The Current Vietnamese Contemporary Art
Since the 1950s, installation and performance are two branches of contemporary art that have become important facets of mainstream art. Vietnam’s modern artists, forever innovators, are at the forefront of expanding installation and performance art into new realms.
First appearing in Vietnam in the early 1990’s, several small installations and performance shows first appeared at an out-of-the-way corner of Buoi Street, Hanoi, at the stilt house of painter Nguyen Minh Duc. For many years, this was where new art exhibitions, seminars, and meetings of the contemporary art community took place. The stilt house quickly became known as a generator for the country’s fledgling contemporary art scene.
Shortly thereafter, international cultural centers began to establish, further pushing the growth of modern art. In late 1991, the Center for French Language and Culture (Alliance Francaise) was founded and made its headquarters near Hanoi University of Art, No. 42 Yet Kieu Street. The British Council came next, first operating in early 1993, while the Goethe Institute was established by Germany in early 1997. In the following years, many contemporary art programs of both Vietnamese and foreign artists have been produced and presented at these cultural centers.
At the beginning of 2001, the Hanoi Contemporary Art Center was founded under the joint-sponsorship of the Vietnam Association of Art and the Ford Foundation. In less than three years, the center had taken a center role in contributing to domestic exhibitions, foreign relations, and in supporting student experimental art projects. The center’s arrival, along with Duc’s stilt house, has fostered a healthy environment for the growth of experiment art in Hanoi and in Vietnam.
The year 2003 marked a big step in the progress of modern are with the birth of L’Espace from former Alliance Francaise, headquartered at No.24 Trang Tien Street, Hanoi. L’Espace, with its exhibition halls, small theater, and large library, is example of maximized foreign support of Vietnam modern art. In early 2004, the Goethe Institute moved to No.56 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Hanoi. The Goethe’s relocation was inaugurated with a very impressive and successful installation art show called “Green, Red, and Yellow”. Dozens of Vietnamese and foreign artists contributed to the show. Since mid-2004, the British Council in Hanoi has also supported a series of experimental art projects, bringing together many Vietnamese and British artists. One such production was the fashion show “Street Symphony”, which combined music, sound, visual images and light with modern fashion. The show was a success in Hanoi and later in the year toured at the Hue festivals. In the year 2005, contemporary art continued to spread across the nation’s galleries and studios. Though a relatively small movement, modern art in Vietnam increasingly attracts young artists. In the meantime, the general public has had the time to familiarize with the new art trend. In Hanoi, the newly created Ryllega Gallery at 1A Trang Tien Street has quickly become reliable space for experimental art, exposing the interested public to new art trends and artists. During the Hue festival, the New Space Art Gallery at No.7 Pham Ngu Lao Street opened a series of installation and performance art exhibitions and activities.
Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City, many small galleries and studios have supported some artists in realizing their art experiments. For example, A Little Blah Blah, Atelier Wonderful, Gallery Quynh, Green Space at the Art Museum, and Himiko Visual Saloon, are all spaces in HCMC that support modern art events. The upcoming Saigon Open City Center, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, has turned an old factory neat the Saigon River into a place for large scale installation and performance exhibitions.
In Hanoi, since early 2006, those interested in contemporary art have witnessed the appearance of the Viet Art Center at No. 42 Yet Kieu Street near Hanoi University of Art. This past July, there was a beautiful and inspiring installation exhibit called “Books”. From September until the end of October this year, the Viet Art Center is collaborating with the Center for Prehistoric South East Asia and the Hanoi University of Art to organize an exhibition of photos and documents about a Sapa ancient carved stone site. This result is a fusion of art an archaeological research.
Today the expansion of contemporary art continues. By the end of this year, Vietnam Red Space will be completed on the large site of world-renowned Anh Khanh’s studio on Hanoi. The space will be reserved for experimental art activities and exchange programs between Vietnamese and foreign artists. In addition, an artist residency program known as “Campus” has proven a popular stamping ground for Hanoi’s modern artists since its inception last year. Local artists come to collaborate with foreign resident artists, to experiment with each other in different artistic mediums, to participate in free English classes, or simply to gain the friendship and guidance of Marcus Mitchell, the program’s charming director.As developments flourish, modern art continues to expand in Vietnam, the impact of such through institutional support of the arts reverberated throughout Vietnam’s art world and, more broadly, for art enthusiasts everywhere.
