I am a Vietnamese and a sculptor. I want to begin by requesting your leniency and all of your compassion. No matter whether I am sculpting or I am writing these lines, I do not do anything else except following my needs to liberate myself or even to forgive me. In the struggle to liberate Vietnam which is a thousand miles from me, there were thousands of people who died and sacrificed while I am living here in safety.
I wish you could know me a little bit more. This is my wish but also my fear. With a heart still beating, I am moving to you. Something is confusing in me. There are no problems of skin colour, eye colour or in the world that I belong to, maybe I look like you. If these images can be kept by your eyes for a few moments, and if these lines can transmit some sympathy or deep understanding to you. I would be extremely happy.
We, thousands of Vietnamese students in France, most of us study at the Departments of the University or the prestigious schools. I am not an exception of these rules. I was a student of dentistry. Then I was transferred to Paris to study. Rarely there are any students who follow architecture or cinema. It is even more rarely if there are any students interested in graphic art. In addition to the time devoted to the work and the study, most of the remaining time is for the country. The pictures of bombs and bullets, the burnt villages, the tortures and death were accounted and appeared every day in the media like the bread we eat every day.
How can we restrain from our fury and our rebellion in front of these cruel actions when we are human beings; we are Vietnamese. We felt the anguish as it was in our blood and our flesh. Sometimes we felt ashamed because we were like incompetent viewers. This incompetent and guilty feeling was a tragedy in ourselves, the Vietnamese living abroad.
Some have left with the devotion to their occupation, mainly these occupations are useful, here or there. For those who are weaker, like me, I need a long time for recovery after mental injuries.
One beautiful day, by chance, I went to a sculptural factory. A pile of clay, on one hand, it helps me to succeed, on the other hand, a form appeared. A new life seemed to be born. Therefore, if you continue, you state the quantity, you find the direction, you create the winding and of course you have a living creature in front of you. If it does not please you, you turned it over, you trode hard on it to make it flat and at last there will be no life, there will be nothing. It was as if you owned the strength of a magician. I was still surprised and shocked. I returned to the factory whenever I was allowed to. It amused me. The piles of clay and me. We shall never part even half of a step from each other. I have a model at the dining table, another model at the window and another model at somewhere in my house. When I had some spare time, I kneaded the clay. I imitated anything. Children, gods, stupid men, any people or character that come to my mind without any drawings and drafting. Anyway, I always had a round shape. If it fell on the ground, I was amused with the flat form, then I made the other sides corresponding to that flat form. I baked a lot of clay. After completing this model, I started another model. I even made several models at the same time. Together with clay, I also made objects with plaster, wood and stone, always with the enthusiasm of a new student with the passion increasing every day. And I only stopped when I could not continue. I would rather die than being separated from it. It were as if I could be able to share some life, some miseries and some difficulties. Some people asked me why I was always in a hurry. No, I did not hurry. There was something that hurried me. Maybe it was a source of energy.
Since childhood I inherited the freedom of a young animal living in the rain and wind and in the forest. The minority people in the Central Highlands are really my friends. Being a young girl, I was gentle and lithe and purposeless. I was interested in many things and everyone, exactly like a young girl of twenty. But the destiny has made me facing big problems of life: hunger, thirst, war and the misery of mankind. When I returned to any place, I only saw death and extermination.
I still lived like that in winter with the student’s stipends, the image of a young girl, hungry and thirsty, wandered on the pavement was withering in front of me. One morning, I found that the girl had died, curling up. One of her arms still held the baby who was still alive. The baby’s face was full of dirt and tears. It was happy and played with the dummy of the empty milk bottle. She scarily teased the worms coming from the nose of her dead mother. It seemed that these worms were also hungry and were looking for food. I shivered and was extremely shocked.
After living the life as I had ever lived, I did not want anything more than to think that I should find a way to live for myself by practicing sculpture and to live for others as well. But how could I maintain this idea when I saw many friends coming to keep my company for many hours but they never looked at the things I had done or they did not offer any suggestions. At this time, many letters coming from home with sorrows and miseries. New weapons, bombs and bullets fell on my country , B bombs, metal, malleable materials which cannot be found by X Ray, rocket bombs and explosives….In addition to the bombardments, we experienced whirlwinds, typhoons and floods. Everything seemed collapsed around me. There was no sculpture or any other thing. I was only a small human being with a miserable life which was melting in the anguished life of the whole nation.
I have told you that my nervous system has broken. I struck my head on the ground, on wood and on rock until I was exhausted. This made me feel relieved. I was relaxed and even happy. Knife stabs and noise caused by engines in the factory did not drown the bombs, bullets and cannons. It seemed that I could only hear the silence. Immediately I blamed myself. Physical pleasure, passion and commitments existed in me. I felt as if they were my humiliation and my despicability. But then when death haunts, the existence instinct will create strength, in particular, when that loss was the human being’s love need. Maybe because my house had been burnt, my relatives had died, I longed for more living with my sculptural works?
