Renaissance-era wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosity, were personal and often seemingly random collections of treasured objects. Varying in sophistication and content, they were curated by individuals and aimed at delighting or impressing visitors.
For her fourth solo exhibition with Galerie Quynh, Vietnamese-French artist Sandrine Llouquet has set about creating something of a wunderkammer. “It was more than just a place where you display objects you collect,” she said recently of the wunderkammer tradition. “It was also a place for meditation and work.”
Her exhibition is spread across two gallery spaces, and the delivery of each collection has a distinct approach. The first show, a cabinet of curiosities in mixed media, opened June 14 at Galerie Quynh’s new space on Dong Khoi Street. The second, a more minimalist and stark presentation, is due to open Thursday, June 27, at the gallery’s De Tham location.
The relationship between the artist and the gallery began eight years ago, when Llouquet arrived in Vietnam from France. She met the owners of the gallery through mutual friends and the collaboration grew out of that familiarity. Her first solo show with Galerie Quynh was in 2005, and since then the gallery has come to represent Llouquet’s work in Vietnam.
Titled “Chapter 1: Where I Attempt to Drown the Dragon,” the show represents a curious engagement with contrast. Drawing from inspirations that include Nietzsche, the practice of alchemy, and Lewis Carroll, the work at the Dong Khoi gallery at first seems like so many pages torn from a book. Upon closer inspection the small pieces each represent their own narrative, rather than a composite or chronology. A mixture of drawings, watercolors, sculpture, and even neon, the work is cohesive in its playfulness with the themes of light and dark. Simple drawings are displayed along with intricate and complex paintings, each depicting some kind of character or scenario. Individually, the pieces convey tension and prod the viewer with questions. As a whole, the art continues a style that those familiar with Llouquet’s work will recognize. At times fragile but certainly not dainty, the work on paper conveys a crispness and neatness, and the empty spaces are there on purpose. “I feel emotions are exalted when you are in front of infinite emptiness,” she said. The work reflects her fascination with Carroll, who wrote Alice in Wonderland as a story that is accessible to both naïve and intellectual audiences. The drawings in particular are definitely not kids’ stuff: messages and images of pain appear, but are presented with a lightness and openness that can still please the casual observer. By making a literary reference in naming the work, Llouquet has tied the art to her use of books as inspiration. It also signals her hope to elicit collaboration with the audience’s own memories. “You read the title and you wonder what it is and you can start imagining something, and for each of my pieces it’s the same thing,” she said. “I want it to be open enough, unfinished enough so the viewer can really build up his own story, and put in his own references.” Allowing for these empty spaces and shifting references has resulted in an exhibition that is new and different for each viewer. For Llouquet, the method and medium of her art is as crucial as the resulting work. “Each piece is important; it has to stand on its own and work alone, and at the same time it’s part of the work of your life, and it’s just showing the steps of your evolution and your process.” Using alchemy as an analogy for her process, she drew heavily on concepts of transmutation – both in the development of herself and of her work – in undertaking this exhibition. “I’m reading stuff, taking notes, trying to capture what is around me, and trying to evolve, to progress,” she said. “My artwork is just putting some steps with the material, the objects.” Her research also included rituals of passage and esoteric beliefs. She studied ethnographies, read about the Masons, and began to experiment with the idea of placing familiar objects in unfamiliar situations. The result elicits a strange feeling of mixed recognition and disorientation, something that Freud called The Uncanny. The work of Freud and Jung both informed Llouquet’s approach to engaging her audience. Relying on the work of psychologists and philosophers created a self-reflective opportunity for the artist. In this way “Chapter 1: Where I Attempt to Drown the Dragon” is a physical manifestation of the artist’s personal experiences, and a narrative of the “material experimentation” that she said punctuates her development. That development has been informed in several ways by the context she finds herself in. When she came to her parents’ native Vietnam eight years ago, it was originally to establish a community-based art space. Called Atelier Wonderful, it hosted weekly events, held community conversations, and published a magazine. The focus was on facilitating and supporting art, but she quickly found herself creating more of her own work than originally planned. She also hadn’t expected to find a gallery or an audience to support her work, but the relationship with Galerie Quynh and the subsequent years have found her focusing on her personal career. Being situated in Vietnam has allowed her to feel somewhat alienated – a phenomenon she recognizes the value of. “Of course I know about the big international events and exhibitions, but compared to France I’m a little disconnected. “I think I can really focus on the work when I’m isolated.” Ho Chi Minh City itself has provided some unexpected inspiration for Llouquet. Rather than planning a sculpture or installation based on available materials, she visits shops to dig through disparate items that are typically used for anything but art. “It’s kind of exotic because you enter a shop, you see these objects and you don’t know what (they’re) made for. It’s magic because sometimes it’s for an electrician or something.”
Using strange and interesting materials sourced locally gives Llouquet opportunities to interact with Ho Chi Minh City - where she also works as an art educator and occasional commercial illustrator - in diverse ways as an artist. The first part, at 151/3 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, runs until July 31. Visitors can stop in between 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The second part will be on display at Galerie Quynh, 65 De Tham Street, District 1, from June 28 to July 31. (Vietweek, wed. July 3, 2013)