VIET ART AT TURNING POINT
The Straits Times Singapore, January 2007 Arts Correspondent By Clara Chow
After the false start of the 1990s,Vietnam’s art is poised to take on a higher profile, despite rampant fakes and copying.
Soon after Karen Ong moved to Hanoi on a job posting in 2003, she was lured by a landscape with a blood red sky.
It was a US$1,200 painting title Ky Niem(Vietnamese for memory),by well-known Vietnamese artist Dao Hai Phong. She had spotted it in a little gallery wile wandering around Hanoi’s Old Quarter.Struck by its evocativeness, she had to buy it. Ms Ong, 30, a Singapore civil servant who returned home last year, recalls: ”In the middle of the painting, there is a lone house under a big, blooming tree. It made me think of home, my past and everything I left behind to start a new chapter in my life in Vietnam”. In a way, the Vietnamese art scene itself is also poised on the brink of a new chapter. Once touted as the next big thing in the 1990s, it has been keeping a lower profile in recent years.
At the peak of the vogue for Vietnam, you could barely duck into a gallery here without seeing works by Vietnamese artists and their distinctive ink and gouache or lacquer works.
One reason for the popularity of Vietnamese art when it emerged was the fact that many artists were highly skilled in techniques and influences left behind by the French colonists.
In 2003, a bumper crop of Vietnamese modern masterpieces were auctioned off at Sotheby’s here to record prices.Among them,Le Pho’s (1907-2002) painting Mother And Child sold for $283,200.Since then, the hype has died down somewhat.
Eclipsed by the fantastic boom of the Chinese and Indian contemporary art markets, Vietnamese art prices have increased at a relatively slower pace.Mr Mok Kim Chuan,Sotheby’s specialist in charge of South-east Asian painting here,says that – allowing for huge variations depending on artists,styles, media and sizes _ many contemporary Vietnamese art pieces fetch between US$5,000 (S$7,686)and US$12,000 on the block these days. This compares with the hundreds of thousands of dollars which paintings by comparable Chinese and Indian artists fetch.
Mr Jasdeep Sandhu,owner of Gajah Gallery in Hill Street, says prices for the Vietnamese artworks he deals in hover around the US$5,000 mark. He became interested in the country’s art 10 years ago,and still makes monthly trips there to “drink wine with my artists”.
But the Vietnamese art market hasn’t moved much in the last few years. Gallery owners and art observers Life! Spoke to agree that the lack of a proper arts infrastructure, such as a lack of good patrons of Vietnamese art and lack of government support for artists, is largely to blame. Also, certain cliches of Vietnamese art – the delicate, elongated women in Ao Dai and conical hats; breezy landscapes and exotic street scenes – have become so ubiquitous and popular with tourists and collectors that artists are loath to change a formula that works. Unfortunately, it has also contributed to the sense of déjà vu that now clings to many of the commercial galleries’ offerings.
Mr Sandhu puts it bluntly: “Younger artists are painting works similar to senior ones. They look like carbon copies, for about US$1,500. But you’re basically buying an artist who is very much influenced by another artist’s style. “It’s just a cheap way to cover space on the wall .The artistic culture is absent from these types of work.”
The matter is complicated by Vietnam’s in famous “cope houses”, where masterpieces by local and foreign artists alike can be duplicated. So rampant are these paintbrush-wielding copy-right-infringers that The New York Times’ South-east Asian correspondent, Seth Mydans, wrote on Sept 9,2001,about the cottage industry of fake Van Gogh’s, Picassos and Monet’s.
“It is possible, depending on the skill of the copier, to find a Mona Lisa looking as if she had just been tickled,”he observed wryly, adding that actual galleries were struggling to differentiate themselves.
Dr Eugene Tan, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Singapore, and a co-curator of the Singapore Biennale, feels that collectors are realizing that Vietnamese art had stopped engaging with international discussions and ideas.
