Hanoi-based artist Thái Linh appropriates the past to imagine Vietnam’s technological future


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Hanoi-based artist Thái Linh appropriates the past to imagine Vietnam’s technological future

Vietnamese-Australian writer Sheila Ngọc Phạm speaks to Hanoi-based artist Thái Linh about the value of tradition, doom scrolling, his technicolor aesthetic, and the importance of balancing our use of technology with our spiritual needs.

Hanoi-based artist Phạm Ngọc Thái Linh was born in 1995, the dawn of a new era in Vietnam. The war had been over for twenty years and international relations were becoming normalized. Soon, the country would be connected to the internet, which would become a vital and animating force. All of these factors have shaped Thái Linh’s creative practice, as has his strong artistic inheritance: his late paternal grandfather was well-known fiction writer Dũng Hà, who wrote under the name ‘Thái Linh’, and his maternal grandfather, Phạm Lực, is a famous artist who first rose to prominence painting propaganda posters during the war. The latter “is very supportive and really likes my work,” says Thái Linh. A formidable figure, Phạm Lực was featured in ‘The Vietnam War’, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 2017 documentary series for PBS.

Though Thái Linh has loved drawing since childhood, he didn’t take it seriously until he went to university. “I wanted to be a pilot, I think because it meant I could travel,” he says. “But my family didn’t support it because it was dangerous and would take me far away from home, so I studied drawing instead.”

Constantly aware of and responsive to Vietnamese cultural influences, Thái Linh riffs off maximalist Buddhist iconography and Ðông Hồ paintings—a form of Vietnamese folk art originating from Đông Hồ village—to explore the impact of technology on everyday life. His own user experience of innovations in the technological realm, and the aesthetics of the technological age, are also constant sources of creative inspiration. “I was born into a time of great change filled with new, international influences such as cyberpunk,” he says, referring to the sub-genre of science fiction telling dystopian stories about futuristic technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics. The movement has also made waves in design, fashion, and gaming.

“Tradition helps you understand who you are. It’s beneficial for the next generation to understand tradition in order to develop.”

Thái Linh’s style demonstrates Vietnamese cultural continuity: he’s a millennial artist who blends traditional influences and contemporary references and aesthetics to imagine the country’s technological future. In his work to date, he’s recast elders and archetypal Vietnamese figures as extraterrestrials or, as in his 2020 series ‘Our People’, cyborgs wearing nón lá, the conical hat ubiquitous in Vietnam. Though it features prominently in his artwork, Thái Linh is not uncritical of technology. He believes in a balanced approach. “Technology is very popular among Vietnam’s younger generation, and it’s being used a lot. I’m no exception,” he says. “I use technology, it’s all around me. Technology offers a lot of conveniences and it helps us enormously, but we need to balance its use with our spiritual needs. It can influence us heavily.”

For this interview, Thái Linh and I connect on zoom from our respective hometowns. While he was born and raised in Hanoi, an ancient city that’s over a thousand years old, I’m based in Sydney, which was founded in the late 18th century as a British colonial outpost. Thái Linh expresses himself best in Vietnamese, and interviewing him tests my language skills: I rarely talk about art in my mother tongue. When discussing artists he admires such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Takashi Murakami and Andy Warhol, he uses the word “tác phẩm”. Later, I decide to translate the phrase into English as ‘oeuvre’. 

“I am more influenced by the life of artists and their contexts than their oeuvres,” says Thái Linh. “I’ve watched a lot of documentaries on YouTube and Netflix which reveal how artists work.” Learning about the methods and lifestyles of towering figures such as Warhol and Basquiat helped Thai Linh imagine a path as a professional artist. They also taught him how to create work with mass appeal: the influence of his idols comes across in his open-minded approach to commercial possibilities, such as his collaborations with art and filmmaking collective Antiantiart and clothing brand Hanoi Riot. He is also a co-founder of Nirvana Streetwear.

English is also sprinkled throughout our conversation: from 2019-2021, Thái Linh studied fine arts in the United States. “The truth is, I missed home. I wanted to return to Vietnam,” he says. Despite his homesickness, living abroad allowed him to develop a greater appreciation of the value of cultural inheritance. “Tradition helps you understand who you are. It’s beneficial for the next generation to understand tradition in order to develop.”

During his time in the United States, Thái Linh created an intriguing series titled ‘Thiên Nhiên’ (Nature). ‘Ma Phone’ (‘Ghost Phone’), one of the paintings in the project, was inspired by the artist’s constant doom scrolling during the pandemic, which ultimately affected his mental health. “I was always on my phone, always tired, and struggling,” he says. “My girlfriend encouraged me to go outside and lie down in the grass. I began to see a change in myself. It changed my style too.”

“When I feel brighter I use pink, blue, sky, and earth tones. My use of color changes with my mood.”

Despite this revelation, Thái Linh remains a voracious consumer of culture on the internet, which has always been a source of inspiration. Ironically, it was where he initially encountered the aforementioned Ðông Hồ art, even though the form originates in an area just outside of his hometown. When Thái Linh first started emulating these works, he stuck to a limited palette. “I used the three dominant colors in Ðông Hồ paintings: red, green and yellow,” he says. “But eventually I wanted to use more. When I feel brighter, I use pink, blue, sky, and earth tones. My use of color changes with my mood.” Considering Thai Linh’s love of bold colors and appreciation of pop art, perhaps it’s unsurprising that he gravitated towards Ðông Hồ paintings, which could be considered the pop art of their day.

Some of the most famous Ðông Hồ woodcut paintings anthropomorphised animals in playful and humorous ways. For example, mice sit in classrooms learning to become mandarins—bureaucratic scholars—and take part in royal processions. Thái Linh breathes new life into these classic scenes by sampling and subverting the imagery, literally and figuratively repositioning the animals. One obvious example of this is a cheeky work he shared on Instagram some years ago with the caption ‘hậu đám cưới chuột’ (‘after the mouse wedding’).

Thái Linh also uses the iconic child figure from Ðông Hồ paintings as his alter-ego ‘Đậu’, who features in many of his artworks. “The boy is me as a child,” he explains. In Thái Linh’s painting ‘Start New Trips’, the first work in the series ‘Thần Tiện Lợi’ (‘Gods of Convenience’), we see Đậu stepping through a portal into another world, glancing back over his shoulder as he enters a new realm ruled by the titular deities. Each piece in this fantastical series centers around vending machines, with Đậu using them to visit parallel universes. “He sees a lot of different possibilities,” says Thái Linh. Đậu, just like the artist himself, is a figure of the past, a child inspired by tradition yet intrepid in how he ventures into machine-ruled futures. Each of the universes he visits grants the artist the freedom to experiment.

Lately, Thái Linh has been craving a more embodied experience of creating. He’s been using acrylics and oils as well as experimenting with ‘sơn mài’—lacquer painting—to connect to another facet of Vietnamese artistic tradition. “Eventually my techniques will improve. I know it takes time,” he says. “There are a lot of things I’d like to do. In the future, I would also like to make toys.” For Thái Linh, tangible and physical art holds a world full of possibilities beyond the confines of digital devices. “I want people to view my work, not only mediated through a computer.”

This interview was published as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage running alongside shows produced in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in partnership with the Goethe Institut. Discover some of the Southeast Asian artists we’ve produced shows with here, or read more articles on our editorial platform.

Text: Sheila Ngọc Phạm
Photography: All imagery has been supplied by the artist


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