Review: Le The Lam's "Remnant" at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre

Written By Hung Duong

4th Apr 2018

Category: Review

"Remnant" is an exhibition by young Vietnamese artist Le The Lam at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, a new space dedicated to enriching contemporary arts in Vietnam. The Lam took part in "Materialize", a program initiated by The Factory and co-sponsored by Indochina Arts Partnership to provide exhibition opportunities for Vietnamese artists living in Vietnam, who have had little chance to show exhibitions of their art.

“Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid.”

- Langston Hughes

I sat down on the bed of pine needles, soft prickles caressing my palms as I gazed at the Tiger's Nest Monastery under Bhutan's cloudless azure sky. The trees were calm, the valleys hushed, and a sense of tranquil sadness permeated the air. Our group had been hiking up the steps towards the sacred monastery all day, and we were finally at our last stop. Our guide, a wise man who has gone to the Dalai Lama to pursue the truths, told us, "Here in Bhutan, we contemplate death five times a day. This practice ensures that we spend time thinking about how death is the only certainty, therefore we should shred negative energy and bad habits to enjoy our existence in the mundane sphere more."

His words reverberated in my mind as I ascended the stairs to the exhibition area on the second floor of the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre to visit artist Le The Lam's solo exhibition Remnant. The metal steps chimed like bells as I ventured into the mindscape of this artist for whom death seemed not a cold stranger but rather an intimate acquaintance. The air inside was also hushed, but with a more ominous tinge, with the limelight shrouding the industrially styled space.

Installation view of Remant. Photo: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre. 

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

- Khalil Gibran

In the first room, on the right side of the stairs, three oil paintings on canvas occupied the bone-white walls; each capturing a slice of The Lam's obsession. They boasted a palette of vivid colours, with chunks of contrasting colours pushing against one another on the canvas' restrained space. Stuck in the battles for dominance between these coloured cubes were abstract figures of humans, staircases, tree trunks, arrows—all signifiers within a somber landscape scribbled over with numbers and messages. A coat of resin covered the paintings and created a peculiar sheen, as if one is looking at these dreamscapes through a looking mirror or from under the water’s surface.

The humanoids in the paintings seemed inconsequential and paralysed in terror-stricken postures. In one particular painting titled Other side of day and night frontier #1, a small humanoid stood on the margin with his hands around his head, cowering in fear with his eyes glued to a bright orange-yellow block in the middle of the painting. On the block, there appeared to be bloodstains in the shape of an arrow. Could this block be a giant bomb dropped from the warring sky and the human had just barely escaped its destruction? Or was this gloriously luring block Pandora's box, hiding inside its void all the vermin of the world? The human was stupefied, too close to the box to escape its invisible grasp. But escape to where? Darkness surrounded him like the sweet slumber of death. He has no choice but to face the box and its consequences. Memories of a darker time flashed across my eyes, stories from my grandparents and parents about a time when people had no choice but to step over one another for the smallest of menial things—a time when a dignified death was out of the question. I shook my head, but the stories did not leave me. Like the red stains on the block, it bore a reminder of our country's collective past.

[...Blinded by fear, the gray owl fluttered its wings and flew straight into the pitch-dark night, continuing its inevitable path as a nocturnal beast...]


Le The Lam, Other side of day and night frontier #1, 2017. Photo: ArtHop. 

Temporarily unhinging myself from The Lam's dream about the past, I spun around and almost lost my footing. And I realised, there it was, sitting on a cylinder in the middle of the room, the centerpiece, the corpus christi of this space titled The image of death will always be present inside an empty mind #1. A single mammal skull sat on a cubical throne and stared back at me through its hollowed eyes. Its jaws and eye sockets were lined with oil paint, giving the skull the appearance of a clown’s face or a masquerade mask. A supposed memento mori—reminder of death, it had been caricatured to the point of vandalism. Symbols and words scrawled across its surface, and a bird carcass glued to its forehead like a grotesque crown. The skull wore a crooked smile, the ghastly face of death. My memories jolted, and I was again teleported to the Capela dos Ossos in Portugal with its bone-laden walls, or the killing field in rural Cambodia where piles of skulls hypnotise you with its hair-raising aura. A single skull blurred my sense of space, and wired all the dots surrounding this mysterious concept of “death”—both a mythical realm where we all end up at the end of our journey and the only certainty in our life. And true enough, on the block under the skull was painted an ace of spade, the symbol of the earnest desire to unravel the secrets of life!

