Painter and Physicist: Interview with Nguyen Dinh Dang

RIKEN Community News letter interviews Nguyen Dinh Dang

No 8, November 2, 2012

Reflection
(oil on canvas, 162 x 194 cm)

You recently exhibited a painting at a prestigious exhibit in Japan. How did you get involved? Are there other foreigners in the group?

Dang: This was the 48th annual exhibition of the Subject Art Association (主体美術協会), one of some 30 leading art associations in Japan. It has around 150 members. I am the only foreign member. In 2003 I started to participate in the annual exhibitions, which are held on 1-16 September at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno park. In 2005 I was elected to be a member.

The painting you exhibited, called Reflection, seems to be a world in a mirror. Can you describe the painting and what you were trying to express?

Dang: “Reflection” means both the production of an image in a mirror and a thought. In the painting I made the world in the mirror appear as the “real” world, whereas the world in front of it, our world, becomes its inverted image, the “imaginary” world. What is reality? Is it “merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” as Einstein said? This eventually leads to the famous question by Pontius Pilate: “Quid est veritas?” which has been unresolved for almost two thousand years.

You also see in this painting a woman holding a candle and looking into the mirror, into her mind, and at us the viewers as well. Surrounding her is darkness where the bats are flying. “Be a lamp unto yourself” is what the Buddha said when he was asked by his disciples who would be their teacher after he passed away.

As a general question, I think that as a physicist, you are on a path of discovery. What is it that you are trying to discover, and what is your motivation?

Dang: For me, the highest motivation is the curiosity, to reach the noblest joy – the joy of understanding, as Leonardo da Vinci once said.

And then, as an artist, I think you are trying to express something. Can you describe what you are trying to express? Is there also an element of discovery to that?

Dang: Art expresses merely a mood. I paint by intuition, when I get a persistent idea. In the process of painting I am often surprised by the unlimited power of art. To me, a finished painting is like a living thing, which radiates by itself. Viewers, depending on their own cultural and educational backgrounds, experiences in life, and personality, find their own interpretations when looking at a single painting. I think the important thing for viewers is not so much to know what the artist thinks or means, but rather how this painting impresses them, and whether it reveals anything to their soul.

Has your pursuit of art helped to give you insights related to science, directly or indirectly?

Dang: Sure. When I paint I completely forget about physics and vice versa. This helps release a lot of stress and keeps my mind clear.

If you were forced to make a choice between a career in physics or painting, and you could have an income either way, which would you pursue?

Dang: I would still choose both. I would have a double income!

What motivated you to become a scientist? Is there any episode from your childhood, for example, that you can remember?

Dang: Curiosity. I was good in maths and physics at school. In my school years, I usually finished the maths programs of the next year during the three months of my summer vacation, and I enjoyed reading the series of books entitled Physics for Entertainment by Yakov Perelman.

You are originally from Vietnam and have lived in Japan for a long time. What brought you to Japan, and what brought you to RIKEN?

Dang: I first came to Japan 18 years ago as a Nishina Memorial fellow at the Institute for Nuclear Study. After that, I was asked by Professor Akito Arima, who was the president at that time, to come to RIKEN to work with him on the problem of Gamow-Teller resonance. Since then I have been working at RIKEN (except for a period of 10 months in 1998, when I was a senior visiting scientist of JSPS at Saitama University). I collaborated with Prof.  Arima for 9 years, even after he left RIKEN to become the Minister of Education and Science, and then director of the Japan Science Foundation. I published more than 30 papers with him.

How have you found working as a researcher in RIKEN?

Dang: This is the best place that I have ever been in my entire career as a researcher.

See the Vietnamese translation of this article. 

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