Art Photographer Nguyen The Son’s Work For Wink Blurs Life And Art

“The boundary between life and art is truly blurred at Wink Hotel Saigon Centre,” art photographer and lecturer at Hanoi of Fine Arts, Nguyen The Son, begins. The long-time fine arts practitioner has been using photography to explore our relationship to urban settings. And a commissioned work from the artist will feature in the first Wink Hotel, in Saigon’s hip Dakao Ward.

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

Installing the centre panel of Nguyen The Son’s work.

Two artists feature in Wink’s first hotel. First, Richie Fawcett took to the hotel’s rooftop to create a detailed pen drawing of the urban panorama that features on the hotel’s room blinds. And then Nguyen The Son used his distinctive photographic technique — one that involves laser cutting and layering photographs — to create a relief image, in sections, that will feature above Wink Hotel Saigon Centre’s check-in pods. 

Hanoi-based artist Nguyen The Son came south to help install the work.

“Two very different viewpoints, Richie’s work looks down on Saigon’s dynamic sprawl,” Nguyen The Son smiles, “and I stay on ground level…” But, he admits, they do share one strong common feature. “In our work, we both evoke a sense of what it’s like to be here and a love for this city for anyone who wants to visit Wink Hotel Saigon Center.”

The artist and academic graduated from Vietnam University of Fine Arts’ Faculty of Painting in 2002. Zeroing in on the photography as his chosen medium, he completed his Master’s Degree in Art Photography at the Central Academy of Fine Arts of China ten years later. “Vietnamese identity, life as it’s really lived…” Nguyen The Son muses about his themes. 

Nguyen The Son shooting the communal house.

And while a lot of artists might aspire to exhibit in the world’s most prestigious galleries, Nguyen The Son’s ambitions have evolved into something more pragmatic. “I want Vietnamese people to have access to my work first and foremost,” he nods. He feels art plays too inconsequential a role in people’s lives here. His commission for Wink Hotel Saigon Centre might go some small way to redress that. 

“I guess I was looking for an artistic language of my own.”

Experimentation Leads To Relief

Years of creating work led Nguyen The Son to his current style of “relief photography”. “I guess I was looking for an artistic language of my own,” he shrugs, “an approach that could help me first evoke the spirit of my home city of Hanoi, a city straining beneath layers of old and new; billboards obscuring windows, balconies, and ancient remains. The results of the massive ‘modernization’ project we’re seeing…”  

But relief photography is not only a fine arts pursuit. You’ll see the same process used on billboards for Milo and Ovaltine. “The 3D-ization of billboards has become something of a trend which mirrors the sprawling unplanned urban architecture sprouting beneath the billboards. The overlapping layers also reflect layers of time; the layers of urban facades each one obscuring the previous one…”  

For Nguyen The Son, the medium is important too; the fact that usually photography isn’t fine art. “Can everyday materials like photographic prints be art?” Nguyen The Son asks. “I think so, and I want to contribute to expanding the concept of materials we can use in contemporary art practice…”

The artwork reflects the energy of the streets around the hotel in Saigon’s District 1 hip Dakao Ward.

Creating The Wink Hotel Saigon Centre Centrepiece

“The concept intrigued me from the beginning,” Nguyen The Son says about the Wink Hotels brand. “What’s truly special to me about it is that it’s born in Vietnam and inspired by urban life and indigenous culture here, and it provides a five-star experience at an accessible price point…and it’s geared towards Vietnamese who love to travel…” 

In 2012, Nguyen The Son showed works at Cactus Contemporary Art Gallery in Saigon, and Goethe Institut in Hanoi around the theme of “Houses Facing The Street”. Similar work to the one in the Wink Space. Then Peter Ryder won one of Nguyen The Son’s pieces at an AmCham Gala around 2016, kick-starting his love affair with Son’s work, which next led to him purchasing a piece, “one I call ‘Kate Moss in Hanoi’ that hangs in the Saigon office.” Suzanne Lecht, from Art Vietnam Gallery, deepened the relationship with a personal introduction, and as the Wink Hotels project was becoming more tangible, Nguyen The Son got aboard “and the rest is history.”

Three photographic surveys let to the completion of this iconic piece.

“And so, for the Wink Hotel Saigon Center @ 75 Nguyen Binh Khiem project, I conducted three surveys around the District 1 area near the hotel and took pictures of the townhouses there,” Nguyen The Son remembers. The area, Dakao Ward, has a mix of chic coffeehouses, bars and beerclubs. And the usual eclectic mix of downtown spas, street food, and convenience stores.  And one historic building. “I paid special attention to the Dinh Tan An communal house located directly opposite the hotel. It’s more than 100 years old, from the Nguyen Dynasty, and life all around it has been changing while it’s remained the same…”

Because it’s been around for so long, Dinh Tan An communal house was an obvious focal point for the artwork, “something like a central figure”. But the work doesn’t just capture the buildings, it also captures pedestrians, labourers, passersby, frozen in time. “So my work at Wink Hotel Saigon Centre is like a mirror reflecting time and space. It’s about the people and life in this area, a model of life outside, a visual game that stimulates the experience of every viewer. It is life and life is the art of creation. And I hope it makes viewers love life more, and to cherish every moment more…”

Photos by Nghia Ngo.

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