Transformations are all we have - A conversation with Phuc Van Dang
Interview by Rosanna Stevens
Walking from the bus stop to Phuc Van Dang’s studio, my map tells me I can cross a field to reach the building that contains his studio. I figure it’ll be a scenic shortcut, but as the field and the building come into view, something is strange. There’s a high-security gate surrounding it all. I notice security cameras and twisted threads of pristine barbed wire lacing the walls and roof of a central brick complex the size of a large monastic school. It takes me a minute to realise I’m standing in front of a prison, and I will be entering a prison, and that Phuc Van Dang works inside a prison.
Phuc meets me beside the Horsens Prison café. He explains to me that the complex was closed and converted into the largest prison museum in the world just over ten years ago. The building now features artist studios, co-working areas, public programming, a gallery and a museum. We climb a set of stairs to reach his studio and his office, which is shared with a writer, a clothing designer, and an illustrator. On the way, he points out a prison exercise yard: a brick floor encased by four prison walls – each with windows for prisoners to look at what could barely be called the outside. It’s like a room with the sky for a ceiling. Van Dang also shows me a tiny cell, with barely enough room for both of us, which is now an intimate meeting room replete with a velvet chair and the original prisoner-to-guard intercom system.
While the intimidating structure of a system designed for isolation is still everywhere, the place has a calm feeling: doors are open. Artists and staff sit and drink coffee, or work at their desks on creative projects. They don't pretend it isn't a prison, it seems instead that they embrace the fact that where they work was a prison and it isn't anymore.
As we pass a ping pong table beside a communal kitchen, Van Dang says to me
“The Danish government saw that they could change this place. Danish government is very good at preserving and transforming the culture. The system that was here didn’t work, but the structure – the building – has become a beautiful thing. It is the same building. We remember what happened here. It is an important part of the history. But we can also learn from that history and turn it into something totally different.”
And it’s this perspective – this understanding of the potential laden in even the most frightening-looking things, that infects all of Van Dang’s work. This is the world view of Phuc Van Dang – his ‘Phucisme’, as he terms it. “In Danish” he explains, “To have a theory is an ‘-isme’. In English, you say, ‘ism’. But I was thinking about this idea of ‘isme’ and my view and theory of the world being ‘Phucisme’ – and when you break down the word, it is ‘Phuc-is-me.’ Phuc is me. My world view is me: it is mine.”
Van Dang arrived by boat in Denmark in 1981, after his family left Vietnam seeking refuge and change. It’s an experience that pushed him to constantly consider who he is, where he belongs, and why.
“People ask me, ‘Phuc when you draw do you think in Vietnamese or Danish?’ First I think, 'Who am I? I’m human first. Now you live in two cultures: maybe instead of being one culture, I just think about who I am in terms of the story I have lived'.”
With a background in graphic design, Van Dang works at the intersection of art, design and culture. His style is strong and signature, and has garnered thousands of followers on Instagram. He creates a work once and never erases anything he’s placed on the canvas – all the things that have come before, including mistakes, are integral to who and where we are now, he believes. Even his use of colour is philosophically considered.
“It took 5 or 6 years to work out that I wanted to work only in black – because black reflects the fact I work in the shadow of my life to make what I make now. The past informs my present and my future. It took that long to work out that I wanted to create in black. I had to really think about why I wanted to. I had to think about who I was. So to change the art, you must change yourself - you have to be present in the process: not on the finished product.”
He also believes that to be an artist and think about or articulate the future – or the present – we are wise to look at the past. When working on a mural in the converted prison building, Phuc examined the original plans for the institution, discovering the story of the architect who, in the 1800s, travelled to Italy to learn the skills that would inform the design we are both standing in during our interview.
“He brought this knowledge into Denmark to write his own story, and the story of Horsens. And then I took those patterns and looked at his story – and then I used my story to create art that reflected both the prison, and my own experience.”
Finding your own story to imbue into representations of the present is an ongoing passion for Van Dang. Often, the artist works with school students, and workshops their artistic and representational skills. In both his creative and teaching work, it seems, Van Dang is passionate about encouraging us to consider who we are.
“I ask my students to draw love.” Van Dang explains. “Tell me the story of love - don’t draw me a heart. If you don’t paint a heart - what do you paint? The students think about it, and they often tell me, ’Love is about experiences. It’s about touch, seeing, smell.’ So I say to them, ‘Paint love now. Find a way to express love, but without a heart.’ They have to find a way to share the feeling of love - and feeling is difficult to share. It comes from their story of love - their experience of love.”
It’s this crossover of views on working out who we are, sharing stories potently, and looking to the past to create the now, that creates Van Dang’s ultimate Phucisme: that instead of a finished product, transformation and becoming are what we have to live richly. For The Transformations exhibition at AARHUSMAKERS’ The End of The Line, Van Dang intends to work with this sentiment. The artist is inviting a handful of creatives from different disciplines to dress in black, and take part in a 10 hour intensive, where the space will be collectively transformed from blackness into a reflection of the Skejby region, inspired by the local area and the stories of each artist imbuing with everyone else’s.
“For me, I say to myself, the whole thing is about learning culture because transformation is about the culture: who are you, where are you from, what is the story about, what is the story behind you. When we do the creative intensive, there will be a lot of discussion. I will work with the people’s background to make the transformation. To put a whole thing together is a piece of the process into who we are and what we want to do, to connect this together. The whole energy is not just one organ, it’s an organism: culture is a growing organism - it’s movement. And when there is movement, there is transformation.”
“This is what I love about this project: it’s not about the result. It’s about the process. In the process we can learn a lot more than we think about the product.”
Like a prison being more than a prison, we are about to discover that the Skejby region: a Letbanen station, nearby universities, the largest hospital in Northern Europe, and a gallery nestled between these landmarks – can transform into so much more than one person’s story.