Vertigo and Verve at Crazy House

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Nestled atop a hillside in the mountainous highlands of Vietnam stands a hotel that makes concrete one architect’s wildest dreams. The organic tumble of plaster is reminiscent of the works of Gaudi, with dripping edges and rounded corners abounding. A model giraffe’s head peers down on the courtyard, wreathed by bougainvillea, while fairy lights trace out giant spider webs in the leafy canopy. This is Crazy House.

Our stay at Crazy House – or Hang Nga Villa, as it is also known – was crazy from the hour we arrived; we knocked on the door at 5am, fresh off a night bus. As we entered the gates we could have been forgiven for thinking that we had lapsed back into the dream world, because the looming facades of the surrounding buildings were on a surreal tilt. Plaster vines radiate out from the high peak of the central building, twining themselves into dizzying bridges and collecting mosaic turrets as they ramble downwards. These perspective-denying angles are coupled with the kinds of stairs that would give an OSH inspector a heart attack, as we soon found out as we were taken for a tour of our accommodation.

The ten rooms at Crazy House are all themed to particular animals, with names like ‘The Bear Room’, ‘The Pheasant Room’ and ‘The Kangaroo Room’ apt descriptors. The latter boasts a life sized kangaroo sculpture, complete with glowing red eyes and a fireplace in its pouch. Thankfully the marsupial was unavailable, thus sparing us from Australian-inspired nightmares. Instead, the Ant Room was to be our abode for the night. Room is something of a misnomer, as the suite consists of three parts: bedroom, bathroom and a living area, complete with an ant shaped fireplace. This was not just a place to stay, but a place to really experience.

Crazy House is the brainchild of Vietnamese architect Dr. Dang Viet Nga. After studying architecture in Moscow, she returned home to work for the Vietnamese government for many years before embarking on her own personal project. Started in 1990, the Crazy House is constantly evolving. The buildings are based off paintings, which are then transformed into reality by a team of local craftsmen. The project continues to have environmental concerns as a central theme, as Dr Dang Viet Nga explains: ‘with the voice of architecture I wish to lead men to come back to nature.’ At Crazy House, human habitats and natural shapes combine to create a new vision of architecture that pays close attention to organic detail, whilst setting no limits for the imagination.

Crazy House opens as a tourist attraction during the day, but daylight only reveals half the picture. By night the layered fairy lights and a symphony of frogs combine to create an other-worldly spectacle in the gardens. The chirping amphibians are a far cry from the bustling traffic noise of Ho Chi Minh City, which is just a day’s drive away, but their song lingers longer in the memory. Call me crazy, but that’s just the way I like it.

Crazy House (Hang Nga Villa) Da Lat City, Vietnam. Open Mon-Fri. www.crazyhouse.vn

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A Family Portrait

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There is nothing like a family gathering to remind you of who you are and where you come from. If Christmas dinner with the second cousins didn’t do the trick this year, there is always an interactive portraiture exhibition at the Ashburton Art Gallery that can help you to see yourself in a new light. Classic portraits by Rita Angus and Frances Hodgkins sit alongside photographs of All Black’s Supporters, while easels around the gallery encourage visitors to try their own hand at the artform. I took my visiting family to check it out, and while drawing your nearest and dearest may not be the best course of action if you are aiming to preserve civil relationships, we gave it a go and ended up seeing a new side of each other.

Mum’s favourite artwork was a sculpture of a man and his dog. This may or may not have been a symptom of canine withdrawal, as she left her own pup in Auckland this Christmas and has had to do make do with skype calls home rather than having a dog on the end of her bed.

Dad preferred Nigel Brown’s lemon tree, while the rest of my cohort made a beeline for the easels. The exhibition offered my man a moment away from the in-laws to try his hand at self-portraiture. Having not sketched since third form art class, the results were impressive. He was not quite game enough to try sketching me or mum however, and decided it was safest to try the light box for drawing silhouettes. Sister two’s hat looked very stylish in profile, and there was less chance of offending her by drawing a wonky nose or forgetting to add eyebrows. (Dad’s abstract version of mum did not go down so well, largely as a result of this omission).

The artworks on display would not look out of place in a city gallery, but the best thing about the exhibition was the range of questions that accompanied the portraits, encouraging the audience to think about what their own version might look like. I never thought I would be answering questions such as ‘What am I wearing’ with ‘gumboots,’ so living in Mid Canterbury has definitely changed the version of me that would be seen in a portrait.

These days I would be with my dog, in my library, with the mountains visible in the background through the window, and there would be a bunch of home grown flowers on the side table, just for good measure. In Auckland I would have chosen a beach setting, with my family in the painting. Gumboots would definitely have been out, and the only thing in a vase would have been a sprig of the impossibly hardy rosemary from under the front steps. Moving south means I have swapped beaches for a beetroot patch and mum and dad for a mutt, but I am proud to show my family this new South Island version of their daughter, in full portrait.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Rainbow Panorama

They say there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but I got lost before I could find out if this was true. Wandering through a room of green and blue mist at the ARoS museum in Århus, I was more concerned with finding the exit than discovering a leprechaun’s secrets.

Olafur Eliasson’s rainbow’s exhibition is a whole body experience. Here the spectator takes centre stage, becoming a part of the work and engaging multiple senses. ‘Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas’ is a misty room, lit from above by red, green and blue lights. Upon entering the space one’s eyes are filled with the colour that permeates the mist and cease to be useful navigating tools. Totally immersed in colour, the concepts of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ take on a much more intense character than when viewed in everyday life and visitors must rely on sound and touch to orientate themselves in a world devoid of spatial cues.

Space is also important in ‘The Inverted Panorama House’, a circular screen with a dynamic combination of coloured lights, reflections and shadows projected onto the walls. The interior of the screen is like a kaleidoscope, with refractions and reflections spinning past each other. From the outside the silhouettes of those inside become past of the installation, with every nod of the head and wave of the hand projected as a diorama for the audience to scrutinise. This interaction between viewer and work is typical for the Icelandic artist, whose art is often fluid and focuses on perception. Here he explores J. W. von Goethe’s ideas about the phenomenological qualities of colour, with both the colour physically present and the after image this colour leaves on the eye being important parts of the artwork.

With the installation ‘Beauty’ Eliasson brings a natural phenomenon from the realm of science into the gallery yet retains many of the scientific concepts relating to refraction. Lamps illuminate a misty wall of rain in a darkened room, sending rainbows shimmering across the surface. They shift and disappear depending on the viewer’s vantage point, recreating the fleeting nature of a rainbow during a storm.

Less fleeting is ARoS’s famous Perspex rooftop installation, ‘Your Rainbow Panorama’. Visitors stroll through the circular structure, viewing the city through tinted panes and becoming part of the installation themselves as those below observe their silhouettes. Opened in May 2011, the rainbow structure is a striking addition to Århus’s skyline. It is also one of the few places in the world where one can orientate oneself according to colour. Instead of describing an apartment as lying in the west of the city, ‘the yellow direction’ also serves as a geographical descriptor.

I’m not sure about the gold, but they do say a picture is worth a thousand words. With five floors of galleries and an impressive collection of works by Danish and international artists, ARoS gallery is well worth a visit.

Entry to the gallery costs $NZ25 and, as I eventually discovered, the exit to ‘Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas’ is located in the red zone.