For her first solo exhibition at the gallery, Thu Van TRAN (Ho Chi Minh City, 1979) takes over the first floor with a title taken from a book: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Published in 1899, this novel chronicles the slow journey up a river in Africa by a young British officer on behalf of a Belgian company. Based on observations made by Conrad himself, this book develops the inner experience and perception of the world by the young sailor linking them to the description of wild and oppressive nature. The reference to this story enables Tran to initiate and shape a process of reflection about the colonial past of nations such as Belgium and France, but also to allude to the devastating presence of the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
The artist has organized this exhibition by weaving many links between each work. In the alcove, one piece which embodies lightness and pressure combines squares of plaster in particular colors with struts made of hevea wood, from the famous rubber-producing tree which was planted intensively by French settlers in Indochina or Belgians in the Congo. The colors refer to defoliating agents (called "Rainbow Herbicides") used by the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, the best-known being Agent Orange. The all-out chemical warfare by the U.S. Army consisted of destroying crops and plants by bombing them with potent herbicides in areas where they expected to find the Viet Cong. Formal allusions can be found in two rooms with works on paper: drawings, inkjet prints, photos of jungle treated with rust. The pencil drawings (clouds or volcanic pyroclastic surges?) are deliberately distorted by the artist who colors them with spray paint, representing the various "Rainbow herbicide" agents, or who finely hatches the subject itself.
The relationship to color is of a different order with Chinatown displayed in the passageway at the rear of the alcove. Brought back from New York (Chinatown), this label representing an Asian landscape is obviously an allusion to her country of origin and gives a fine scale ratio: small label for a large poster/small image for large memories. By exhibiting in broad daylight for weeks, the artist's desire was to allow the sun to perform its work slow of absorption and erasure of the colors. The memory of the place of childhood will fade sooner or later. Forgetfulness will make way for a void, but a void to be filled with new memories. The survival of buried images, a dream landscape is found throughout Tran's work. We find these flashes of lucidity in large photograms which, being "burned" by the light, only reveal extracts of Heart of Darkness relating to light or darkness. Light blinds but also makes things visible. That light that Camus talks about in L'Etranger, another key book shown in fine precarity, poised on a pedestal of cracked and mangled plaster.
As for the two copies of Heart of Darkness soaked in black ink, they seem to ooze or soak up all the darkness of that period of history which, is gradually resurfacing like a patch of oil. A fine approach to the concept of contamination. Sabena, Vous y seriez déjà is another ambiguous work with archive pictures rendered half-visible under shapes made of hevea. A powerful metaphor for Belgian history suggests the difference between history that is taught from books and the history actually lived in the Belgian Congo.
Here we are in the presence of an artist who, imbued with different cultures, is able to ask relevant questions without adopting a partisan stance.