF

D I S T A N C E


ARTIST’S S TATEMENT

06–09

BY HÀ NINH PHAM

A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHAEL LEE AND HÀ NINH PHAM

20–27

PERSONAL PARADISE

44–49

BY MICHAEL LEE

ARTIST’S PROFILE

CONTENTS

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52–53


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D6 [Shrimp Pond] 2020 Graphite, watercolour, pastel and acrylic marker on paper 123 Ă— 260 cm


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D6 [Shrimp Pond] detail 2020 Graphite, watercolour, pastel and acrylic marker on paper 123 Ă— 260 cm


ARTIST’S STATEMENT

BY HÀ NINH PHAM 06


For the past three years working on the project My Land, I have given myself an absolute power to create an imagined territory that does not correspond to any known culture in human history. The territory does not belong to our reality; rather it exists as a thought experiment of an alternative universe. I make drawings, sculptures and write short stories that correspond to maps, artifacts and tales of the territory. I want to know how far I can go in persuading people that the imaginary territory can be real. Before 2020, most of the drawings were built consistently from a process of intellectual planning. For example in H40.4 [flea farm], I designed a set of structures to track the fleas’ movements, or in E4.2 [Institute of Volume], I built a machine that can measure the volume of two-dimensional objects. This year, COVID-19 had a huge impact on me. During the lockdown, the isolation made me really ill. I had a surgery and after the recovery, my mind could no longer bear the burden of making everything intellectually consistent. I started to question why this happened. What is the distinction between the mind and the brain? Is there any opposition between artificial ideas and organic matter?

FOR S.E.A. FOCUS 2021

ARTIST’S STATEMENT FOR SEA FOCUS 2021

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These questions informed me to change the way I make my work. In this new series, I follow the organic development of the composition, merging organic objects and artificial systems I have created earlier to form a continuous spectrum of life. For example, a rock can be an egg, a star can be a fish, or a tree can be a river. In Shrimp pond, I drew a machine that looks like a predator to harvest the shrimp. Or in Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, the structure is designed to catch the star when it enters a trap. Besides two large drawings and eight mediumsized drawings in this series, I also made a video game in which the player plays as a “soul-atom” that can be reborn infinitely and choose its body parts and fate


for its next life. The game leaves the player in conflict between two schools of thought regarding the origin of our consciousness: idealism and materialism, proposing that the distinction between the living and the nonliving is an illusion; both schools of thought can be equally valid. My Land: an Introduction “My Land” is the name of the project. It is not the name of the territory that the project describes. I choose “My Land” because I want to be anonymous. Similar to the way we say “my dad”, “my mom”, anybody who calls “My Land” can find it refers to themself. Since the territory belongs to a foreign universe, there are no direct observations. Rather, we can understand it through “secondary materials” such as maps, technical instruments, souvenirs and tales. These types of secondary materials have been developed into different bodies of work: Mothermap, Logs, Institute of Distance, and Single Stories. All of them are under infinite revisions and expansion. The video game is from the Institute of Distance series, in which I produce artwork that look like industrial standardised products such as toy boxes or board game tabletops. On the other hand, the drawings belong to the [mothermap] series that employs a cartographic mode of spatial organisation. It starts with a key map [mothermap] divided by a coordinated 8 × 8 grid. Each unit, for example F7 or E3, then leads to a separate map, which has its own space units, and so on. As the project grows, [mothermap] is remade accordingly. My research interests I researched the hard question of consciousness to know why we have feelings and other subjective experiences. This question is different from the “easy questions” of consciousness about how our physical brains and bodies work. When we ask why we feel pain from a headache for example, the “Hard” approach is to explain why we feel that the pain is painful to us as a whole. Since the lockdown, I have also been thinking about animism because I find a lot of ideas in ancient animism supporting the concept of this series. See08

HÀ NINH PHAM


ing the world as a nonliving thing is quite recent. For thousands of years, ancient people saw lives in mere objects. Even nowadays, in Vietnam sometimes we can still see people pray to a sacred rock or tree because they think that they have spirits. I am inspired by this idea and try to respect the drawing more than ever before. The drawing is not only a sheet of paper, it is a living thing that has its own life and will. It has its body that can sometimes support or resist against my formal decisions. I have found that the drawing looks so much better this way. The body is very fragile and limited, but this is exactly why it is beautiful: it gives something the ability to exist as a conscious being. Popular culture We have seen a lot of movies that have animist aspects. For example, in the movie Avatar, the worldview of people of the Na’vi tribe is depicted by a continuum of life that transcends everything. This worldview contrasts with the one of the invaders, who see the world as mere sources of raw materials. I personally don’t like these movies, as they usually have an underlying romantic tone. Sometimes they can be even toxic, because they render the worldview of people from other cultures as fragile, mysterious, poetic, victimised, and different. On the surface they might be seen as a moral statement regarding how we treat nature and others. But deep down, they are dangerously unethical as they generate the arrogant worldview of the conqueror as morally superior. James Cameron was born in Canada and inherited this type of worldview from his culture. We see that a lot in other movies like Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones, and across almost all adventure video games. The problem is that Avatar, Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones are all from Hollywood. The apparatus allows the West to have the main say about what it means to be culturally ethical. So in my work, I will try my best to show that it is fundamentally unethical to let others have the say about my world.

