Thi D. Nguyen: A painter with the soul of a monk
Mehru Jaffer, Contributor, Jakarta
The art of Thi D. Nguyen follows in the spiritual footsteps of Zen Buddhist monks. He makes the space on his canvases look empty, even though they are full of detail. His strokes in Sumi, or Chinese ink, may be simple but the tales they tell are complex, making the extraordinary work of Nguyen often seem ordinary.
Nguyen is an engineer by profession but in spirit he is a monk who practices a great deal of meditation. His aim is to transcend ordinary reality in the hope of finding the true nature of his own being.
He is apologetic for not being able to explain adequately in words all of this and much more, as his search concentrates only on non-conceptual awareness. His obsession is Nirvana and to experience the nature of Buddha, or the nothingness when the body and mind are perfectly matched and past, present and future converge into one dazzling truth.
Like all monks, Nguyen too believes that it is not possible to grasp the ultimate truth in words, so to communicate his inner world he has chosen to use the expressive art of abstract drawing, called Enzo in Zen Buddhism. "En" means circle, the symbol of truth and perfection, and "zo" is form. Enzo drawings are mainly completed in one stroke.
"My art is spontaneous. In order to achieve this I go through extensive periods of contemplation, as I comprehend the inner nature of the aesthetic object. And the higher the degree of comprehension I am able to attain, the better the expression I can subsequently manifest in my work," Nguyen said as he prepared for his solo exhibition, Stone Conversations, which opened last week.
The soft spoken Nguyen also revealed that at one stage in his life he gave up painting altogether.
As a child in Vietnam painting came naturally to him, as he watched his elders practice calligraphy. But in 1975, during the Vietnam War, Nguyen, his brother, sister-in-law and their three children crammed into a boat with hundreds of other refugees.
The boat sailed to Canada and at the age of 27, Nguyen was expected to be practical and not to indulge in irrational and non-profitable activities like meditation and painting.
Life was difficult so far from home and in an alien culture. But Nguyen soon found himself busy, learning English and studying chemical engineering.
It was only a decade later, when he found himself sitting helplessly at the bedside of a friend who was dying of a terminal disease, that he decided to communicate his feelings through drawings.
His thoughts drifted back to his days as a child in his village, and he remembered an endless carpet of lush, green rice fields and animals everywhere. He also recalled how whenever there was a sickness in the family, it was traditional to cook a chicken for the ailing person.
The memory inspired Nguyen to draw countless chickens in Chinese ink for his friend lying in a Canadian hospital. That gesture proved so cathartic, that he has not put down his paintbrush since.
Drawing has also helped him to come to terms with the war in Vietnam and his status as an eternal refugee, and also taught him to bask in the wondrous feeling of not being emotionally attached to any one nation. His wife is Austrian and together with their teenaged son they enjoy living in a kampung in Purvakarta, West Java, with its landscape similar to that in Vietnam.
Nguyen is on a professional assignment in Java, but he paints in his spare time, continuing to put down on paper his thoughts as he continues to experience them, inside out.
He is a versatile artist, drawing not just in Chinese ink but also painting on silk and dabbling in oil paint on canvas when the mood strikes him, and a few years ago his work caught the eye of Evie Miranda, an art collector and the founder of Persada Guru Sukarno, a Central Jakarta boutique that deals in art objects.
The work that drew her to Nguyen was Twelve Faces, with one face drawn in Chinese ink every month of the year while in a trance of intense meditation.
"I fell in love with his artwork, which is able to evoke such a creative series of thought despite its simplicity," says Evie, who is the organizer of Nguyen's current exhibition.
Having lived in Germany for 16 years and enjoyed the freshness of contemporary art, Evie was a little tired of the same pictures that have been painted by Indonesian artists over the last several decades. She finds Nguyen to be extremely original and his work a combination of the modern and the traditional.
Thi Nguyen's works will be on exhibition in the lobby of the Regent Hotel in Jakarta until Dec. 5.