A Studio Visit with Tomas Vu, Artist and Professor at Columbia University by Saskia Krafft
Tomas Vu lives and works in New York City. He has received numerous awards including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Award and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship. Vu has been a professor at the School of the Arts of Columbia University since 1996, when he helped found the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies. For those 17 years he has served as Artistic Director of the Center. In 2000, he was appointed the LeRoy Neiman Professor of Visual Arts. At the Neiman Center he has overseen collaborations and publications of print projects with artists such as Kiki Smith, Sarah Sze, William Kentridge, Jasper Johns, Kara Walker, and many others.
From 2003-2004, Vu began work on the Opium Dreams series, which includes drawings and paintings. In Opium Dreams, Vu depicts a fantastical journey through the stages of a hallucinatory vision. Layering paint, silkscreen, drawing, and collage, Vu shows us a modern day vision of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” where helicopters, poppies, and mushroom clouds form a floating world.
From 2006 – 2012, Vu worked at the Neiman Center to produce a serial body of work entitled Flatland. This series of 103 unique prints combines silkscreen, painting, drawing, and laser engraved images on wood veneer. The significance of 103 drawings is rooted in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, which began at 8:46 AM and ended at 10:29 AM when both towers had collapsed. Each drawing represents one of the 103 minutes from 8:46 AM to 10:29 AM.
In an ongoing project started in 2011, Vu has created a series of alaïa surfboards, hand-shaped paulownia wood surfboards based on a pre-20th-century Hawaiian model. On one side of these boards, Vu uses laser-engraving technology to create sprawling drawings composed of many overlapping images. On the reverse, he engraves drawings composed of the lyrics of Beatles’ songs. He plans to produce one board for each song in the Beatles’ discography. These surfboards are Vu’s most autobiographical work, inspired by childhood memories of caring for American GI’s surfboards on the beaches of Vietnam and being introduced to the Beatles by those GI’s.
In 2012-2013, Vu revisited the Opium Dream series, adding to drawings that were originally made as studies in 2003-2004. Currently, Vu is working on the Dark Side of the Moon series, which includes paintings of various sizes as well as drawings on mylar. These futuristic landscapes are informed by the technological and post-industrial advances of man. Deeply in tune to the impacts, both positive and negative, of these innovations, Vu plays with the roles of man and machine and the waning boundary between the two. The work is ultimately a protest against the destruction of our planet and our humanity. – From Thomas Vu’s biography.
Saskia Krafft visited Thomas Vu at Columbia University and in his NY studio in November, 2015. The following transcript is part of their conversation.
How did you experience the installation process and the opening of your current exhibition in Beijing?
I had made 18 paintings for the show in Beijing, but we ran into shipping issues and I had to change my plan completely. So I decided to make all the work in China. I had 14 days to make eighteen paintings, the last set of which took me almost a year to make. But what I had was the history – I knew how to make them. Collage is a big part of my work so I was able to prepare a lot of materials already here in New York, and then just dive in in Beijing. It was actually really exciting to work under that pressure, and I think the new works stand up to the old set.
Your work talks about and uses methods of printmaking, such as laser cutting, as well as very painterly ideas. Could you please describe your work more in detail.
The space I create in my paintings is a very illusionistic space, but I’m using flat and very graphic elements to create this illusion. That is uncommon in painting: you don’t do graphic illustrative outlines to create an illusion. So I like to subvert expectations on how paintings are made, and push the limitations of print.
My work talks about the relationship between man and technology, and I like to play that out in the material as well. Nothing reads more human to me than an expressive, painterly hand. And then on the other side, we can take a hand done drawing and automate it through the laser cutter, which changes the feel of it, if not the image. By melding these techniques, the language of form is grander and echoes the imagery I am using.
You are an artist with strong skills in the field of printmaking, an obviously flat technique, but you achieved to create a great depth in your work. Why do you want to create this three-dimensional feeling?
I’m very influenced by landscape paintings, which goes back to my youth. I was born in the jungles of Vietnam but was relocated to Texas as a child during the war. The jungles of Vietnam were the landscapes of my childhood, and then I suddenly found myself in the deserts of Texas. You have two extreme climates there. And for a ten year old boy that’s pretty amazing.
I remember flying over and landing in Texas and thinking: Oh my god, that looks like Mars. There was nothing but desert. We arrived in the morning and it was winter time. There was no vegetation at all, just this brown red dirt. It looked alien to me. I’m always looking for those strong contrasts, dealing with dislocation and trying to find those particular moments of collision.
We are currently facing the most extreme environmental crisis of human mankind. Especially in the context of ideas around whether or not we once have to leave this planet, your works seems extremely relevant to me.
