Vàng mã, votive paper, is a longstanding tradition in Vietnam originate from ancient China. The living burns votive offerings in firm beliefs that turn into usable objects in the dead’s world. In that way, they continue to care for their deceased beloved (and in return receive their blessings). In that way, they nourish and substantiate the faith in an afterlife, in eternality. In that way, votive papers are the link between life and death. 

Shirts and trousers for all occasions, a summer hat, an umbrella, a guitar, an airplane, shoes for all occasions, dolls, a two-floor house, a mobile phone, a computer. The world of the dead seems merry. Does it not seem sunnier than that of the living? Objects of this photographic study are comical and fascinating by their own rights. 

Joseph Gobin photographed votive items on blank, clinically white background. He used direct and harsh lighting, as if leaving no space for hiding. Camera angles are consistently straight down, as if capturing for archiving purposes. Objects are laid out lifelessly with no clear art direction when singular, or arranged at random when in groups. Their garish colors pop innocently. There is a certain naivete in the presentation. Are they (the offerors, the makers of these votive items, the items themselves) not aware of how arbitrary and how childish the items look?

This is supposed to be spiritual, severe, sacred.

The photographer did not point out that bittersweet irony. He examined and represented his “subjects” in a clinical, unforgiving, and matter-of-fact manner. No frame of reference is given. You do your job.

With “Vàng mã”, Joseph Gobin continues his admitted fascination with the notion of transition and of time. This series beckons and focuses our attention on a Vietnamese ritual of simulating life for the dead while unintentionally rendering the act itself comical. It could have been tempting to have photographed the votive offerings in a different background, more detailed, more theatrically staged. But the photographer’s choice was not usual. The result is sharp and gripping. Joseph is onto something.


Mai Huyền Chi




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