We’re awkwardly positioning ourselves around a gigantic, expensive-looking machine when Tomas Vu-Daniel says, “You can actually climb up onto this press. Really.”
Yuping Zhang, our photographer, hesitates before deciding she is not, in fact, going to jump onto Dufa 7, the offset lithography press that costs around $105,000 (and almost as much to install in the studio), simply for the shot. Instead, she carefully maneuvers her way around it. Moments later, Vu-Daniel tells us—if it wasn’t already obvious from its imposing physical presence—that the Dufa 7 is the most valuable piece of equipment in the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies. In fact, it is the very device around which the entire studio is structured.
Vu-Daniel is the Artistic Director of the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies and a professor of visual arts. He specializes in printmaking, a form of art in which a composition is transferred from one surface to another using a printing press. Vu-Daniel has exhibited in galleries around the world, with solo museum shows in Japan, Italy, China, and Vietnam.
As we continue walking through the studio, Vu-Daniel shows us his hand-shaped surfboards on which he has engraved cursive geometric shapes and lyrics from various Beatles albums, one of which even made an appearance as Frank Underwood’s gift to the Russian president during an episode of House of Cards. The surfboards, he explains, are part of a laborious project in which he plans to craft one for each Beatles album. So far, he’s devoted only three of the 20 years he anticipates the project will take. But even as he tells us this, Vu-Daniel seems more preoccupied with wiping the residual charcoal from his morning’s work off his hands and onto his jeans.
The three of us slowly make our way to the far end of the studio as the professor reminisces on how he came to Columbia to found the Center 21 years ago. When I ask him how he felt about starting a program with $6 million in funding, he says, “I was young back then; I didn’t know any better.” He walks us through the construction of the Center, starting from the very beginning when there was nothing here—on the third floor of Dodge Hall—but wiring and dirt. Appropriately, he reaches the end of his account as we reach a print created by none other than Nicola López—one of Vu-Daniel’s first students back in 1996, and, as of this academic year, a professor in the visual arts department at Columbia.
The impact he’s made on his students seems evident to me by the fact that López has returned to Columbia and, as I later discover when talking to López, how her teaching reinforces Vu-Daniel’s encouragement to question the boundaries of printmaking; Vu-Daniel, however, struggles to come up with anecdotes or even names of students he thinks he’s inspired. It’s not until I mention activism that Vu-Daniel, smiling, brings up Emma Sulkowicz, who graduated from Columbia College in 2015 and was famous for her endurance performance art piece, Carry That Weight. But even as he tells me about her, he talks about how she inspired him. “She made me realize … how important it is to stand up for something you believe in,” he tells me. “And that art speaks. Art is very powerful.”
He is just as excited when I ask him about Beau Willimon, creator of the renowned TV show House of Cards, 84th Academy Award nominee for “Best Adapted Screenplay,” former illustrator for Columbia Daily Spectator, and a former student of Vu-Daniel’s. In fact, Vu-Daniel is the subject of one of Willimon’s on-going projects: a screenplay he started shortly after he graduated from Columbia and is yet to complete.
I was floored when I found this out. What must that be like? Tell me it’s the coolest thing ever! How would one feel? How do you feel?
“Very awkward,” he replies.
But if there’s anything I realize during our interview, it’s that Vu-Daniel is generous. He offered Zhang the perfect photo even if it meant potentially compromising the Dufa 7 and he offered Willimon the perfect source of inspiration even if it meant sacrificing his own privacy.
“Napalm Morning,” the working title of Willimon’s screenplay, is also the title of one of Vu-Daniel’s earlier series of prints. Vu-Daniel himself was born in 1963 in Saigon, Vietnam, and his Vietnamese heritage is reflected in most of his early prints. The memory off of which Willimon’s screenplay is based is the moment in which 10-year-old Vu-Daniel met an American GI who taught him how to surf on a beach in Da Nang, Vietnam. Soon enough, Vu-Daniel had established his own little business where he would store the GI’s surfboards in his backyard and shuttle them from his house to the beach.