You’ve probably heard about California. If you have seen the news there right now – it’s on fire! Within one continent we have such extreme environments. My work wants to invite the viewer to glimpse into our future, maybe experience the worst case scenario. But within this experience, there can be beauty.
Also in painting – it’s all about seduction: I give you this horrific and sometimes brutal vision, the collapse of humanity and our entire infrastructure, everything is falling apart. But within it, there is a glimpse of hope. Maybe we can get through this.
I want to give the viewer enough information to draw him in. The more you look at my surface, the longer you want to look at it and get interested in it. It’s about the amount of information that I’m giving you. It’s comparable to large paintings – you first see the whole picture, but once you get closer you start seeing also the small details, maybe a figure. There has to be enough space for imagination and interpretation. If an artwork doesn’t allow that, then it is just an illustration of an idea and therefore too simple.
What do you think about the narrative aspect in your work?
We are a culture of information, and my work is about the cultural landscape. It obviously starts from 1960/70, when I came to the States, which is part of my baggage. I collect information and imagery, I do my research online. As soon as I find interesting and relevant material for my work, I either screenshot it or save the image and send it to my email. Then I start printing it out on sheets of Japanese paper, cut it out and start collaging.
It’s about collecting the information that is out there. I’m interested in technology, futurism, that kind of moment, especially from the Cold War. All the technology we use today comes from what Germany, Russia, the UK, and the US invented during that time. War has and always will be an engine of progress.
My mom’s husband was a young scientist from Germany. He worked on the Apollo projects and he would tell me about the things we benefit from. How the weapons of war would be transformed into the technology that brings us the microwave. After the Apollo mission ended, he went to work on radio, which is a missile company. Now that he is retired he can tell me about some of his projects, but he’s still not allowed to talk about everything.
You studied Painting at Yale university. How does your background in painting influence your work?
My current works are surfboards. They, as well as the body of work, “Flatland,” comes from the same idea. Around 15 years ago, I did work which was also a lot more anchored in installation and sculpture work and I came more from a personal background, very autobiographical, about experiences that I had, but also about my father and grandfather in Vietnam. It refers to the history of Vietnam.
Part of your last exhibition were NY Times cover sheets, which you edited and sampled. Could you please go a bit more into detail about the idea behind this body of work.
The Unabomber is one of the central characters in my narrative and the inspiration for these works. In this series of New York Times covers I’m referring to his manifesto “Industrial Society and It’s Futures.” It talks about how we’re losing our humanity, how technology and technological devices get in our way and they are going to destroy us. The author of the manifesto was a teacher at Harvard and was a real intellectual and he had this idea – this warning -of not going into the direction toward the domination of technology. He wanted to destroy anyone who is in that technology field by sending them packages which then exploded by opening them. His message seems ever more prescient with each passing year.
When you look at our current stage and where we might go with Artificial Intelligence or the idea of singularity, it seems inevitable that the computer and the machine will be smarter than us. Look where we are with it right now: When was the last time you had to remember 6 digits or a phone number. I can remember 25 different phone numbers, because I actually had to dial and use them. Nowadays you just type in your number and don’t remember anything. We rely more and more on machines and the convenience of things, but these things are so fragile, in a way. My fear is that this system could tumble. There are so many post-apocalyptic movies out there right now, everything is about the future and these movies capture our imagination about it in a way.
How does this idea of new technology find its way into your art practice and your methodology of working?
All these detailed elements in my works are laser-cuts, I’m using the machine against itself – that is the contradiction. I love to use the means that I am criticizing in my work to reproduce something. It becomes self-reflective. For years it was just me in the studio with some canvases and brushes, that led to a lot of discovery where I’ve learned how to paint, but it was never satisfied enough to make it absolutely unique. But by having the idea of multiples within Printmaking, where you can use an image over and over again, I was able to get to this point.
After working solely as a painter on your own, how does it feel now to work in a more collaborative way in a Printshop?
I am a Professor, so I teach, and my natural instinct is to show students everything that I use, expose them to everything. Everyone takes bits and pieces depending on what they need and I like the idea of sharing this information. The more thinking like that exists, the more interesting it gets for me.
Does the work with assistants and students also influence your own art practice?
Yes, definitely. Sometimes I would talk to my assistants and students and they would toss back information that I would say: How did you get that done so fast? There are certain things that they know and I don’t. Maybe how to use the machine better than me. I am still very old-school and have to ask people to help me. For them it’s almost intuition and for me it would have taken me six hours to figure it out. They don’t have the same history or experience that I have, but they have something different to offer. Especially with Printmaking, where the history is so deep and traditional, but computers have blown open the possibilities.
Studio Visit with MFA students at Columbia University
When did you get interested in Printmaking?
