Dang Duong Bang and the Ephemeral Sublime

By James Bulman-May PhD
Associate Professor in Art History and Interculture Communication
University of Copenhagen

The painter Dang Duong Bang is a postmodern Renaissance man who grew up in Hanoi during the Vietnam War and began his professional career as a biochemistry graduate from the University of Hanoi (1972). Later he did his PhD in molecular genetics in Leiden, and he is presently Professor in Food Safety at the Technical University of Denmark, Copenhagen. However, like the Czech poet-immunologist Miroslav Holub, Dang Duong Bang juggles two careers, and is effectively a nanotechnologist-cum-painter.

Bang’s creative imperative generates paintings chronicling integrated loops of present and past. Echoes of the great masters ghost his works like familiar intertexts, outlining a territory of blended signs. Potent nods to European masters proliferate in his paintings, merging with references to painters like Nguyen Tien Chung, Pham Viet Song, Nguyen Duc Nung, Vu Dan Tan, etc. from the Vietnamese and the South East Asian canon.

Bang’s works narrate a love affair with hybridized sensibilities, drawing mainly on the traditions of France and Indochina. Such blends are well known in literature and film, for instance the novels (and their film versions) The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene, Chris Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1978), The Lover (1984) by Marguerite Duras, Rod Jones, Julia Paradise (1988), Peter Greenaway’s film version of Sei Shonagun’s The Pillow Book (1996), etc. to mention a few.

In the world of painting, the bricolage of East and West has so far found less exposure than in literature and film. Here Bang joins the tradition of Balthus, Walasse Ting, and Chen Danquing, who also celebrate the cutting and mixing of the two traditions. The well-known revisionist impetus of postcolonial literatures (widely known as “the empire writes back”) can in Bang’s case be translated to “the empire paints back”. In other words, Bang’s reinterpretation of the European canon is aligned with the postcolonial momentum of redefining the colonial influence, in Bang’s case a response to a blended French Vietnamese heritage.

Finding solid anchorage in French impressionism, whose transformative themes and techniques are intimately associated with the birth of modernism, Bang focuses on the existential perspective of the liberation of the soul’s full potential for pleasure and spiritual insight. Such mind-expanding developments were also the inspirational drive of the alchemists. Bang continues this momentum by exploring the impressionist legacy in alchemical techniques that chronicle individuation, often homing in on two subjects: the timeless lunar cycles of the female body and the ecological motif of the lotus pond.


Bang’s women: uterocentric maps to unified selves

In Bang’s oeuvre women figure as a unifying force, muses of fertility, spiritual insight, and inspiration. Among the seminal works hovering in the background one could mention Velazquez’ “Venus at her Mirror” (1651), Goya’s Maja (1799), Manet’s groundbreaking Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), and Modigliani’s expressive nudes. Other standard works in the European canon come to mind, especially Matisse, Picasso, and Chagall’s wide spectrum of variations on the theme of the female nude. Matisse’s - and for that matter Flaubert’s - fascination with oriental odalisques find mirror images in Bang’s counter discourse. His fervent representations of European sensibilities spiced with Asian emotive depths address and reverse the orientalist gaze taken for granted by generations of European painters from Poussin and David to Gauguin.


Joie de vivre and a focus on the opportunities of the present moment fluctuate among other counterpoints to a busy quotidian through Bang’s paintings. These elements remind the spectator of important core values: love, fertility, beauty, and the body’s hormonal wave functions; epicurean bearings without which our well-being would be a thing of the past. The theme of individuative growth is emphasized by dynamic incarnations of Venus and Diana whose radiant Eros and strategic intelligence saturate Bang’s compositions. These goddesses are often accompanied by bouquets and cats, which like them are depicted as sovereign beings with independent perspectives.

Like Balthus, Bang is fascinated by introversion and cats, and both associate the independence of the latter with the female mystique. With the blended territory of East and West comes the inescapable heritage of Walasse Ting, but the form and substance of Bang’s rich thematic variation are more related to the hybrid universe which Balthus explored after 1967, when he married the Japanese Setsuko Ideta. Bang’s symbolism is moreover developed via flowers in full bloom arranged in vases often decorated in patterns reminiscent of the Greek meander pattern. Bang thus mixes the earliest strata in European art with a postmodern Asian perspective; a bricolage technique whose alchemical impetus unifies past and present in a multicultural moment. The vases vibrate like pregnant uterine symbols that emphasize the women’s status as fertility goddesses of a compelling magnetism, which in the twinkling of an eye will become sources of new life.

Above and beyond the fertility theme, Bang depicts women as spiritual beings and inspirational vessels. Like hybrids between Matisse’s odalisques and Chagall’s airborne portraits of his beloved Bella, Bang’s dreaming women soar over Hanoi’s rooftops. The location is reminiscent of Chagall’s depictions of Vitebsk, his native Russian village, and van Gogh’s paintings of poor farmers’ houses in Holland and the south of France. Bang’s street themes from Hanoi with women surfing the airs add a potent blend of poetic fervor and social realism to the warp and woof of his oeuvre.

Bang’s enticing graphics also encompass other types of feminine incarnations, for instance nocturnal beauties traversing the city in blue moonlit nights, naked or swaddled in flowing robes or Susi Wong dresses with a slit to the hip. Radiant with inner glow, the women in these sparkling canvases encourage us to explore the multiorgasmic energies of the soul as well as the skin’s bioelectric voltages: momentary unification of our selves through ecstatic experience.


Bang’s flowers: the lotus as mandalic script

Chiefly inspired by the developments in European art from approx. 1875 to 1940, Bang’s art moreover embraces the multiple perspectives celebrated by cubism. This is particularly evident in some of the paintings in the “Sound of Silence” series, where he represents the ecological palimpsests of a lotus pond in graphics that create a matrix of simultaneity.