ARTIST’S STATEMENT FOR SEA FOCUS 2021

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December 2020


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D7 [Eel Pond] 2020 Graphite, watercolour, pastel and acrylic marker on paper 123 Ă— 260 cm


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D7 [Eel Pond] detail 2020 Graphite, watercolour, pastel and acrylic marker on paper 123 Ă— 260 cm


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Institute of Distance 2020 Video game (still), user-defined duration Edition 20 + 2 AP


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Institute Of Distance – Full Game with Limited Edition Packaging Single-player video game, user-defined duration, 2020 Edition of 20 + 2 AP


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Package Box Coloured pencil, ink and graphite on paper mounted on MDF box 21 × 14 × 7.5 cm (H × W × D) 2021 Game Card Acrylic marker on inkjet print, mounted on 2.5” SSD Flash Hard Disk, enclosed in portable HDD box 12.5 × 8 × 1.7 cm (H × W × D) 2021 Booklet Graphite on inkjet print, bound in cardboard cover 16 two-side pages 10.5 × 7.5 cm each 2021 Page 8 and 9 are hand-drawn Hand-drawn and signed Certificate of Authenticity on page 16

Limited Edition Bonus • 03 digital patterns for wallpaper printing • 02 smartphone backgrounds Full HD+ • 01 desktop and laptop background Full HD System requirements • Desktop version Mac OS 10.10, Windows 7 or higher 256MB RAM, 500MB free storage • Mobile version Android Oreo 8.1, iOS 10 or higher 128MB RAM, 500MB free storage • Web version  Internet Explorer 8, Firefox 19.0, Chrome 25.0, Safari 5.1, Opera 12.1 or higher Update schedule • First update on Jan 20, 2021 • Second update on April 1, 2021


A C O N V E R S AT I O N

AND HÀ NINH PHAM 20


BETWEEN MICHAEL LEE The title of your ongoing project, My Land, speaks of ownership and belonging with regards to self and the environment. Tell us more.   HÀ NINH PHAM (HNP)  I moved to the United States in 2016. That time, there was the Trump election. And I felt deeply isolated because there were two sides: the ultra left and the ultra right. People started discussing very complicated topics, and I felt they were so extreme that I could never join either side. On the one hand, I felt that I could have been less isolated if I had joined a side. On the other hand, I feel like it might be a trap because it will take a lot of autonomy from my art and life. To be honest, I didn’t know what to do because I don’t like the left and I don’t like the right either. So I started My Land, just because I wanted to be autonomous. By creating a land that I have full control of, I think I can just create a system, a culture or a political vision that never can be related to anything that exists in the present.   MICHAEL LEE (ML) 

The expectation for an artist to make a political stand assumes that not doing so means one has no position or opinion. How do you deal with this conundrum?  HNP  I observe that there is a pressure for artists like me to show my political position in order to facilitate the industry. I feel that a lot of contemporary art right now is similar to tourism. I can see ‘political tourism’, I can see ‘victim art’, I can see people who want to see an image, a figure of local people who are making art but the industry is not ready for people who are autonomous individuals. And that is a problem: the biggest problem that our generation has to solve. When I look around, I think that A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHAEL LEE AND HÀ NINH PHAM

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 ML 


the more the region develops, the more we have to sort of claim our voices. And this situation has to stop because we have to have our space, because we have to have our land, in a world, right? We just cannot tell the stories of others. That’s my vision, and I truly believe in my vision. At the same time when I look around, I see a lot of Vietnamese contemporary art that has been stamped in the global industry is ‘victim art’. That art is supposed to create guilty feelings in the audience, and I don’t like this. I’ve observed that a lot of Vietnamese artists have to do that kind of art to join the industry—that’s for sure. I don’t think about changing them but I would say what I see everyday, because that’s the truth. So as long as we have a very autonomous contemporary art, or autonomous culture, we can be, like, truthful with ourselves.  ML  You want My Land to relate to nothing in reality. Could you share an entry point into interpreting this fictional world of yours?  HNP  A lot of my drawings and sculptures don’t correspond to a real space, a real place, or a specific country or culture. I think they reflect some ideas [from these]. And the ideas are related to places I have been to. For example, in My Land project, I have a key map called ‘Mothermap’, which is a map of the whole land. On the map, I have the northern upper part, in which I can put some “Western” ideas, and I have the lower right part, in which I can put some “Eastern” ideas. I am personally torn apart by those ideas because I have been travelling and moving through a lot of spaces, and I feel like I have to try my best to adapt myself to the environment. But, at the same time, it can create a lot of struggle inside my mind as well. And doing My Land is a good way to comfort myself in my mind.