I used Printmaking a lot in my undergraduate studies and I really liked it because I was very good at drawing and Printmaking is very good for people with good drawing skills. I was very political and interested in a lot of political works. Printmaking, by virtue of its mass producibility, has always been associated with political movements and propaganda. I liked artists like Goya, who really had something to say. For me, political work is probably more about shedding light on things, than about actually finding solutions, which can simplify the discussion. I like keeping things open.
So I was working with issues that I can relate to coming from Vietnam and war-torn countries. Anything that had to do with war was what I got interested in. I didn’t talk about Vietnam at that time, but I was talking about El Salvador and the “Dead Squads”. So I would do posters and prints about these topics, that were then clustered all over buildings. One could say that I am an activist, art sometimes behaves that way. But this gives me the energy to go to the next one. Nowadays Banksy is the one who does that, but back in the days I was covering up so many buildings as a form of protest. This political portray series has got something to do with my particular past. By doing images I can cut barriers of buildings. I loved to tag Federal Banks. I did hundreds of prints and in the middle of the night I would cover up the whole building and then write on it.
So do you still see Printmaking as a vehicle for getting out political slogans?
Yes. That was why it was so attractive to me. It allowed me to speak, to create a voice, and that is exactly what Printmaking first started out to do. I wasn’t making art for art’s sake, I was making art to say something.
Will you continue working on your current projects or do you have new projects you will continue working on?
No, I have a lot more to say about this angle, I am not even close to an end. Perhaps 2045 is going to be the end. As long as there is a concern or at least a point of interest for me, I will stay with this. It is a vision that I have and want to further work with, I am still scratching the surface of it. I think there is a bigger picture out there. I am laying out all the information which is out there and the viewer needs to decide what is true and what is fiction.
My information sometimes just comes from the fiction of film or its characters. I am very influenced by film to create my vision, half of it is made up. I am questioning how we gather information, how we know the truth. Is it true because it’s written in the NY Times? Within the NY Times series I did that: The text was already there but then I would take an image and put it in this context of disconnected information.
And now you, the viewer, faced the fact that he is looking at an image but the text is telling a different story. There is this misdirection and dislocation of information. There is always another story behind it and another angle to it. You can never get to that truth. I am not interested in that truth, but in blurring that line to question the truth.
Why are films a major impact on your work?
When we first came to El Paso, my mother spoke English, but none of us did. We were six kids and obviously we lived in the desert. From our backyard within the distance of a thousands yards we were able to see one of those drive-in movies theaters. So we would sit on our roof and watch movies every night – sometimes even two different movies a night. But we couldn’t hear it, it was all visual. We didn’t understand English anyway, so it wouldn’t matter.
“Planet of the Apes” and “The Jar” were some of the first movies I saw and they found their way into my imaginary landscape. You can still see this particular horizon and the pitch black space, this rectangle shape with images which resonates. And that is a very powerful image. We watched those movies every night, because we didn’t have anything else to do. El Paso during the day is unbearable and you can’t really go outside, so the only thing for us, what we could do was to play on the roof and watch movies. It’s the desert – it’s Texas. I haven’t really been there for a while, but my mother still lives there.
Where did you go to Graduate School?
I went to Graduate School at Yale University in New Haven. After the studies there it was a natural migration to go to New York because all of my classmates went to New York City. There were six of us and we took a loft space together – back in those days when loft spaces in Manhattan were still affordable.
Tell me about your current show in Beijing.
The show is called “Dark Side of the Moon” and it is about the Unknown. From our history we never knew what is on the dark side of the moon, so we created this fantastical narrative. In 1974 I first heard “The Dark Side of the Moon” from Pink Floyd – music is always an important indicator of who you are and where you are. When you listen to music from your youth, it immediately brings you back to this particular moment. Certain sounds and music can bring you back to very particular places and also feelings.
“The Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd introduced me to that landscape, that foreign sound and it became very important to me. That’s why I chose the title “Dark Side of the Moon”.
In the recent work I’ve shown in Beijing the aluminum background is resonating the most. Here in New York we took pictures of the work, but I left some negative spaces for aluminium to show through. When I got to Beijing, I started working and painting on top of that. The contrast of High and Low became a crucial part of my work – also in terms of working with high and low resolution pictures. In these new works, the outlines of the aluminium spaces are glitchy, as we were working with low res files, but I love that look. There is an opposite to everything. Same phenomenon as mentioned with the dark side of the moon.
How does the surface of your painting work?
A If you are in front of these paintings with the Aluminium background and glass on top, you can almost see a third dimension of the surface because of the layers. There is a separation – you can see it and it creates an Hologram, a 3d-effect. You have to remember – all of this is very graphic.