Reflecting the innovative momentum of cubism, where Picasso and Braque experimented to render 360 degrees figurative views in two dimensional canvases, Bang creates variations on the theme of the cubist perception of reality. However, instead of the fractured angular perspectives of cubism, Bang’s explicit narratives position the circular aspects of bloom and decay on a curve. His graphic technique outlines transparent layers of the lifecycle of the lotus, allowing the viewer to reflect on the biological cycles, individuation, and the presence of the past. Bang’s techniques and themes are thus inextricably intertwined, creating a continual reflexive process orchestrated by the buzz of ubiquitous dragonflies.

Drawing on the best of several worlds, Bang’s oeuvre chronicles a steep learning curve, which leads to the development of a personal style. Where Monet developed the motif of the water lilies, Nolde explored the poppy, and van Gogh’s pointillism expanded on the Fibonacci patterns of the sunflower, Bang claims the lotus as his signal icon. Variations on the lotus theme abound in his work, through which he embraces the classical Asian Buddhist tradition of celebrating the holy flower.

In its reference to purity the potent symbol of the lotus predates Buddhism. It is primarily celebrated in the Lotus Sutra of Mahāyāna Buddhism, written between 100 B.C. and 200 A.D. in India. From India it proliferated and became a foundation text in Buddhism at large. The Lotus Sutra gives ultimate expression to the infinite potential and dignity inherent in each human life, and teaches that the inner determination of an individual can transform everything. The Lotus Sutra thereby encourages (alchemical) faith in our inherent capacity for wisdom, courage, and compassion. In general the Lotus Sutra is considered to contain the essence of the Buddha’s enlightenment, offering the reader a key to the transformation of suffering, thereby enabling the individual as well as society to flourish.

In an early illustration in a Lotus Sutra handscroll (1257), the lotus symbolizes the bodhisattva’s human predicament: rooted in humble mud, the plant still braves the elements and flowers in the open air of enlightenment. Bang’s lotuses address this symbolic essence, and their meditative presence invites us to explore the authentic states within.

Bang repeatedly returns to variations on the theme of the lotus. His explorations of the ecological theme are represented in layered techniques that reflect the natural process depicted. Obsessed with the materiality of the golden flower, Bang’s oeuvre chronicles all stages of the life cycle of a lotus, an imperative that comes to full fruition in the suite of lotus paintings “The Sound of Silence”. In these works Bang celebrates the lifecycle of the sacred flower: its minute sprouting seeds and potent roots flourish in dark putrid mud nurturing succulent verdant stems, which are eventually crowned by buds bursting into fragrant floral fêtes.

Spanning past, present, and future, Bang’s lotuses proliferate and cross-pollinate in various stages of bloom or decay, drooping or turning their corollas towards the sun in rich seasonality. A deep darkness occasionally rules sections of his paintings, but these strata are inevitably penetrated by phosphorescent mud-embroiled microbes generating photosynthetic alchemy. The autonomous light-harvesting momentum is occasionally dimmed by the sfumato of the vapours escaping the lethargic alchemical transformations in the depths of the black mud. The vigorous ecological cryptoclimates below the floral canopies are populated by a dynamic fauna, above the waterline reflected in the metallic exoskeletons of dragonflies, some copulating on the wing.

In these canvases Bang portrays variations on the lotus from incubating vessel to telescoping growth, followed by full dazzling bloom that fades to seed dispersal from capsules that ultimately decay in poignant noble rot, a slow sepsis converging to gelified reagents nourishing new sprouts. These alchemical cycles and transformations offer comprehensive views of the beginning and the end of the ecological process. The accomplished graphics represent a blended technique that offers no vanishing point, nor hierarchies of near and far, east or west, centre or periphery.

Instead the lotus paintings in the “Sound of Silence” series focus on eternal elements that wax and wane with the autonomous yens of the moon and the alchemical spectrum. Suspended in alchemical color sequences undulating in oceanic wave functions, Bang’s compositions reduce the post Renaissance perspective to a trompe l’oeil. Inviting the viewer to discard inessentials and focus on pleasure, Eros, and the sublime shadow texts of the quotidian, Bang’s paintings seem in no uncertain ways to urge the spectator to take a break and see worries for what they are: insignificant figments compared to the inexhaustible sources of joy and revelation that surround us, wherever we are.


Bang and the ephemeral sublime

The radiance of Bang’s heliotropic flowers and ecstatic nudes empowers the spectators, as if encouraging us to be the best versions of ourselves. Vulva and mandala in one, the bloom of his interactive petals seems to blend with the mandalic ethic of embracing feminine, masculine, spiritual, and material aspects of the self. The suggestive bravura of his multidimensional blossoms offers the viewer a mandalic script: an invitation to make the most of the cards dealt by destiny and the present moment. Embracing the wave functions of the individuative spectrum on symbolic (the humble dark mud that nourishes the enlightened flower clusters), as well as concrete levels (invitations to joyful aesthetic appreciation of art), Bang’s emblematic canvases perpetuate the eternal enigma of art: the quest to translate the intangible sublime to ephemeral epiphanies.

Contemplating a painting by Professor Dang Duong Bang, you find yourself pondering a postmodern alchemical lab-on-a-canvas that integrates recombinant DNA from the history of art. The resulting bricolage resonates like a perpetuum mobile, continually deciphering the sublime. The alchemists would say that Bang’s metaphysical paintings distill moments of philosophical gold. With such windows on the psyche’s transformative potential, we do not need mirrors.

James Bulman-May PhD

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