Build your own Batcave: Thang Vu on what it means to be an artist today

A U of T designer on shifting to online exhibits, dream to open a diner in Vietnam

Gladys Lou

My first encounter with artist Thang Vu happened by accident. In 2019, I was strolling along the maze-like corridors of the Annie Smith Building in Sheridan College on my way to my drawing class. Among the scatters of art supplies and the stacks of student work crowding the studio spaces, I was stunned to discover a plain white cubicle occupied by nothing but a steel clothing rack.

This minimalistic square of space seemed otherworldly and almost serene. I peeked into the oasis and found a line of upcycled clothing — neatly tied and labelled — hanging on the rack. Contrasted against the white labels was a black charcoal typeface that read ‘Concept Store.’

Vu is an exuberant young man in his twenties with artfully mussed hair and a black t-shirt. I had no idea that he was also the owner of the cubicle until I interviewed him. He is a designer and artist pursuing his studies in the University of Toronto and Sheridan College’s joint art and art history program.

During the 2020–2021 winter semester, Vu was a teaching assistant for an online class I took, and he was always eager and enthusiastic to share his knowledge about art with me and my peers.

I interviewed Vu on a Zoom call. Upon being asked what pushed him into a career in design, he gazed down at his table and paused for a moment. He said that he looked up to Virgil Abloh, who founded the fashion brand Off-White and used silk screen to print graphics on plain white t-shirts.

Vu believes that art has the potential to communicate ideas and perspectives. “[I am inspired by] everything I experience or encounter… If I see something that touches me… I want to share it with people,” he said.

“Art is life — life is art… They are always relating and feeding on each other.”

Vu’s art ties together both the personal and the political. COURTESY OF THANG VU
Vu’s art ties together both the personal and the political. COURTESY OF THANG VU

His direction as an artist

Having grown up in Vietnam, Vu told me that art was not a mainstream industry back home. “I didn’t know [about] the field of contemporary art with more new artists and experimental stuff… When I came [to Canada], I saw a lot of that experimental, avant-garde stuff.”

When asked what he considers to be an artist’s role in society, Vu replied: “I think I should be creating more conversation [and] dialogues, bringing attention and giving voices to things that are not or have not yet been heard, [while attempting to] find a solution.”

“Design is about solving problems. I hope my practice can add that element, [in addition to] telling stories,” he continued.

Vu confessed that he initially began designing due to his family, who pushed him to find a career in art that could “make money.” After pursuing further studies, he realized that design actually leads down many different pathways. In fact, there is much more to this artistic discipline than just career prospects.

“Design [fulfills] a need in life,” he said. “Some [have] more emotional usage [while] some have practical.”

Vu’s installation, “song of the shirt,” was exhibited in the window of Gravity Pope at 1010 Queen Street West as part of the DesignTO festival. Featuring a series of upcycled white shirts sewn with patches of washed-out photographs and newspaper cut-outs, Vu’s monochromatic fashion piece questions the ethics concerning the exploitation of factory workers in the garment manufacturing industry. His work was inspired by “The Song of the Shirt,” a poem by Thomas Hood, and he wanted to share his knowledge about the fashion industry to a wider audience.

Vu said that he was surprised at first that Gravity Pope agreed to display this critical political work, since it was a commercial boutique that sold designer fashion items.

Vu’s work is showcased under the pseudonym 636f6e6365707473, which is a hexadecimal that translates into the word ‘concepts.’ “I [do] not want to show my name solely on the work because [many people have] helped me.”

Vu’s work underscored the importance of communication in art. “Some of the [things] that I want to share… may come across quite pretentious or… quite hard to grasp at first [since] there is no access point to the audience… I don’t want to dilute [my message], but what I try to do is use familiar languages.”

Vu tailors his language depending on the audience he is addressing, using more jargon when applying for artistic grants while adopting more democratic language when communicating with the general public.

Thang Vu’s experimental art is often displayed uncoventionally and imaginatively. COURTESY OF THANG VU
Thang Vu’s experimental art is often displayed uncoventionally and imaginatively. COURTESY OF THANG VU

The shift to online platforms

I was curious about Vu’s opinions on the shifting platform of art exhibition from a physical space to a virtual format during the COVID-19 pandemic. He replied that the change has brought up feelings of disconnection: “I didn’t appreciate in-person [exhibitions] and looking at art… until [exhibitions moved online].”

Nowadays, Vu feels less motivated to work on his exhibition pieces because he no longer feels the same sense of accomplishment for his work. “You don’t have that tactility; you can’t feel [my work],” he said. “You also… can’t talk to [people].”

Vu added that in an ideal world, artists would have the budget to create anything, but in reality, they often have to work with organizations to secure a platform to create.

Nevertheless, he recognized that virtual art galleries present a more democratized version of art to the public. “That’s the benefit, I think: accessibility. A person from… anywhere in Asia could see a virtual exhibition in Canada,” he said.

During the pandemic, Vu began to explore new ways of building connections in fashion without in-person exchange. He gave the example of JW Anderson’s Loewe-branded carton. The grey canvas ‘show-in-a-box’ contained paper blocks of photos of models, fabric swatches, and an inspiration booklet. Some fashion brands even created music boxes with fashion show soundtracks, which they distributed to buyers and journalists. These innovative design products enhanced the interactivity and tactility lacking in the remote fashion experience.

Although Vu’s work is grounded in real-life concepts and issues, like any artist, he also has a fantastical streak to him. When I half-jokingly asked Vu what superpower he would like to possess, he replied, “I want to be like Batman.”

“He has a lot of… nice cars. He’s rich. He created his own [gadgets]. He’s vulnerable, but more in a human kind of way… I could build my own Batcave and save people.”

Vu’s Batcave just might come in the form of his own dream project, which he beamed about when he described it to me. “I could go back to Vietnam and create a diner… in the countryside,” he said. “[I can] share my story that I experienced in Canada… I could hang my work up there somewhere.” To achieve his dream, Vu has begun to explore the design of shipping containers.

For budding artists out there with their own dreams, the best pieces of advice Vu can give is this: “Absorb knowledge, learn as much as you can… always [be] learning — [and be] open to new things… Keep creating and keep learning.”

Art doesn’t always have to be paintings in the Musée du Louvre, sometimes they can be in the street, a park, or even a display window. COURTESY OF THANG VU
Art doesn’t always have to be paintings in the Musée du Louvre, sometimes they can be in the street, a park, or even a display window. COURTESY OF THANG VU

Cover visual: Thang Vu’s work has been featured at the 2019 Shelley Peterson Student Art Exhibition, and the Sheridan Buff. COURTESY OF THANG VU