The quality of the print-outs in China was very different, the prints became very digital. I loved it! Everything is very seamless, but then there are these moment where it is almost falling apart. My assistant I was working with, he knew that this was not the quality I was looking for and got really upset with the printer.
He thought the whole thing was a failure. I am very good in what I do in my studio, sometimes it’s too predictable and I am a control freak. I like to have control over everything, but when I get out of my comfort zone due to time constraint or to technical difficulty are the moments, when it works best for me.
Was this your first exhibit in Beijing?
No. I’ve curated two shows there before at “Inside Out” Art Museum. I see artists also as curators and social commentators. So sometimes when you do work, you have an even bigger picture in mind than just your own sensibility. One of the shows I’ve curated there was called “Draw: Mapping Madness”.
What do you think about you relationship to other artists?
I am married to a painter and we’ve always had interesting dialogues from artist to artist. The idea of artist couples having a conversation about art became very interesting for me and I explored it in an issue of Annual magazine that I guest edited. So I’ve asked nine couples to have a conversation – completely unedited – about whatever they want. Sometimes it turned into a critique of each other, sometimes it’s about their relationship. So some couples also took polaroids during their recordings, some wanted to hand in their email conversation. I asked filmmakers, sculptors, painters but I didn’t edit any of their words. I wanted to present an authentic picture of their dialogue. We just transcribed the tape.
What drew your attention to this kind of curatorial project about artist conversations?
We have personal and very private conversations about our work and public ones. What I was hoping to find was real intimacy. Unfortunately, as soon as you switch on the recording device it’s no longer intimate. You are censoring yourself while doing it, some conversations felt like role playing.
Do you have any next steps, long-term career goals of biggest dreams in mind?
No. Once someone offers you an opportunity, you start thinking about how to make it possible, but besides of that: nothing. I have so much to worry about within my own painting future. For example, right now I question whether the aluminium painting might be the future direction of my paintings. Right now I’m using this material only as a back, but I like the idea of cutting it and adhering it to other surfaces as well. The limitation of what painting can do right now is very limited. I like to do more with it, the physicality of things is very important to me.
What do you associate with Aluminium?
It is a very cold material, very artificial. It’s a future material, it has this kind of spectacle to it. I want people to make the connection to all these technical devices like for instance Apple products, which surround us. All these pictures I took at the exhibition – I took them with my iPhone. And I’m going to use these pictures during a presentation this evening.
What parallels do you see between a digital image and Printmaking?
As soon as people download pictures from the internet, they can pass it on. That is an imprint, an edition and it goes on and on and on. That’s what I said about Printmaking – it is limitless. It’s one of the most diverse medium that we have right now. I can create an animation with multiples. Painting can’t do that – it’s almost outdated. Painting is very limited in its action in the one to one confrontation.
I can go anywhere with Printmaking though. As I said, I was able to get my images from here, when it wasn’t possible to bring my work to China and send it there through “wetransfer” with the instructions for my assistant saying that he should print it. And I just have to go there and work on it.
I love those failures of technology, but I am still in control and still have my master fingerprint to put on it. An issue I see for the future is, that probably a machine could also capture my movements, make an algorithm from it and make it their own. It is a scary part to me.
I am constantly making sure, that a machine can’t copy that. For example it’s really hard to capture my new works with the metal surface with a digital camera because it is reflective. I also used the idea of layering to create this uniqueness – you have to be in front of the painting to see it.
Why does someone still need to visit an actual show of us instead of just looking it up on the internet?
You’re right. I could also just send you a flat image from my phone, but the experiences you have standing in front of my paintings – you can’t capture them in a photo. There are so many different ways of approaching the work, seeing it from different angles with different light, reflections and the properties of the ink. These are the experiences that a machine can’t have. Of course you can take a pictures of it, but there is nothing comparable to your own physicality to the work. In my work I’m setting up obstacles so that we don’t go in the direction of equally made pictures. We are at a crossroad. A moment where we have to make a decision about that.
So what are your conclusions from working with the issue around this kind of technophilia?
We already crossed the line to be taken oven by technology. Everyone has a second digital identity as well. Constant connection to the internet, dating websites, conversations solely through the internet, you ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ each other on social media websites. Everything that comes to our mind intuitively, will be served by people, devices and machines that surround us. We function as a button. Your buying pattern on Amazon and everywhere gives them the information they need, better than you could give it to them yourself. The ads pop up because every search entry is owned by Google. Same with art shows. Art critiques tell you whether you dislike an artist or you should revisit a show. Everything is already there. The big machine. It’s scary and fascinating at the same time. With my work I want to go on the side of: Let’s not lose that authentic side of it.
Author Saskia Krafft studied Art History at the University of Hamburg and Fine Arts and Design at the University of Fine Arts and Applied Sciences in Hamburg, Germany.