You academic training in fine art: Did it help or hinder your development?  HNP  There are things I would not be able to do in my drawing if I didn’t have the skill training. For example, the organic forms are rendered using the cross-hatching method in cast drawing. This creates the three-dimensional effect. I have a long history with plaster cast drawing. I studied it from Lai Thành, a propaganda master, for nine years in order to pass the entrance test to the Vietnam University of Fine Arts in 2009. Mr. Lai Thành also taught me how to manage flat compositions, like what he would do in his propaganda posters. This strategy has become important in my style. Besides formal training in traditional fine art, I also learned from different sources, such as Computer-Generated Imagery, Video Games, Manga, and Design. I struggled a lot in my undergraduate programme (2009–2014), trying to combine them together, hoping  ML 

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that the work would be able to compete with the beauty of some old masters I liked. You know, my undergrad school, the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, is very, very traditional. My time at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (2016–2018) really helped me to resolve the struggle. PAFA did not teach me how to draw, but it fostered my confidence to mix everything I had: drawing, painting, sculpture, or digital media. I worked without any recipe. I could see the connections between different skills and media. I developed a conceptual framework to keep them in order. I think, when I come across a very beautiful painting, I may fall in love with its beauty for a week. But no more than that. The thing that lasts longer is the vision that the work projects. I think skills and training matter because they help to form a vision of the world. Like, we cannot understand who we are until we make something. And any skill is great. I appreciate skillful people, who teach me how to have contact with the world and the self in different ways. I grew up thanks to them. How do you use colour in your work?  HNP  In my drawings, I use colour as indication rather than decoration. I was trained as an academic painter but I am more interested in communication, interface and visual design. The only thing I would like to learn more, which I don’t have a good introductory training in, is architecture. Architecture is something I learn from reading books, but the field is way too far from what I know.  ML 

you clarify what you mean by using colour to indicate rather than decorate? How do you balance your aesthetic rules with your instinct?  HNP  Good question! In my work, I tried to make the colour to tell specific information. And the colour should be consistent with the whole project. For example, I use a very bright and saturated pink to indicate the Pink Army in B5 [Wax Fortress] and A6 [Pink Headquarter]. I don’t use this colour anywhere else. Well, sometimes in a particular work, I like a colour very much but it is not consistent with the way I have used it. If this happens then I will be miserable. There are two choices: use the new colour and remake other work accordingly, or follow the set rules. I don’t want to lose consistency because I am so proud of it. Then there was the lockdown. Before the pandemic, I tried to create conceptual plans and lock rules for everything in the project and it felt great. But I really had a hard time emotionally during the lockdown early this year. Maintaining consistency became heavier to bear, but I did not want to give up, because losing it would make me feel like a loser. Then I went through a surgery in a public hospital A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHAEL LEE AND HÀ NINH PHAM

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 ML  Could


where they treated me literally like an animal. In the recovery time, I started to look at medical illustrations. I realised that medical illustrators used colour as indication in a great way. Medical illustrations still have consistency, but the respect toward the human body is equally important. I think I made an important decision during that time. If I treat my work as an organic body that can grow, sometimes beyond my will, then the burden and responsibility of following the rules will be gone. The work I have made since then is more organic to me than ever before. How has My Land evolved since its beginning?  HNP  My Land started in 2017 as a cartographic project, where I could bring different ideologies together in a conceptual map. Each ideology was represented by a structure, or a terrain. This was very convenient, as I could put in any ideology I wanted, without having to care too much about trusting any of them. After three years of developing My Land, I grew up a bit and stopped wasting my time on unworthy things. Then My Land started to have its own life apart from what was happening. I moved back to Vietnam and started my new life here as well. From a mapmaking project, now My Land has become a complete worldbuilding system. I have designed four modes of approaching the territory described in My Land (cartography, science, spirituality, literature). I have developed it into a video game. I can see a lot of potential in this project and this makes me happy. I believe that I can work on this project for really long.  ML 

Your sculptures have a DIY aesthetic. That they are handmade instruments of measurement, hint at the suspicion of standardisation. Fill us in?  HNP  The sculptures emerged naturally and early from the drawing project. I simply thought that it would be interesting to try to bring some of the rules in my world into our real world. This is challenging because I can create everything within the paradoxical space of a drawing, but when it comes to a real space I have to take into account the rules of reality. The thing I want to explore through my sculptures is how far I can go in organising and interpreting our world. My sculptures are the boundaries between my world and our world. I was clear about this, so I tried to make a lot of instruments of measurement. They have the nature of giving a structure. Of course the sculptures have to follow the rules in the project My Land. I cannot make them like they are from a specific time in history. They are artifacts but they have no age. They don’t use our symbolic systems but they are fully functional. We might not need them in our lives, but this does not deny their functionality. To be  ML 

