Life and its abstract layers. We visited the home of author, poet, painter, journalist and bar owner Nguyễn Quí Đức.
Nguyễn Quí Đức is a man of many talents. Author, poet, painter, curator, bar owner and journalist. But he isn’t himself the easiest person to interview. Interesting, voluble and generous with his stories certainly, but not the easiest. He wasn’t keen to be interviewed at home he said. After all, he spends a lot of time at his bar Tadioto, it’s practically like his home anyhow. When we did get Đức to agree to talk to us at his house he was busy at work on another project. Painting with a friend, adding layers to a canvas he painted years ago, striding between rooms and calling through instructions and suggestions.
And while Đức dutifully chose a selection of things to talk about as instructed, he actually ending up talking of other things. But it was all fascinating, and after all what could be more apt?
● Interview by Sadie Christie ● Edited by Rose Arnold ● Photographs by Huong
Tokyo and Murakami
Instead of talking about things maybe I could talk about cities? I used to travel to Tokyo a lot, and years ago I had a very good friend there and she introduced me to Murakami. I was sitting on a train in Tokyo reading his book, Norwegian Wood, and I wouldn’t get off the train. I would just go around Tokyo, around and around and just read the book, absorb it. Once in a while I would glance outside and go, ‘this is the scene, this is the city in which this book is set.’ It was emotional.
So Murakami, his words, his way of writing. That had a huge impact on me. It’s all very Zen, working on a sentence. I mean I take three years to finalise a book of poetry. You write something, and you leave it for a bit and come back to it, change a sentence. It seems like such a luxury to sit there and work on words and sentences. All different writers that I like tend to be like that, there’s a bit of terror in the way that the next sentence is enclosed in something [else].
A Pouch of Polaroids
These slides are photographs from my life. I print on Polaroid, I project the slide onto Polaroid film and then I print on paper. And sometimes I print on very thin paper, sometimes on very thick paper, sometimes I hand colour them, sometimes I print them on metal, sometimes I photograph them again or photocopy them and the image gets very blurry and I add more layers. Tokyo, Indonesia, Paris, they are layers of my life. I just keep them. Scenes of my life, with very blurry lines. I like blurry lines, it’s kind of like a memory.
I put layers of things in my life, because of my own history. Decisions that I make now are affected by what happened to me as a young kid. Most people in Hanoi don’t understand that because they didn’t have that same youth, that same history. So when you talk about things that are meaningful to me, it’s hard. I have a bar, and I do readings, and I have friends and all that, but in some ways I’m very cognisant of that history that nobody knows about. You know, how to share the experience with people in Hanoi who are very young, and my friends are very young, and they don’t know the stuff that my generation went through. So it’s difficult, it’s like they don’t understand why I make certain decisions and why I do things and it’s because of that history. We left at the end of the war. All that war memory. Sometimes I’m obsessed with it, sometimes I try to get away from it, but you can’t really get away, because of writing, because of art, because of friends and shared experience with other people.
I’ve always liked his paintings, but I just got to [really] know him a few years ago. I started learning how to do layering. Because his paintings are very Zen—adding light coats of paint, layers and layers. There was one trip where I was in Tokyo, it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I went and sat in the room with the Rothkos and spent hours and hours, and it just messed up my mind, I didn’t want to see anything else, it was really so overwhelmingly emotional. And I had a friend working, one of my best friends, he lives in Tokyo, and he had never seen a Rothko before. So the two of us had this moment where we just sat. We didn’t talk to each other and it stayed with us for weeks.
My process can take days, months, I keep going over it, with different coats, different colours, and I get these layers with really different concepts. In some ways writing is like that too, where you take two or three stories made on top of each other.
So for me, painting, it’s like writing. It’s subtracting in a sense. You have the blue, and when you add the yellow to it, you’re taking away the blue. Painting, design, writing, is about taking away the superfluous, so when you layer colours on top of colours, you reduce the one colour by using another colour in a very thin coat, so nothing is pure and strong, it’s faint coat over faint coat.
I lived in a refugee camp in Indonesia—I went to work there because I didn’t want to live in America anymore. So I bought this in Indonesia. It’s a two-string instrument, but I bought it without strings. I used to collect things at the time, instruments, spoons, vases, old radios. That time in Asia was a very particular time, I was with the boat people, the horror of escaping by boat from Vietnam, and a musical instrument was an escape from all of those horrible things, from the pain of people. But now it’s got meaning for me because it makes no music, the idea of escaping it but I can’t escape.
The two small figurines are things I carved out of wood in Morocco—a man and a woman. It’s wood that’s very popular in the region where I lived in Morocco.
I loved living in Morocco, but the inequality between men and women often bothered me. One accepts it, as one must in a borrowed culture and country. Nevertheless, it’s irksome. And when the carved pieces turned out to be unequal in the other direction, I gave the man a stand — to highlight the reversal of the situation, as well as to make the pieces more equal. In reality, I find men often need a “riser” platform to be equal to the women.
The microphone was discovered at a radio station where I worked [in San Francisco]. It’s such a classic icon. I worked in radio – and loved the medium – for some 20 plus years. I like the fact that you’re faceless, almost nameless, and are just a voice. You can get intimate, authoritative, friendly, heard but not seen… a nameless, faceless voice allows people an imagination. They conjure up images of a man or woman based simply on the voice. You’re forced to rely on words, meanings, ideas – not facial expressions, or more interactive means. Nonetheless, you reach people. The microphone is the instrument that begins the process in which you intrude into people’s lives, physical environment. You enter their minds and affect how they think.
When I look at a thing or object, I think and ask what the history of this is, who made it? I sit on a bus in San Francisco and I think [of a fellow traveler] ‘who is this man, what’s his story, how did he get here, why is he on a bus, where is he going, who are his parents’? And I make stories up all the time. Partly because I’m a journalist, I work in the media, and we try to tell stories of people. And we come to understand, in my mind, that somebody is doing something for some reason. And if you understand that you understand the story itself, the motivation of people, what they need.
Đức’s bar and art space, Tadioto, is at 24b phố Tông Đản