He says: “It had become a market largely fuelled by tourists, and not by serious collectors. Censorship has certainly played a part in this, as Vietnamese artists stil face heavy censorship.”
He gives the example of the Saigon Open City exhibition an art biennale-like event, which was due to open last month, but has yet to be granted a permit.
Pretty women and graffiti
NEVERTHELESS, the climate surrounding Vietnamese art remains a vibrant, hopeful and exciting one.
This week, Sotheby’s Mr Mok visited Vietnam to soure for new artists to champion. Coincidentally, Ms Jazz Chong, owner of Ode To Art gallery in raffles City Shopping Centre, was travelling separately on the same flight with the same purpose. Ms Tran Thi Anh Vu, owner of Particular Art gallery in Vietnam’s capital Ho chi Minh City, says she sells between 10 and 15 artworks a month, mainly to Europeans, Americans,Hong Kongers and Singaporeans.
Ask her about young affordable Vietnamese artists in the market and she cites names like Hanoi’s Hoang Hai Anh, Tran Viet Phu,Doan Hoang Lam, and Ho Chi Minh’s Limkhim Katy. All of them are in the 30 to 35 age bracket and paint expressive oil works, priced in the region of US$1,000.
She adds that many artists branch out into installation, performance and graffiti, while focusing on social issues like Aids infection in their work.
“It is not completely true that it is all pretty women and landscapes,” she says. Vietnam’s experimental artists include Nguyen Minh Phuoc, who is fast gaining international notice for his works.
These include an art performance in which he bound himself in red cord and stood among packs of paper currency for the dead. In another performance, he collaborated with impoverished street porters, who sat in a circle and wrote their dreams and aspirations on the back of the person in front.
Nguyen, 34, tells Life! That his brand of experimental, spontaneous art is not easily accepted in conservative Vietnam. He also laments the lack of government support and institutional training for artists who choose to strike out away from the established, acade-my-taught styles.
In 2004, he co-funded and set up a non-profit gallery, Ryllega, with fellow artist Vu Huu Thuy, to nurture young artists and link them to the international art community.
So far, the gallery has produced art books, set up exchange programs and residencies, and even provided English training for its artists.
In short, it is helping to establish the kind of infrastructure needed to put the country’s art back into the spotlight.
Does this mean that Vietnamese art might soon fulfill its early promise? He says: “After much endeavor by the artist community and our collective responsibility, we now have some light.”
Vietnam’s Artists Try To Break Free Of Their ‘Velvet Prison’
By Jonathan Napack International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, JUNE 9, 2005
HO CHI MINH CITY ‘I saw an ambulance the other day,” the artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba said. “Stuck in traffic. Somebody was dying in there. But nobody wanted to move, they’re afraid of the police. Afraid of getting out of line. The question for Vietnam is: When will their sense of themselves, and their responsibility to society, be stronger than that fear?”
Nguyen-Hatsushiba represents a little-noticed revolution in Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City). The 37-year-old is part of an influx of artists, from overseas and from Hanoi, into Vietnam’s biggest, richest and most open city. This is challenging Hanoi’s cultural dominance as Vietnam takes its place among modernizing Asian nations.
One of the great drivers of the Saigon opening is the return of Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) like Nguyen-Hatsushiba. Easily Vietnam’s most internationally known contemporary artist – this month he will participate in his second Venice Biennale – Nguyen-Hatsushiba came to Saigon, where his father grew up, in 1996. He was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother, and raised in Texas from age 9. In the late 1990s, he focused on the ubiquitous Vietnamese cyclo, or trishaw. “It was about how cyclos relate to people,” he said. “Who survives, who doesn’t.”
Global attention came with some serendipitous failures at the 2001 Yokohama Triennial: “I wanted to create a museum of cyclos. But there wasn’t enough room. Then I had the idea of a performance in a water tank. But the insurance and regulations in Japan made that unfeasible. Then I thought, why not stage the performance in Vietnam and film it? So we shot the piece off Nha Trang, using local fishermen as actors.” The result, “Memorial Project Nha Trang,” featured cyclos resolutely pedaling across the seabed, a striking metaphor for struggle and survival.