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honest I did not have formal training in sculpture to understand the beauty of an abstract sculpture. But a lot of tools around me are beautiful. I rather relate my sculptures to the history of tools than the history of sculpture. And I think standardisation is a complicated topic. It is good for facilitating exchanges, but it is a cheap and inadequate tool. I call this the problem of the bridge and the land. We need a bridge to go from one land to the other. But the bridge is always linear and cannot represent the complex layers of the land. In our cultural industry, for example, I believe that exoticism, political tourism and victim art are some of the standardised bridges. I’ve tried my hand in your video game a few times but never quite got past level 1. It feels like a kind of survival game to me.  HNP  Yes it is a survival game, but actually you don’t need to try to survive as to die and to be reborn are part of the game. For example, you have to die multiple times to learn the effects of each body part and fate in the world. Sometimes this frustration can be fun. Sometimes the difficulties in the game come from my mishandling the codes. When I applied for a grant from RMIT University Vietnam to fund the first version of this game, I wrote three gameplays. The first one was almost technologically impossible. The second one had a good story, but I did not have the time to make it. The last one is the version you played, it is the simplest gameplay. But it turned out to be what I wanted. The player starts in the Institute of Distance, and chooses body parts and a fate for the next life born somewhere in the spaces described in Mothermap. It is exactly what the project needs, as it highlights the connections between two bodies of work in My Land. I hope to make it a kind of game, and I would like to force the player into a mode of ‘trial and error’. I want to force them to experience the choices. Actually I’m not very clear how to make that happen because a lot of the game playing has something to do with coding, and I’m not a coder. We’ll see. Sometimes I think, “I am an artist and I make a game”; to me this is a meaningful move. I can now create an ecosystem, something like the Disney ecosystem: you have a world of fictional characters who exist on multiple platforms. And it’s kind of an ambitious dream but I’d try my best to make it because it makes my life much more meaningful than before.  ML 

a lot of people changed your life. Let’s start with your dad.  HNP  My father was a soldier in the Vietnam War, and he fought in the war for three, four years I don’t remember. He fought for the North Vietnamese army, the communist side. And he got wounded

A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHAEL LEE AND HÀ NINH PHAM

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 ML  Apparently


in Quang Tri, which was the battlefield between the two forces back then in Vietnam. First of all, I got the vision of creating a huge project from him because he’s a very ambitious, very straightforward and visionary guy. More importantly he doesn’t see Vietnam as a victim of anything. Nowadays we in Vietnam don’t see ourselves as victims of the war. We don’t want to talk about the war not because we have forgotten it, but because we just don’t care about it. We care more about the future than the past. There is a growing list of names on your website credits. Exactly. On my website, The Advisory Board has artists that I love. And The Club of Landlords are people who have bought my work. I can survive as an artist because of them, so I think it’s good to acknowledge that. Some of them prefer to remain anonymous, so I leave their names as initials. One person I want to highlight is Didier William, the Chair of the MFA programme at PAFA. I worked with him for two years. He came to the school in 2016, the year [before] I started my project. And soon after, he left the school. His history at the school was similar to mine. When I was in the first year, the school was so crazy about the Trump election and there were a lot of activities in which the students just protested and screamed and you know, they made a lot of work that specifically addressed the politics back then. That’s kind of crazy to me because I’m from Vietnam where we just don’t have that kind of political instinct. There was a pressure for me to join the activities. I booked a meeting with Didier and I asked him, “Do I have to show my identity here so that people can accept me?” I wanted to know if there is any sort of expectation for a foreign artist to be exotic or to play a certain role to be accepted by the art industry. His answer to me was: “Hà Ninh, here in the United States, people care about Vietnam, people don’t care about you.” I was a little surprised by that. Later on, during my studies, I was thinking about it deeply. And in my second year, I made a decision, if the industry wants to know about Vietnam but doesn’t want to know about me, I will remove my identity from my products. So that when you look at my drawings, sculptures, videos or games, you will never see where I’m from. I will not show anything from Vietnam nor the United States. I will never show anything that says I’m a man. Or you can never tell the period of time I was born into. I try my best to do so. And I think it’s a very good decision. Because of the decision, I feel that I have found myself. I became more confident and stronger because of the decision. But that decision would not have come to me if not for that meeting with Didier. I feel grateful. I think he deeply changed my life.  ML 

 HNP 

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ML  How might your work speak to fellow Vietnamese?  HNP  I have a vision. Because I’m a young person in Vietnam, I think that my struggles might be similar to other very young people in this country. Because we just came out of poverty, we just came out of the war, we just came out of the status of an underdeveloped country. And we’re now very curious and we’re now very ambitious. We’re a little bit lost, but we have potential. I really want to bring that feeling, that history, into my work because deep in my mind, I feel that I want to do something for the country I’m proud of. I’m happy to be here. That might be one of the reasons I moved back to Vietnam; I felt like I could be connected much more deeply to this country. I just moved back from the United States last year. Since then, everything happens and my life feels so much happier than before. And I met the gallerist Joshua [Lim] who introduced me to you, and I think we can do something really great because we are living in a really great time, a very interesting time in history, and hopefully we can make things better.

