Vietnamese-born sculptor Thai Bui makes haunting works of art that speak to a sense of displacement and longing that has characterized the artist’s own turbulent life. Bui’s extraordinary objects combine references to his experiences in both the United States and Vietnam, simultaneously communicating a witty humor and penetrating sense of loss. In “Looking East,” Spark visits with Bui as he installs a major public commission for the city of Palo Alto.
Growing up in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, Bui’s childhood was marked by uncertainty and terror. In 1981, at the age of 21, Bui emigrated to the United States to study art. The transition was difficult for the artist, who has had to deal with language and cultural barriers. In addition, as a northerner, Bui often feels like an outsider within the Vietnamese community in the Bay Area, which is largely composed of southern Vietnamese.
Much of Bui’s work deals with these experiences, making reference to childhood games as well as feelings of displacement. Spark visits the artist in his studio as he makes a series of shallow clay bowls. While they are still wet, Bui slams the bowls onto the floor, blowing a hole in the base of the pots and making a loud sound. The activity references a simple childhood game in which the participant that makes the loudest sound wins. Bui then gathers the remnants and incorporates them into an installation.
In several other works, Bui creates odd juxtapositions that suggest his own experience of being a cultural and linguistic outsider in the United States, mixing diverse materials, forms and cultural references. In “Twins,” Bui pairs two materials, one natural — wood — one man-made — concrete — in a diptych. Though the title suggests that the two objects are identical, in fact they are opposites of one another, each alternating the others arrangement of wood and concrete blocks. For Bui, these combinations connect his own experience with the opposing, but harmonious cosmological forces of yin and yang that help to form the basis of Zen philosophy.
Thai Bui earned a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1988 and an M.F.A. from Stanford University in 1992. He has taught sculpture at Stanford and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Bui is the recipient of a Skowhegan scholarship, a SOBEL scholarship, a Stanford University scholarship and the Harold E. Weiner Memorial Prize. His work has been shown in locations across California and in galleries in New York.