Another overcrowded dinghy drifts off Europe’s coastline. Another group of faceless migrants. Are we becoming immune to the suffering felt by those with little choice but to leave their homeland? Hong Dam asked.
In this context Hove artist and sculptor Hong’s work is a timely reminder of the emotional reality of living in exile.
Hong left Vietnam for Hong Kong on a junk in 1978, and did not return until 2012, 34 years later.
She studied fine art sculpture in 1994 but found she was naturally good at visualising in three dimensions.
Hong said: “I found the art world of the West too pretentious and too intangible for me; especially in the 1990s for a refugee girl. I needed to earn a living. Without money you have no status and no pride. I don’t see money as the answer to everything, but we all need it.”
Hong therefore took a masters in computer animation and visualisation at Bournemouth University before working in the special effects section of the film industry. She has been accredited for her work in the films Gladiator, Babe 2 and 10,000 BC.
However, it is since having her children that Hong has documented her own childhood in Vietnam and contrasted it with western industrialisation, using digital imaging techniques.
She said: “Having my own children brought me back to my own childhood. I start to feel that my daughters and I live in two parallel worlds – the contrasts and conflicts of East and West – the wants and needs are so different. I decided to document a visual diary for my two daughters and hopefully they will understand why I am saying no to gadgets and material things.”
Hong’s personal work is a journey of self-discovery, exploring the universal themes of love, loss, separation and hope. She said: “I have tried not to do art, but I always find myself going back to it. The passing of my father last year has made me realise that life is impermanent and intangible, perhaps what I am doing is documenting a small part of history, of many unsung heroes who sacrificed for their loved ones unconditionally in times of adversity.”
She has produced a painting called the “Promised Land” where she superimposes images on top of each other in layers. The painting has a turbulent skyscape, a dragon, a combination of the ramparts from the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall with the rushes of Vietnam.
In the foreground is London, the Gherkin and BT Tower are clearly visible but Hong has superimposed one of her sculptures and an image from Earnest Haeckel. She has added an alien dimension because this is how she feels. She said: “As a refugee, I am always searching for the promised land.” Hong’s late father was Chinese, making the dragon an important symbol in her art: she is a child of the dragon.
She left Vietnam in 1978 and did not return until 2012, 34 years later. Hong spoke of the iconic image of the girl running naked and without clothes along the road during the Vietnam War. She said: “I recognise it and it made me shiver.”
Some of her art contains explosions and bombs but she said: “When there is destruction, there is new life. People had to start again. There is always a positive among even negative events.” In January 2013 Hong Dam wrote a visual diary called “Dreaming of Home.”
Scenes of the West are often dark and polluted, contrasting with the lush purity of nature in Vietnam, particularly in the painting “Childhood Memories.” Yet Vietnam has also now developed and is no longer the place of Hong’s childhood.
In her own words Hong describes her most recent work: “Trapped between the invisible glass of a fragile, expensive bottle; wanting to break free. The sea, the sky merged into one; a big crash of explosion forces the migration of 1000s of butterflies. A message in a bottle drifting across derelict lands in search of a new life. Change, adapt I will – in order to survive.”
“The Butterfly’s Dream is about a little girl living in a fragile world, that is, the glass bottle, the changes and adaptations she has to make after migrating. The fragile beauty of the perfume bottle versus the ordinary lives of another world: two parallel worlds of East and West.”
The perfume bottle is significant because Hong said: “In the West women are conditioned to feel less capable. Some women feel fragile. In poor countries women do everything. There is a limitation here.” She said that in the film industry in 1990 men and women would do the same job but they would not get the same pay.
She thinks the conditioning is ingrained and asked: “Was it really worth the price?” Hong said there is a perception of worth and a vanity about being beautiful and elegant among western women. She thinks women use this to their advantage.
Hong’s mother blew up rocks and then shovelled them onto a truck in Vietnam. The rocks were then made into tarmac. Conditioning means that western women put limitations on themselves.
To conclude Hong said: “I always see the sky as the limit. It is how determined you are that matters, even if you don’t get there, you get further than you would if you didn’t have that dream. We should continue to dream, be content with the love, do not be afraid to dream but understand the present, the people you love where you are.”