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This edited conversation was conducted during various sessions on text and voice messaging and video conferencing platforms between 28 Sep and 26 Dec 2020. A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHAEL LEE AND HÀ NINH PHAM


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C7.1 [Nursery Number One] 2020 Graphite, acrylic, ink, coloured pencils and acrylic markers on paper 106 Ă— 66 cm


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D6.1 [Foreign Onions] 2020 Graphite, watercolour, and acrylic ink on paper 106 Ă— 66 cm


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D7.1 [Outside Tower Number One] 2020 Graphite, coloured pencils and acrylic ink on paper 108 Ă— 66 cm


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E1 [Centre for Meteorological Forecasting] 2020 Graphite, acrylic paint, coloured pencils and alcohol markers on paper 106 Ă— 66 cm


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E1.1 [Star Wrench] 2020 Graphite, acrylic paint, coloured pencils and alcohol markers on paper 108 Ă— 62 cm


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E1.2 [Rain] 2020 Graphite, acrylic paint, coloured pencils and alcohol markers on paper 108 Ă— 62 cm


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F2.3 [Oil Tank] 2020 Graphite, acrylic paint, coloured pencils and alcohol markers on paper 106 Ă— 66 cm


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F2.4 [Fractional Column] 2020 Graphite, coloured pencils and acrylic on paper 106 Ă— 66 cm


PERSONAL

BY MICHAEL LEE 44


PA R A D I S E Since 2017, the Hanoi-born artist Hà Ninh Pham has been working on My Land, a long-term project that mainly takes the form of fictional map drawings, and occasionally, as sculptures and videos. On the occasion of S.E.A. Focus 2021, a regional art fair based in Singapore, Pham has proposed to present Institute of Distance, a solo exhibition of ten drawings and a walkthrough of a video game—all which are part of My Land. In this essay, I discuss how Pham maps out a personal paradise for himself by materialising agency, freedom and community.

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Mapmaking as Agency Born to a war veteran father and a mother who died when he was young, Pham notes how his surviving parent has been exceptional in supporting his art education—not once but twice. After receiving formative training at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, where he learned


plaster cast drawing, he furthered his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he encountered the Western contemporary art circuit. Upon arriving in the United States, Pham met with a dilemma: to choose a political side or miss golden opportunities in the art world. His first semester of graduate studies coincided with the lead-up to the presidential election in 2016. His peers nudged him to the streets to rally against Trump. The invitation was appealing, as asserting his political position—he doesn’t like Trump—and Asian identity through his art and actions could capture more attention in the art world. But he also felt that this “trap” would rob him of his autonomy.[1] Pham sought to practise individual agency by making an anti-careerist decision: to refrain from political positions and identity politics, be it ethnic, cultural, gender or age, in his work. Pham doesn’t subscribe to the radical left either, objecting to its romanticising of the marginalised. He observes the trends of “political tourism” and “victim art” in contemporary art—which invoke war legacies and historical injustices in former colonies—as ‘guilt trips’.[2] The pop-cultural exemplar of such sentimentalism, for Pham, is James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009), featuring the Na’vi humanoid tribe whose existence is at the mercy of human technologists. Pham’s reasons for seeing such works as “toxic” and “unethical” are two-fold. First, even as they critique developmentalism, they repeat the Western view of the others as different. Second, they arrogantly assume that non-whites can’t speak for themselves. Pham chooses to focus on selfdetermination rather than the Western obsession with identity: being undermined is not a reason for victimising oneself and one’s community but a call to overcome or tolerate difficulties by living the life one wants and doing the work one can. For Pham, mapmaking hence becomes his way of developing individual agency in a world of social conflict. A depository for his evolving worldview, Pham’s map drawings, as critic John Yau notes, “have to do with feelings of displacement and disruption” from living among differing ideologies and geographies.[3] At the same time, “drawing a map can give him a sense of control.”[4] The artist admits to revelling in absolute power: “In my art, I can do and say anything I like; I’m

1 Hà Ninh Pham, “Artist’s Statement”, Institute of Distance (Kuala Lumpur: A+ Works of Art, 2020), pp. 6–9. 2 Michael Lee and Hà Ninh Pham, “A conversation between Michael Lee and Hà Ninh Pham”, Institute of Distance (Kuala Lumpur: A+ Works of Art, 2020), pp. 20–27. 3 J  ohn Yau, “Out of Vietnam, Drawings of Displacement and Repression”, Hyperallergic, available: https:// hyperallergic. com/507131/ out-of-vietnamdrawings-ofdisplacement-andrepression/ 4

Yau, ibid.