[...The owl sheds its feather, one by one. Its beaked bloodied from the metamorphosis. When it gazes up from its bodily masterpiece, Death looks you on the eye...]

Le The Lam, The image of death will always be present inside an empty mind #1, 2017. Photo: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre. 

Le The Lam, The image of death will always be present inside an empty mind #1, 2017. Photo: ArtHop. 


Vita brevis breviter in brevi finietur,

Mors venit velociter quae neminem veretur,

Omnia mors perimit et nulli miseretur.


Life is short, and shortly it will end;

Death comes quickly and respects no one,

Death destroys everything and takes pity on no one.


- Libre Vermell de Montserrat-


Stumbling back to the metal plank that connected the two exhibition spaces, I made my way to the second room where the rest of the pieces were displayed. The setting was similar to the first space. A long block sat slightly across from the doorless entrance where three animal specimens lay dormant. Around the walls hung a phantasmagoria of slice-of-dream oil paintings with resin glaze. My eyes immediately met the eyes of the dead animals. Lying in an anomalous obeisance, the animals were trapped in a tray of resin, unable to escape from this transparent quicksand. The trays were mounted on more blocks, pedestals covered in writings and symbols. The repetition dulled my mind somewhat. Instead of reminding me about death like the skull did, these ensnared animals merely brought to mind some forms of crude medieval tortures. The writings resembled the rant of a mad man, perhaps consumed by the guilt he has inflicted on the creatures.

Installation view of Remant. Photo: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre. 

Le The Lam, The image of death will always be present inside an empty mind #2, 2017. Photo: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre. 

Le The Lam, The image of death will always be present inside an empty mind #2, 2017. Photo: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre. 

The paintings were actually what sustained my attention in this room. Again, the humanoids appear in various shape and size, like the ever-changing psyche of The Lam. If one sauntered from the left to the right of the room, the humanoids were lackluster apparitions that slowly inflated from one painting to another, only to shrink back to its feeble state at the end of the sequence. From a pitch-black painting where all memories lie in the womb of Chaos, they started squirming and broke from their shells, shifting into different concepts expressed both in words and images. Home? Loneliness? Despair? Emptiness? Incompletion? Unavoidable death. The Lam's preoccupied conflicts that cannot be spoken of has found their forms on the canvas, silent and monolithic humanoid figures that stand petrified in unfamiliar environments, dreaming while awake, desperately looking for anchors of belief in a faithless world. The sorrow of our fathers passed onto us and coursed through our veins. The dark cloud of a nation's history sometimes perched like a feather on one's shoulder, or like the ghost of a loved one unwilling to move on. I guess The Lam was searching for something that he himself could not name, perhaps the soundless release of death, as his mind traversed different gruesome landscapes in his works.

[...The owl wondered, 'How to have faith when faith is a crime?'...]

Installation view of Remant. Photo: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre. 

Installation view of Remant. Photo: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre. 

Standing in front of the last few paintings, I traced my finger slowly along the invisible red string that runs through all of The Lam's works and his personal anguish. Death as an inevitable station has transformed into a whimsical muse for Lam, who dances to different tunes inside his mind yet remains in a tantalising distance from his grasp. His desires to understand the ultimate truth and to see death in its purest form seep into his works and spill into the ambience of the exhibitions spaces, drowning one in his gushing emotions. Amidst all of the intermittent suffering lies a certainty that provides a sense of comfort. Regardless of what we are going through, here in our homeland or elsewhere in a foreign terrain, we can all count on death to greet us with open arms. My only wish was that The Lam had let the works speak for themselves and not inject scribbled words into them. The strive to be enigmatic backfires and renders the works somewhat vain and curt, while if he had allowed the dead animals, the humanoids, and all the symbols join forces, the works would have come out much stronger.

I packed my bag and traced my step backs down the stairs, descending into another realm. The wind chimes of Bhutan sang in my ears their poignant melodies, reminding me that when the day comes, for me and for us, we should all be ready, and that contemplating about death is actually a celebration of life and its worldly blessings. I departed the exhibition with the verses in the Tibetan book of Death:

Now when the bardo of the moment before death dawns upon me,

I will abandon all grasping, yearning and attachment,

enter undistracted into clear awareness of the teaching,

and eject my consciousness into the space of the unborn mind;

as I leave this compound body of flesh and blood

I will know it to be a transitory illusion.

[... And the owl slept, peacefully, face hidden under its moon-glazed wings...]

Remnant was installed at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre from 9 December 2017 – 07 February 2018. 

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