‘If she is happy, I am happy,’ says Vietnamese artist Tia-Thuy Nguyen referring to Mother Earth and her creation of an intricate stainless-steel sculpture that encases a dead oak tree in the grounds of sculpture park and organic winery Château La Coste in Aix-en-Provence, which Irish hotelier and property magnate, Paddy McKillen began mapping out on purchasing the land back in 2002.
The Flower of Life work, a remarkable piece of ‘tree art’, comprising thousands of soldered stainless steel 5mm strips resembling bark, shimmering steel oak leaves and gemstone and crystal fruits and flowers, was assembled on site over two months. It is the first time Nguyen has worked with the material (one ton of it) and numerous practice branches were made with local artisans and welders in her studio in Ho Chi Minh City to explore the technique and construction methods.
The multidisciplinary artist, who also works in painting, with canvases embroidered with tiny beads, in fashion (her label is called Thuy Design House), and in film, sees no obstacles in new mediums. ‘The material, whether fabric, paint or film, does not matter – the medium is a way of showing an idea and giving my energy through a form,’ says the vivacious Nguyen, who is a follower of Buddhism. On-site, the installation required further engineering, with an invisible structure inserted inside to support and eventually supersede the dying tree. The oak was earmarked for the tree surgeon’s chop before Nguyen set her vision on giving it a second life. ‘The metal will patina and change with time and wind, rain and sun. That is Mother Earth. I make the sculpture but Mother Earth finishes it,’ she smiles.
Flower of Life, which reflects the luminous Provence light in myriad ways, is installed in the middle of a roadway by a terrace of new inn-style rooms (opening 2024), that leads up past the Tadao Ando pavilion and through cypress trees to the luxury hotel Villa La Coste. The 600-acre sculpture park is home to a bounty of site-specific works by a roll call of greats including Conrad Shawcross, Sean Scully, Tracey Emin, Ai WeiWei and Richard Serra and Andy Goldsworthy. All the artworks dialogue with the bucolic landscape that shifts from vineyards to plateaus, woodland and man-made lakes (one with Louise Bourgeois’ Crouching Spider, 2003 scuttling across). The collection and curatorial programme (overseen by Daniel Kennedy) is ever expanding across art, music and design with shows staged in the Oscar Neimeyer-, Renzo Piano- and Richard Rogers-designed pavilions and spaces.
Nguyen first visited the estate nine years ago and fell in love with the gnarled, twisted branches of the oak and took a portrait of herself by the tree. ‘Back then there was no hotel here but Paddy invited me to discover the space and think about creating a work. It was huge for me to do something in France but he encouraged me,’ she explains.
Their friendship dates back to her student years. A patron and collector of established as well as emerging artists, McKillen, who was working on property developments in Vietnam, first discovered Nguyen while she was studying at the University of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Min City and showing work in small café galleries. They remained in touch through subsequent studies for her scholarship-funded PhD at the National Academy of Fine Art and Architecture in Kyiv, where she graduated in 2014. Her first work for the growing sculpture park at Chateau La Coste was Silver Room (2017) which is tucked up in the hills. It was inspired by a traditional Vietnamese Rong House, a wood and bamboo structure made for gatherings and prayer. The Silver Room contains a crystal Buddha on a carved tree trunk and is illuminated by light that filters through slits in the walls. An exhibition of embroidered cloud paintings, Floating into Nothingness, followed in 2022, and the richly coloured scapes hang throughout the hotel space.
Flower of Life is accompanied by an exhibition curated by the château’s curator Daniel Kennedy, at the Oscar Neimeyer-designed pavilion (his swansong work before his death in 2010), featuring stainless steel thread woven 3D panels, and square format cloud works with densely embroidered branches.
The château attracts over 100,000 visitors a year, who come to discover the artworks and dine at the restaurants (including an Argentinian by Francis Mallman), offering an enlightened kind of hospitality built on culture, nature and, of course, the organic vineyard. While McKillen might be locked in litigation over the value of Maybourne, which owns luxury London hotels Claridge’s, The Connaught and The Berkeley, Château La Coste is working proof of his visionary smarts. He was also appointed honorary counsul of Vietnam in Dublin in 2023.
For Nguyen, McKillen’s spotlight has attracted new collectors and commissions including a show at Almine Rech in Paris (January 2024) as well as shining a light on an emerging generation of Vietnamese artists. She set up the workspace and gallery, Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh. ‘I want to give an example and help mentor the next generation. If I can do it – you can do it and some day we will do it together,’ she says.
Flower of Life is at Château La Coste in Aix-en-Provence
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