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MICHAEL LEE


PERSONAL PARADISE

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E4.2 [Institute of Volume] (2018)


god here. Without art, I could end up manipulating people.”[5] Maps are Pham’s go-to place to feel most himself without becoming a problem to others. The Materiality and Structure of Freedom The artist’s mapping process and choice of materials blend pragmatism with experimentation. His drawing tools are basic: graphite, charcoal, acrylic, gouache. They are “anything that works; anything that serves the purpose of creating a flat image”, says the artist. Paper as a support suits his personality, as this “forgiving medium” allows the self-professed indecisive to not just erase errors, but also to cut, tear, fold and paste, among a host of paper-engineering techniques.[6] Occasionally, mistakes and chance discoveries are incorporated into the work. Partly erased sections become an air of dust (for example, near the top-right corner of E4.2 [Institute of Volume], 2018), while some works comprise multiple pieces of paper (D5 [Father’s Dam], 2018) or exceed the rectilinear (B5 [Wax Fortress], 2018). In E4.2, over 60 pencil-sketched hills are dispersed across a pale yellow flatland, attesting to Pham’s freestyle combination of figurative and abstract elements. Pham’s training and experiences have given him a bag of tricks to create Deleuzian map magic.[7] Like “a floating mass of clouds”, Pham’s land is a mix of greyscale terrains, coloured plains or shapes, organic structures and dark bodies of fluids, whose temporal and geographic settings are unknown.[8] Pham’s colour symbolism further reveals his hands-off approach. For the artist, pink and yellow represent reality and ideals respectively. The Pink Army and Yellow Army face off in B5 [War Fortress], where there is no clear winner. Pham does not decide who is right or who has won: “I can be an observer and distance myself from resolving that conflict”.[9] The key to personal freedom, for Pham, is in accepting an extent of detachment. On Pham’s [mothermap] (2019) are towers that the artist calls a “prison” and a “torture chamber”. Yau associates them with conflict, repression and the sinister, but the artist feels otherwise.[10] For him, these are not structures to take imaginary revenge on people who betray him; they are spaces for personal solitude.

5 W  hatsapp messaging conversation, 28 Sep 2020. 6 Z  oe Butt, On Belonging, Logic and Laughter, interview of Tammy Nguyen and Hà Ninh Pham, available: https://www.haninh. com/Files/Archive/ SOF_Interview_ TammyHaninh_ENG. pdf 7 D  eleuze and Guattari saw cartography’s affinity with innovation and experimentation: “The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions: it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be reworked by an individual, group or social formation.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus; Massumi, B., trans. (Bloomsbury: London, UK, 1987), p. 12. 8 Vy Dan Tran, “Review of ‘Necessary Fictions’”, Art and Market (July 17, 2020), available: https://www. artandmarket.net/ reviews/2020/7/17/ review-of-necessaryfictions 9 Butt, ibid. 10 Yau, ibid.

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MICHAEL LEE


D5 [Father’s Dam] (2018)

PERSONAL PARADISE

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B5 [Wax Fortress] (2018)


[mothermap] (2019)

They are a safe space: a hideout from and a lookout at the conflictual world outside. Here, he can freely move things around: his feelings and quirks, his anxieties and joys, his ambitions and regrets. In many ways, Pham’s studio practice is one such ‘prison’. It is where he is free to express himself through his work, and envision and plan for the future. From my remote peek into his studio space and routines, I observed his adherence to a strict schedule for research, production, planning and admin.[11] A Google drive where he stores all project files puts every artist I know to shame, myself included. While some might think of structure as an obstacle to freedom, Pham’s studio practice shows us that taking charge of one’s life comes with discipline and sacrifice. A Communion of Minds When Pham first arrived in the States, a sense of isolation overwhelmed him. He says, “I felt miserably isolated in my social life. It was hard for me to have a community no matter how hard I tried.”[12] Fortunately, his first mentor there, Didier William, the Chair of the MFA program at Pennsylvania, encouraged him to

11 Over Zoom video conferencing, due to travel restrictions as safety management of COVID-19 pandemic. 12 Butt, ibid. 13 Butt, ibid.

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MICHAEL LEE


* For Pham’s audiences like you and me, what’s left to do, then, is to be lost, for a while, in his world of ideas, feelings, habits and symbols. It is Pham’s land at first, but it ends up being ours. From this immersion in his works is the hope that we will one day, likewise, create the life—and by extension, the worlds—we want. When that happens, let Pham know, as he is curious what our paradises are about. PERSONAL PARADISE

Michael Lee (b. 1972, Singapore) is an artist and curator based in Singapore. He researches urban memory and fiction, especially the contexts and implications of loss. He transforms his observations into objects, diagrams, situations, curations or texts. Michael Lee has staged solo exhibitions at Yavuz Fine Art (Singapore, 2014), Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin, 2013), and Hanart TZ Gallery (Hong Kong, 2010). He was on the curatorial team of 5th Singapore Biennale 2016 and he curated Between, Beside, Beyond: Daniel Libeskind's Reflections and Key Works 1989–2014 (2007). He received his Master and Bachelor of Communication Studies from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, in 2001 and 1997 respectively. He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, both in Singapore.

