Degree Critical, Fall 2019

Friday 08/23/2019

Yohei Yama, Installation view Phenomenon / (Time x Space), 2019. Image courtesy Vin Gallery and the author.

Dispatch From Vietnam: Yohei Yama at Vin Gallery, Ho Chi Minh City

by David Willis (Class of 2013)

For his second solo exhibition at Vin Gallery, the Japanese born, Ho Chi Minh City-based artist Yohei Yama presents six new paintings and two new sculptural installations (all created in 2019) which, although nominally abstract, represent more than just patterns in paint. In these works, the artist attempts to depict the immaterial essence of being from which all material phenomena spring forth, and the dynamic whereby experiences takes shape—an ambitious objective, implied in the mathematical formula of the exhibition title, Phenomenon / (Time x Space).

Born in 1977 in Saitama, Japan, Yama began his career as a photographer before launching into painting while living in France in 2009. There, he first began to experiment with the repetitive, abstract motifs that still characterize his work ten years later. Ranging in size from small (22 x 16 cm) to huge (194 x 260 cm), all the paintings in the show are unified by their use of wavy parallel lines, as well as by a common working method, whereby the artist executed each painting in three successive layers, each one representing time, space, or matter, the tripartite vectors of existence in the third dimension.

Yama blowinPhotographs do not do them justice: the paintings appear to vibrate and quiver when viewed in the flesh, producing a peculiar sensation of static motion, and reminding us that nothing is ever really motionless when we live on a planet hurtling around the sun, with all that we can see and touch being constituted by the restless reconfiguration of nuclei and electrons. This concept is most explicitly articulated in the installation Blowin’ in the wind, which consists of an air purifier and a helium filled balloon. Despite its natural inclination to rise up to the ceiling, the balloon is sucked downwards by the air purifier, causing it to bob and hover in midair to uncanny effect. Upon the balloon, the artist emblazoned the following lines:

100 years ago you were not here, 100 years later you will not be here.

As you are reading you are existing here now, in between Destiny and Miracle.

This piece provides some insight into the mind of the artist, who, when I ran into him at the exhibition, told me “I paint the invisible to make it visible.” The same could be said of his sculpture practice, since the balloon could evoke our planet as seen from outer space, or alternatively, a single molecule dancing in the void—neither of which is a perspective readily available to the human eye.

A set of three large paintings (titled Counting Stars #2, #3, and #4, respectively) are hung as a triptych in a corner of the gallery, spread across two walls in such a manner that you might stand in their midst and let them fill your vision, as if immersed in darkness while looking up at the twinkling lights that fill the night sky. Yama performed at the opening, standing in the corner between these paintings playing his ukulele, a gesture meant to ground the viewer in the present moment (however, because I was not at the opening, and only saw a short snippet of the performance on social media, I don’t think I’m qualified to speak to its efficacy).

Yama triangle
Yohei Yama, Gate▲way, 2019. Image courtesy Vin Gallery and the author.

Another installation titled Gate▲way confronts the viewer immediately upon entering the gallery. Consisting of three steel bars, painted in neon colors and welded together to make a pyramid with its apex touching the ceiling, it presents a different color profile depending on one’s perspective. From one side the structure appears all yellow; from another, all orange; and from yet other angles a variety of colors are visible. It also functions as a literal gateway to the exhibition, inviting viewers to walk under, through, and around it, experiencing all the possible color combinations from every possible angle, and reminding us that the experience of any phenomenon will be colored by one’s unique perspective.

Speaking of unique perspectives in time and space, it is worth noting that this exhibition could have easily been staged anywhere in the world, which makes it all the more interesting to see it take place right now in Ho Chi Minh City, where professional quality exhibitions by non-Vietnamese artists are few and far between, given a local collector base which favors art that engages with the identity politics of Vietnameseness (or in the case of foreign artists, work that somehow relates to the experience of living in Vietnam). As an abstract artist with an unabashedly global—or perhaps even universal—purview, Yama’s work represents a breath of fresh air for the Ho Chi Minh City art scene; a broadening of possibilities, and a sign that the times, they are a’ changin’.


Phenomenon / (Time x Space) remains on view through September 27th at Vin Gallery, 6 Le Van Mien, D.2, Thao Dien, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.


David Willis lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. David is a critic, curator, and art advisor, and alum of the MFA Art Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts. He has been based in Vietnam and Thailand since 2015, developing a specialization in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia.