(Aarhus Wednesday Newspaper 19 September 2008)
As long as it is beautiful
As a journalist one gets tasks from time to time, where one has to drag a story out of a poor interview- victim and to stretch it a little here and there in order to be able to fill out a newspaper page. However from time to time one meets a human being, where one is overwhelmed by personality and his story and is left out of breath with a pile of messy notes, a buzzing head and far too much information for just one article in a newspaper. The last happened this time.
Already at the front door I sense that it’s going to be a long evening, in the good way.
Dang Du0ng Bang literally opens his arms and invites me inside. Before I have closed the door, the speech flow starts and do not stop until four hours later.
The little man in shorts and hood jumper radiates energy like a teenager in season and does not resemble a 56-year. Only the touch of grey in his hair and the small wrinkles in the corner of the eye bear witness to a life that has lasted more than a half a century, where he has experienced both the horror of war and the beauty of life.
Bang puts the water on for tea, but a few seconds later, this is apparently forgotten. Later the electric cooker is turned on several times, before he finally succeeds in making the tea for us. Meanwhile we are talking, or rather, Bang talks. A stream of words, thoughts, sidetracks and stories are floating.
Jacko and Curie
The biography of Dang Duong Bang is a story of a Vietnamese boy with a huge creative talent that grow up under communism and a cruel war, later on becoming a reputable scientist, artist, and man of the world.
He tells his story in fast English with the characteristic almost singing East Asian accent without any hard consonants. The arms never rest more than five seconds, acting as he was an excited mama in an enthusiastic discussion on a market in Naples. Tender eyes and his way of speaking complete the image. From almost whispering behind his folded hands to loudly exclamations and laughter with his hands raised over his head.
Bang was born in 1951 inHanoi, which soon after became the capital of North Vietnam. He grew up in a low upper-class home. His father was an engineer, educated at the technological faculty in Paris and his mother was a secretary. Four years old, he began to paint and in the following years his uncle who was a well-known painter gave him classes. However, Bangs highest wish for the future was to attend the ballet school. “Today people tell me that I dance like Michael Jackson“; he laughs as he makes a wave that goes from one hand to the opposite.
Nevertheless in traditional Vietnamese culture men are not expected to dance and his mother told him that a fortuneteller had told her that he would die young if he became an artist. She wanted him to have an academic degree, and he chooses the biochemistry. “I had read a biography of Marie Curie, the double Nobel Prize winner in physics and chemistry. It fascinated me so deeply that she ended her life by dedicating it to science and mankind. “
The tough school
Around that time the American bombers increased their effort in North Vietnam. USA forced by the lack of results in the combat field. The bombings became more and more like terror bombings and the densely populated cities were severely hit. Together with his family, Dang escaped from Hanoi. He was accommodated with a no-familiar family in the countryside that took care of him. In the absence of a university classroom, Dang and his fellow students took the matter in their own hands and began to build one themselves. After several month of hard work and no tools, they managed to build a primitive university in jungle. Classrooms were dogged halfway into the soil and camouflaged so that they could not be seen from above. Under these premises, Dang graduated. “I will only remember the good and positive things from the war, for instance when we could share one duck among 120 people and we were all happy. I see the war as a lesson for me, I learned to build a house, to cook, to restore old things, to live closely together with other people, to share everything, to work hard, and to take care of each other” As he talks his voice turns more thoughtful, “I think that this has had great influence on my life as an artist. I only want to work with beautiful things and I only paint what I consider beautiful. A lot of bad things have happened in my life but I do not care about this. I believe in that good things will happen and that life is beautiful.
Everybody can be Buddha
Apparently Dang does not like to stand in front of a camera; he draws out time by jumping around showing his apartment to the photographer. There is plenty to look at. Everywhere stands or hangs paintings, both his own work and others painters, which he has exchanged or bought. Here we find both well-known artists as Per Kirkeby and Knud Odde as well as unknowns. Dang never looks for certain names when he buys, if it is beautiful he will find a place on the wall.
It is only in the small living room that we do not find a lot of paintings. Instead we find a lot of bric-a-brac, pottery, Dutch tiles, antique Buddha figures and old furniture that others have skipped. Bang has renovated them and given them a new life and beauty. Each little thing has it own story and as the photographer tries to get some good photos Dang tells some of the stories. For instance, the story about the tall one-armed figure of Jesus that makes a kind of alter in the corner. Like the rest of the furniture, this figure was condemned and but Dang found it ad brought it into his home. Now it represents Buddha as Dang is an active Buddhist. “Everybody can be Buddha. Buddha is symbol or a state of mind, and I think it was a beautiful statue” he explains smiling.
Dang stops by a painting that he has done recently. It is painted on a page from a Chinese newspaper, and he explains that it means a lot to him. “The Present” he calls it. “One morning I woke up filled with inspiration, from where I do not know, but I went straight on painting and did not stop until it was finished. Besides a man in a Buddha like position, a lotus flower is the central element in “The Present”, or maybe it is a bird? Dang explains that he has painted a lot together with kids from kindergartens, and the lotus symbol is one of the favorites. One day a child asked him “why does that bird have 4 eyes?” Since that day he began to paint some of his lotuses with beaks, so now it is easy to doubt what it looks like. “The lotus symbolizes something very beautiful, that grows out of something ugly. It grows out of a dirty sump, folds out and turns into a beautiful and pleasant smelling flower. And furthermore it is a very central symbol in Buddhism”. We return to the table and while our host pours beer into glasses, he continues to tell his life story.
After the Vietnamese war, Dang was employed at the Pasteur Institute in Hanoi. Later on, he worked for WHO where he was send to work in different places as in Australia, The Netherlands and even to Denmark where he worked at the State Serum Institute in 1982. Dang never dared to leave Vietnam permanently because he was scared that he would loose his Vietnamese citizenship. Bus as the communist party in Vietnam in the mid eighties began to reform the policy and to open the country towards others; Dang began to look out for new opportunities. At that time his job was a dead-end, and he had to work under very primitive laboratory facilities. I 1989 he mowed to The Netherlands where he had been invited to do a PhD study on colon cancer. While working hard on his thesis, his career as painter also developed and he began to sell more and more paintings. In 1998 he mowed to Aarhus where he is living at present.
In Denmark he has settled down. He thinks that Vietnamese in general are very good at integrating themselves; it is like a part of their culture. The history of Vietnam is a chaotic story where the country has experienced a lot of influence from their neighboring countries. For more than 1000 years they have been conquered by the Chinese emperor, colonized by the French, and invaded by the Mongols, Japanese, and Americans. “Vietnamese are people that have always been able to integrate, and to accommodate under new conditions, while still keeping our spirit. Vietnam is like a house with a roof but without any walls. The wind blows from all sides, but only what is left at the end of the day is Vietnam”.
This is different from the Danish kingdom, but even though there are differences in culture and mentality, Dang is very happy to be in Denmark. He resembles Danes with a coconut: they are hard to get, first you have to climb high into the palms to pick them, and then you have to break the hard shell. But when you succeed in getting there, you will enjoy the sweet milk. In the same way Danes are hard to get close to but if you succeed you will have friends for lifetime.
Time - an article in short supply
Presently Dang is a senior researcher at the National Veterinary Institute in Aarhus where he is working with bacteria and viruses in poultry. He is working as a technical coordinator in an EU-project on a budget of 10 million Euros. The aim is to develop a micro-chip that can detect Campylobacter in broilers. This is a very demanding job that takes a lot of time and energy, but at the same time he also works full time as a painter. He has never been married, but it is no problem to live a full life without kids and TV. According to himself he only sleeps 3 hours a night, the rest of the day he works.
“I was one of the few in my class that survived the war. I have promised myself that I have to spend my live without wasting any time. I feel I owe them that”. It is impossible to get a full picture of a man like Dang Duong Bang in a short time. Not to mention the small space that is available in an article. The full story including all anecdotes and the many viewpoints that make up this small - in size- but great man has to wait until he might start writing his memoirs. Unless you, dear reader, has the privilege to meet and talk to this man face to face.
Dang as an Artist
“Somebody resembles my paintings with Matisse, others with Picasso, but I do not like that. They had their own style, and even kids drawing may look like a Picasso from time to time.”
Dang Duong Bang starts laughing. He does not understand when art people want categorize him. And the truth is that it is impossible. His variation in style, materials and motives are fare to big and keeps developing over time.
“People ask me if I can do more copies of one certain work. But if you continue to copy yourself and paint the same motif, it begins to remind me of death. I only paint what I like and what comes to me when I paint“. When this is said there are some symbols that keep turning up in his paintings: cats, naked women, butterflies, and lotus flowers.
Dangs enormous production through his life lies in piles of ring binders in his small atelier, he never throws anything away. He has kept sketches, drawing exercises, portraits, mini-paintings, and photographs of all the paintings, which cannot be put down on a piece of paper. He is terribly afraid of forgetting any of it.
Loves to give
His paintings are now sold for many thousands Euros around the world. But he still loves to give paintings away to people that appreciate them. He tells that he is touched when people say that they find his paintings beautiful.
“Money means nothing to me” he announces. Therefore other people get benefit of his growing success as painter, fore instance people in Vietnam. During the war the Americans used a lot of chemicals to deforest the jungle in order to control the guerilla activities. These chemicals are still causing deformity in newborn kids, and Bang is donating a lot of the money that he earns from his paintings the innocent victims of the war.