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move to New York and introduced him new friends. Among them is Tammy Nguyen, a New York-based Vietnamese painter, who became a friend and mentor too. Eventually, his community grew to include other artists who work with traditional media in the contemporary context.[13] Pham gradually found his footing in a world not of his own, and the process of discovering his new community was through sharing common experiences of alienation and the need for familiarity and intimacy. His expansive and richly detailed landscapes could themselves be said to be a meeting of minds confronting similar themes: from the controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson and the prolific author Jorge Luis Borges to artists as wide-ranging as Tang Yin (Tang Bohu), Julie Mehretu, Paul Noble and Jack Whitten, and the filmmaker Christopher Nolan. Pham acknowledges that his works do not emerge from a blank slate, and he dedicates a page on his website to influences (dubbed “The Advisory Board”) and collectors (“The Club of Landlords”). Pham’s video game exemplifies his ideal mode of engagement with the world. The game narrator is an abstract object named A Priori, apparently crafted by you, the player, “a long time ago”. It greets you with basic rules of navigating the fictional world, where you can “reconfigure your next life”. Some of how this world works recalls the Buddhist idea of cause and effect: “The critters are annoying. You can kill them but they may block your way”. Indeed, I was happily killing off these critters before realising I was stuck, as the dead critters got in my way just as I had been warned. I found myself reflecting on the residue of my past and how its consequences have shaped my life in some way.


Hà Ninh Pham (b. 1991, Hanoi, Vietnam) is a fine artist and art educator based in Hanoi, Vietnam. His work explores the way in which we construct our understanding of territories from afar. Hà Ninh Pham is an alumnus of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (MFA in Studio Art), and the Vietnam University of Fine Arts (BFA in Painting). Pham has also participated in various artist residency programmes, including the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Corporation of Yaddo, Wassaic Project, Marble House Project in the United States, and PLOP in the United Kingdom. His work has been shown in New York, Philadelphia, London, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. He is currently Visiting Professor of Painting at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, and Associate Lecturer at RMIT University Vietnam. EDUCATION 2018 Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, ME, United States 2018 Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA, United States 2014 Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting, Vietnam University of Fine Arts, Hanoi, Vietnam SOLO & TWO-PERSON SHOWS 2021 S.E.A. Focus 2021, Institute of Distance, Singapore 2021 A+ WORKS of ART, Worlds Apart, a twoperson show with Truong Cong Tung, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (UPCOMING)

2019 The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Necessary Fictions, a two-person show with Tammy Nguyen, curated by Zoe Butt and Bill Nguyen, Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam 2019 FRONT Art Space, Cheat Codes, curated by Passenger Pigeon Press, New York, NY, United States

GROUP EXHIBITIONS 2020 A+ WORKS of ART, Ready And Postponed, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 2020 A+ WORKS of ART, Back To Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 2019 WP Gallery, The Codex Project, Philadelphia, PA, United States 2018 Wassaic Project, Seasons Change, Wassaic, NY, United States 2018 1969 Gallery, Map: Work from Boston University and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts MFA students, juried show, curated by Josephine Halvorson and Didier William, New York, NY, United States 2018 PAFA Samuel M.V. Hamilton Galleries, 117th Annual Student Exhibition, Philadelphia, PA, United States 2018 Ago Hub, Dimension, curated by Vu Do, Hanoi, Vietnam 2018 Inliquid, In Flux, Philadelphia, PA, United States 2018 Richard C. von Hess Foundation Work on Paper Gallery, Material World, juried show, Philadelphia, PA, United States

ARTIST’S PROFILE 52


RESIDENCIES 2021 ASEAN Secretariat, ASEAN Artists Residency Programme, Jakarta, Indonesia (UPCOMING)

2021 Institut Français & Cité Internationale des Arts, Programme de Réciprocité 2020, Paris, France (UPCOMING) 2020 RMIT University Vietnam, Digital Design & Media Residency, Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam

ARTIST’S PROFILE

2019 PLOP, Residency, London, United Kingdom 2019 The Corporation of Yaddo, Visual Art Residency, Saratoga Springs, NY, United States 2019 Marble House Project, Visual Artist Residency, VT, United States 2018 Wassaic Project, Winter Residency, Wassaic, NY, United States 2018 Passenger Pigeon Press, Collaborations, New York, NY, United States 2015 Heritage Space, Month of Arts Practice, Hanoi, Vietnam AWARDS AND GRANTS 2020 Finest Artist, Hanoi Grapevine Finest, Hanoi Grapevine, Hanoi, Vietnam 2020 The New K - Dignity is Inviolable Competition Winner, Goethe-Institut, Hanoi, Vietnam 2019 Financial Aid, The Corporation of Yaddo, NY, United States 2018 The Murray Dessner Travel Award 2018, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA, United States 2018 Fellowship Juried Prize, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA, United States 2018 The Fine Arts Venture Fund, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA, United States 2016 The Trustee Graduate Full-tuition Scholarship, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA, United States 2015 Silver Medal, Young Talents from National Fine Arts Universities, Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism, Hue, Vietnam 2014 First Place in Painting in the Thesis show, Vietnam University of Fine Arts, Hanoi, Vietnam