For Venice this year, Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s contribution will be a “waterfield” of more than 20,000 Pepsi and Coca Cola bottles filled with water. The audience will be looking down into the space from five meters up, about 16 feet.
“I never really fit in” in America, said Dinh Q Le, another Viet Kieu artist in Saigon. Le was born in Ha Tien, near the Cambodian border. His family stayed after 1975, until the Khmer Rouge started attacking villages in their region. After a year in a Thai refugee camp, the family made its way to Simi Valley, California. Le was 11.
He studied at the University of California at Santa Barbara and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He came back to Vietnam in 1994. Inspired by his aunt, a weaver of grass mats, he began to “weave” photographs. His breakthrough came with “Mot Coi Di Ve,” in 1999, a huge quilt woven from thousands of discarded photographs. The title comes from a popular Vietnamese song, “Spending one’s life trying to return home.”
A year later, “From Vietnam to Hollywood” interwove images from the real Vietnam War with Hollywood war movies. Le then started “Texture of Memory,” in which portraits from Tuol Sleng (the infamous Khmer Rouge prison) were embroidered in white thread on rough white cotton (white is the color of mourning in Asia). Viewers were encouraged to touch the pieces so that over time, as they left behind the oils from their hands, there would be traces of the remembering process.
Despite many exhibitions overseas, Le has shown only informally in Vietnam. Artists in Vietnam still need permits to mount even innocuous exhibits. “I’m sorry,” said Le, “I refuse to let someone who knows nothing about art judge my work.”
Nevertheless defiance is hardly Le’s style, and mostly he feels optimistic. “You have to understand,” he said. “These people were fighting for 20 years. They had no idea how to run a country. So they move forward, they freak out, then they move forward again. But you also have in this society something that makes it distinct in Southeast Asia: a drive to improve yourself, to make something of your life.”
The performance artist Rich Streitmatter-Tran has a different story. Adopted by an American family, raised in Cape Cod, he spoke no Vietnamese when he first visited in 1992, but immediately took to it. “I was brought up as totally American,” he said. “I could have ended up in Bangkok or another city. But somehow I felt comfortable here.”
He was born in 1972 in Bien Hoa. “For some reason, never made clear, I was abandoned,” he said. He was adopted at eight months by what he described as a blue-collar American family. After high school, he served in the army, fighting in the first Gulf war. “I did odd jobs,” he said. “Then I enrolled at Massachusetts College of Art under the GI Bill.”
In 1998, he found his original family. “They were living in New Jersey, of all places,” he said. “My father had been an NVA officer. That’s when I started hyphenating my name.” But the mystery only deepened. “Funny thing is, I don’t look like my siblings,” he said. “Nobody’s clear on what happened. They can’t even agree where I was born.”
In late 2003, Streitmatter-Tran founded “Project One” with five collaborators – artists, fashion and graphic designers – on the model of Dumbtype in Japan. “We were concerned about the lack of serious art criticism here, the weakness of education,” he said. “We managed to organize a panel discussion at the art school. I led a workshop on video art. I thought, Wow, we are finally getting somewhere!” Then, in December, the police closed a performance by some Japanese artists. “We really had to assess how far we could go working within the system,” he said. He is now developing an underground space with some Viet Kieu from France.
“Hanoi is still the center for experimental art,” said Quynh Pham, a gallery owner and a Viet Kieu. “But momentum is shifting here.” There is a new nine-story building for the art school; an international biennial tentatively planned for December; even a trend of local property developers using art to lure the new yuppie class, like the Phu My Hung space in “Saigon South.”
“Saigon actually had a biennial” in 1962, said Sue Hajdu, director of the art space known as A Little Blah Blah. “But because it was a defeated city, it was not allowed to remember” its history.
What little international exchange existed was channeled through Hanoi. State patronage led to the comfortable stagnation that Miklos Haraszti, writing about Communist Hungary, memorably called the “Velvet Prison.”