When I ask about the plot of Willimon’s screenplay, Vu-Daniel responds with nothing more than random vignettes of his childhood, but these stories make me wonder how many times he’s been asked to tell his whole life narrative.
Vu-Daniel was also approached by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for their 2017 PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War.” He told the two directors his story about surfing in Da Nang with the GI, as well as another story about his experience during the Tet Offensive of 1968; about becoming accustomed to the constant noise of bombing, the touch and feel of grenades, the process of building mock tiger traps.
Vu-Daniel’s interview was ultimately cut out of the documentary on the basis that there wasn’t enough physical evidence to support his account. He remains sympathetic toward the filmmakers: He doesn’t need his stories in the documentary because he knew he “saw it all.” “I saw just about everything I needed to see to describe what the war was about,” he says.
Talking to Vu-Daniel brings me back to the familiar landscape of my home, Vietnam: the hot and humid air, the grime, the endearing symphony of motorbikes, street vendors, fruit flies, impatient xe ôm drivers and gossipy ladies serving phở.
So when Vu-Daniel describes his first view of American land in 1973—the dry, reddish, rocky terrain of El Paso, Texas—I understand why he calls it “an alien world.”
It’s hard for me to not read into how often Vu-Daniel brings up the idea of an apocalyptic, dystopian, nightmarish parallel universe. We cycle through some of his favorite cultural artifacts: the original “Blade Runner” (he has little to say about the 2017 sequel), Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novels, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
He pauses, though, and adds, “I don’t want to come off as some doomsday person.” I reassure him that he’s surprisingly chipper for someone who spends so much time thinking about the end of the world.
Indeed, the idea of man vs. machine and losing control of our rapidly advancing technology is one that haunts Vu-Daniel. He admits he’s already losing the battle.
Vu-Daniel recalls a time in which he could memorize up to 20 phone numbers. Now he can barely remember his own. He shakes his head and declares, “I’m brain-dead because of my damn phone!” He’s a Pink Floyd aficionado, and had I known more about “Dark Side of the Moon” during the interview, I would’ve called it “Brain Damage.”
It comes as no shocker that Vu-Daniel prefers listening to music on vinyl. In fact, he claims to scour the bountiful landscape of eBay every night in search of record albums from his youth. His most recent purchases—“recent” being literally the night before our conversation—include albums from Tom Petty and Lou Reed. It’s the compression of music into digital files, a process in which a song loses much of its depth, that drives Vu-Daniel mad. “I have so many different types of headsets because I’m always searching for that perfect one that I can hear everything with,” he says remorsefully. “And I don’t think it’s possible.”
His feeling of disconnection, of everything being new or different, comes through when Vu-Daniel tells me about his last visit to Vietnam. The sights of Ha Long Bay littered with empty Coca-Cola bottles and candy wrappers especially angered him.
“We’re killing this fucking planet,” he says.
Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irma in Florida, and Hurricane Ophelia along the British coast serve to demonstrate that chaos is the new norm, according to Vu-Daniel. Yet despite this, he remains determined to help better the future. Just a week before our interview, he emailed Jeff Bezos to suggest that the CEO of Amazon could send drones carrying medical supplies and water purifying kits to Puerto Rico.
I glance back at the surfboards. Vu-Daniel’s art is unquestionably autobiographical, and his favorite series of prints happens to also be his most personal. “Flatland” consists of 102 images—each correlating to a minute of the 9/11 attack—from 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit, to 10:28 a.m., when the North Tower fully collapsed. Vu-Daniel lost his brother-in-law sometime during those 102 minutes.
If art is another form of storytelling, why am I still here questioning the artist when he has laid his entire story out for us in his creations? Why has he graciously put up with so many interviews in which he’s been asked to relive, yet again, some of his most painful memories?
“I think, as artists, it’s your responsibility to say something. You know, if you see something, say something,” he tells me. “Sounds like a cliché but it’s what makes us alive, and me, it’s what keeps me up at night, and it’s the same thing that makes me excited to run into my studio and do something.”
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