2011 Bronze Medal, Contemporary propaganda poster competition, Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism, Hanoi, Vietnam COLLECTIONS 2019 Nguyen Art Foundation, [mothermap], Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam 2019 Private Collection of Yeap Lam Yang, [institute of distance], Singapore TEACHING EXPERIENCE 2020– RMIT University now Vietnam, Hanoi Campus, Associate Lecturer, Hanoi, Vietnam 2020– Monster Lab School of now Design, Drawing Professor, Study Drawing, Hanoi, Vietnam 2019– The Painter’s Studio, now Writing Instructor, Artist Statements and Applications, Hanoi, Vietnam 2019 Visiting Critic, Seminar: Subject, Form, Content, Post-Baccalaureate Program, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA, United States 2017 Teaching Assistant to Stuart Shils, Advanced Painting, Bachelor of Fine Arts Program, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA, United States 2015– Drawing Instructor, 2017 Preparation Course, The Painter’s Studio, Hanoi, Vietnam 2013– Private Drawing Tutor, 2015 Hanoi, Vietnam

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2017 FMC Tower, The Art of Agriculture, Philadelphia, PA, United States 2017 Nhà Sàn Collective, Behind the Terrain sketches on imaginative landscapes, curated by Mika Maruyama and Đo Tuong Linh, Hanoi, Vietnam 2016 Gallery 128, The Beauty of the Contradiction, juried show, Philadelphia, PA, United States 2016 Nest by AIA, Hanoi Art 21 Exhibition: Selfportrait, Hanoi, Vietnam 2015 Heritage Space, The Brownian Movement, juried show, curated by Tran Trong Vũ Hanoi, Vietnam 2015 Cuci Fine Art, My Pleasure, curated by Vo Quynh Hoa, Hanoi, Vietnam 2013 VNUFA Museum, The A4 project: A4 Garden, curated by Tran Trong Vu, Hanoi, Vietnam 2012 Hanoi Rock City, Exercitation.Art.Terms 2 Project: Thik thi Nhik, curated by Pham Dieu Huong, Hanoi, Vietnam 2012 Viet Art Centre, Exercitation.Art.Terms 1 Project: Students make Art, curated by Pham Dieu Huong, Hanoi, Vietnam


Published in conjunction with Institute of Distance, a solo exhibition by Hà Ninh Pham at S.E.A. Focus 2021 (S.E.A. Focus Digital and S.E.A. Focus Curated: hyper-horizon) from 20th to 31st January 2021.

Artist Hà Ninh Pham Curator Michael Lee Editor Aminah Ibrahim Graphic design Kenta.Works With special thanks to Wong Shu Yun

Published by A+ WORKS of ART d6 - G - 8 d6 Trade Centre 801 Jalan Sentul 51000 Kuala Lumpur Malaysia +60 18 333 3399 info@aplusart.asia www.aplusart.asia Facebook/Instagram @aplusart.asia Opening Hours 12 pm – 7 pm, Tuesday to Saturday Closed on Sunday, Monday and public holidays Copyright © 2021 A+ WORKS of ART.  All rights reserved. All articles and illustrations contained in this catalogue are subject to copyright law. Any use beyond the narrow limites defineded by copyright law, and without the express of the publisher, is forbidden and will be prosecuted.

A+ WORKS of ART is a contemporary art gallery based in Kuala Lumpur, with a geographic focus on Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Founded in 2017 by Joshua Lim, the gallery presents a wide range of contemporary practices, from painting to performance, drawing, sculpture, new media art, photography, video and installation. Its exhibitions have showcased diverse themes and approaches, including material experimentation and global conversations on social issues. Collaboration is key to the ethos of A+ WORKS of ART. Since its opening, the gallery has worked with artists, curators, writers, collectors, galleries and partners from within the region and beyond, and continues to look out for new collaborations. The gallery name is a play on striving for distinction but also on the idea that art is never without context and is always reaching to connect — it is always “plus” something else.

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Profile for A+ WORK of ART

Institute of Distance by Hà Ninh Pham  

Published in conjunction with 'Institute of Distance', a solo exhibition by Hà Ninh Pham at S.E.A. Focus 2021 (S.E.A. Focus Digital and S.E....

Institute of Distance by Hà Ninh Pham  

Published in conjunction with 'Institute of Distance', a solo exhibition by Hà Ninh Pham at S.E.A. Focus 2021 (S.E.A. Focus Digital and S.E....

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