“Hanoi is an institutional city,” said Nguyen Nhu Huy, an artist from Hanoi living in Saigon. “You can’t survive in the marketplace, only as a salaryman with the government.”
When Vietnam opened to tourism in the early 1990s, an art market of sorts developed, putting cash in artists’ hands but hindering real artistic development. Demand came not from serious collectors but from tourists or expatriates attracted to the superficial prettiness of painters from art schools still teaching 19th-century French practice.
When Quynh Pham opened Galerie Quynh in 2003, hers was the first gallery to represent artists, rather than just trading their work. Born in Danang and raised in San Diego, Pham works with just seven artists. One of them is the installation artist Hoang Duong Cam. “I moved to Saigon first of all because it’s easier to find a job,” Hoang said. “But I was also fed up with Hanoi. Too many dark, depressing memories. Whereas society here is fresh and new.
“As students, we were so angry. The professor had nothing to teach us. Painting like Impressionists? We listened to music instead, everything from Yanni to Nirvana. We hassled one professor with graffiti on his door: ‘Live Free or Die.”‘
The Internet was one way out. But until recently, connections were slow and access expensive and scarce. “We had no information about the outside,” Hoang said. “We had to go to foreigners’ houses to read books.” There was an art circle around Hanoi’s Salon Natasha, but it was “stuck in the early 20th-century avant-garde.”
Those inside this “velvet prison” are not taking this lying down. Nguyen-Hatsushiba is a particular target, both for his international success and his mixed ethnic background. A lecturer at the Hanoi Academy of Art attacked him for using Vietnam as “a marketing strategy.” The lecturer argued passionately that Vietnamese art was excluded from international exhibitions like Documenta in Kassel, Germany, not because of its own weakness but due to inferior “marketing.”
Most Vietnamese, however, welcome the presence of Viet Kieu in the art scene. The complaints “are just jealousy,” Hoang said. “I love the Viet Kieu. They don’t care. They don’t think, I’m Vietnamese, so I must do things a certain way.” There’s a feeling that, just as Shanghai captured China’s momentum, Saigon – another colonial trading city – is capturing Vietnam’s.
“Hanoi is a real pretty town,” said Le. “They have a lot of artists there. Some of them are even pretty avant-garde. But real life in this country is happening here. This is where the next Vietnam is being created.”
LAYERS OF MEANING
From Asian Art News 2005 By Bradford Edwards
Since the mid-1990s, Vietnamese artist have become much less tentative about experimenting so that the media in which artists work have broadened considerably. No longer is a painter simply a painter but may also be a sculptor or an installation artist. This is true in the case of Nguyen Quang Huy-one of the most promising artists of his generation-whose paintings, lacquerware, installation, and video work give him a multi-faceted career.
Every artist has their own pattern of development, their own story. Sometimes their entrance into the art community can be immediate and spectacular and sometimes it is initially more subtle, but eventually they exert a strong presence. While the early story of Vietnamese artist Nguyen Quang Huy could be considered fairly typical, his development into an unusual and visionary artist is not. After a relatively low-key emergence from art school, he is now one of the most vital and influential contemporary artist working today in Vietnam.
Born in 1972, in Ha Tay, a small city outside of Hanoi, Huy migrated to the capital at 18 to further his education. In 1996, he graduated from Hanoi Fine Arts University, which is widely acknowledged as the most influential art education institution in Vietnam. At the time, he was seen as one of the most promising artists of his generation and was loosely grouped with Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Van Cuong. Huy was then viewed as the more subdued and enigmatic of the three painters, who become close friends while at art school.
His early work was not as easily read as most of his contemporaries. Often working with a stylized outline of a seated Buddha-like figure he would also explore that theme with different, rounded biomor-phic shapes. The curvaceous forms would look like something that may be labeled organic or perhaps even otherworldly. Simplistic and flat they were essentially graphic in rendering, yet with the brushwork highlighted-warm and inviting, not distanced or formal.
Within these compositions Huy would weave or layer a personalized script. At first glace it resemble handwriting, but when further examined it seemed to make no sense; it resemble neither Vietnamese nor English nor any other language for that matter. Not only were the dominant shapes he used usually mystifying, but the “writing” was indecipherable as well. Here was the artist as cipher. What was he saying? What was he trying to say?