On this hand, doubt, anguish and guiltiness harassed me continuously. On the other hand, the sculpture person in me became more and more demanding, even more exclusive. I did not know what to do. I decided to extinguish the kind of love that suffocated me and occupied me completely. But Volti, my teacher and my godfather in sculpture told me that continuing sculpture is my mission. I was so happy to hear this. My heart seemed to cool down. Anyway, this did not assure me completely. This made me give my sculptural photos to three people I met by chance on my way. Later, I knew that those people are art specialists.
I once made sculptural work variation. Being a free student of High School of Technical Art Application, I carved huge stone blocks with a young man. I looked at those huge blocks wishing that they would become small pieces of rock compatible with the size of a small woman like me.
I did a little bit and a little bit by piling them on each other, I made big sculptural works with my friend’s works. But my works had a special thing: they were changeable. Sculptural statues that I called “variation” were ready to coordinate with each other to become other statues, completely different from the initial status. They had their own life and space. The flexibility of this combination could create sculptural work suitable not to one but various spaces.
This was one of the pictures I submitted to my representatives. One of them advised me to transmit “Mother and children” in the most simple way to literature and arts, the things that I was not interested in. I emphasized that “If my sculpture could luckily amuse you, I would certainly tell you that I had not had any Rome awards and I was not graduated from any prestigious university of arts. Then later I forgot this foolish idea. I was really surprised and overwhelmed when after a few months, I received a trading suggestion from the association of literature and arts and then a visit of an architect. These were important events in the life of a sculptor like me. Knowing how to plan a little and how to work better a little, I had a small exhibition at the Youth Galery organized by E. Thèves and Nita Green. I received many encouragements including the ones from Raymond Cogniat – that a galery for Youth had not been put down. He even wrote in “Le Figaro” dated 13 October “it may be thought that DIEM PHUNG THI will give herself an opportunity to start” Jean Bouret, a French writer, said “I feel that her statues bear a silent value of work”. I was intoxicated but I was quickly recovered and so as to deserve that prestige, I worked very hard. For four years, I had two exhibitions and participated in most of the programmes of the group and cooperated with a number of architects. The important things for me were experience and concentrating more on the hard work that I had just begun. I lived in a whirl. The time we lived was hard time but it was very rewarding and interesting so that I could live like a robot. Therefore I felt that I needed a rest to see where I was. And to give myself some time to think before starting a sculptural work. Maybe ten years more, but at this moment I am certain that I will devote the remaining part of my life to sculpture.
This was the reason why I collected most of my work of art in this booklet. The works from the student time to the present. During the time having access to sculpture, I never imposed a thesis or to state an objective. However, I repeatedly made the works such as “Mother and Children”, this was an obsession… or “sorrows” or “an Aspect of Religion”; some works representing “Some places for commemorating the war”.
I love your “Mothers and Children “ Michael Sandrel also told me: “ I see that they are very gentle and joyful, but for me they are also prayers; all are like your sculptural prayers.
I have been trying to look at myself
With the fear that my people will be exterminated and that in order to maintain them, do I not want to create stone blocks, to create many children of the world? In order to glorify those who died, does my heart not request me to create works to commemorate this mourning?
My prayers are not sent to the gods but to the whole world.
My new hopes are to build a better world. With the scientific progress, women, contrary to the Bible, will not bear suffering. My prayers “let’s take action for a better world” will come true: there will be so much suffering for all the people.
A few years ago, I smiled when I saw in the exhibition room, the artists, they are not the youngest, stood in front of their works and embraced and kissed the customers, the critics, the friends and the relationship. I hated this attitude and I fully understood it. It was not fake and it was not arrogant but it was simply a modesty. Who in the society, if they are not artists, should have a question about his own interest? We are standing at the crossroad where art is bearing thousand of impacts and thousands of faces. No artists are able to state truth, doubt, fear, inner conflicts, beauty understanding, friendship need and the presence of the people. By introducing my sculptural works, I am opening my heart to you; I am not “connecting customers”. When I created the works, I shared my happiness and sorrow. Now these sculptural works do not belong to me. I assign them to you or more correctly, I leave them to you, the same as Bissière (illustrated magazine, Hermann Publishing House).
“If someone, taking a glimpse of them,
stopped and felt a certain sympathy with me,
I would succeed.
If I failed and no one extended a hand to me,
I would put my own in the pockets, more deeply,
so much the worse.
It doesn’t matter anyway,
You’re still pretty, Marie…”