Doing most of his early work with gouache on do paper (thin, but strong hand-made rice paper) he kept the scale consistent (50 x70 cm). The range of colors was also restricted to earthy reds, gray blues, burn oranges, and flat blacks. This method encouraged a lot of experimentation and immediacy because the materials are inexpensive and plentiful.
Later he also made some beautiful crafted lacquerware pieces-the compositions translating well into this very time-intensive and laborious media (in many ways it requires the opposite sensibilities of gouache on do paper.) Lacquer is executed in many steps that can take several weeks of preparation before laying down the imagery. Unlike the more immediately gratifying (wet drawing) style of gouache, lacquer artwork has to be planned and coaxed toward completion.
By early 2002, Huy began painting a handful of oils on rough Russian burlap “head portrait.” Beginning without a central plan or cohesive concept he started painting formal full frontal portraits of women’s faces, from just below the neckline. Employing a simple and direct approach, he found that there was a potential larger series with this idea. Now he has completed nearly 100 portraits that are all the same size (100 cm square) and material.
The subjects of his portraits are not specific people, except for three deeply moving portraits of his grandmother, but instead range from idealized Vietnamese faces to the more prosaic. Huy has used many different painting techniques in portraying these head. His main method is to apply a photographic feel to the imagery, not photorealistic in realization, but rather through constructing a more ghostly image, or “remembered photo” of the subject.
His personal writing, which he insists follows no system or rules, can be seen in some of the portraits. The “text” can be seen in a swirling circular shape, applied in a background wallpaper manner or even written directly over the subject’s face. This can lend a mysterious and totemic quality to the images as if they have a secret ritualistic function to them.
Huy liberally borrows from the palette of art history and his references can sometimes be too obvious. It is not always clear if this is done overtly and playfully or is realized more unconsciously. One can see direct evidence of exposure to the work of such artists as Reneù Magritte,Giorgio de Chirico, and Gerhard Richter in some of the compositions. When these cues read too blatantly, it weakens the power of the painting.
There is a consistent economy of paint applied while the touch is light and masterful. A rough and warm texture dominates by using the burlap and he often leaves areas unpainted revealing the dirt colored nappy canvas. There is a wide swing from rather straight portraiture to sometimes obscuring the subject’s face altogether.
The portraits are often blurry or smudged and can appear out of focus. He is able to render not only a suggestion of photographic imagery but at times also implies a frozen frame of a recorded video image. Huy somehow achieves a believable depth to these portraits without utilizing the conventional rendering methods of the three-dimensional. Currently he is working on much larger canvases of this same head series (200 x 200 cm).
At a recent exhibition at the Goethe Institute, in Hanoi, he displayed a grid of 30 paintings on one wall, each portrait being one-meter square. In this manner the power and focus of this series can best be seen. Huy maintains the proportions and composition an the canvases consistent and they start to make more sense when viewed as a group. There is obviously a committed method at work, yet, at the same time, an equally evident desire to explore and to take risks. He seems to want to strike a balance between control and accident in his painting process by pushing the style of his imagery while remaining firmly within the same format.
It is not a surprise that Huy has usually been using performance, installation, and especially video as means of expression. In fact, his work in these areas has paralleled his portrait series and there has been an apparent blending between these disciplines. He insists that the painting and installation/video work naturally complement each other. There have been several workshop in recent years in Hanoi that have facilitated free experimentation in these art forms, up until recently unfamiliar to most Vietnamese artists. Huy, in particular, has enthusiastically responded to expressing himself through the new media. He says that it broadens his palette, that there are many ideas of his which are not very effectively translated into traditional painting.
A video installation, Re, Yellow, Green (2003) show at the Goethe Institute, in Hanoi, was a reflection of moments recalled from dreams o his youth and present day cultural life. Using a two-hour loop of video projection on tree separate layers of mosquito netting he relied on memories from his early childhood. One layer portrayed a dancing figure from a music box, twirling endlessly. Another layer held an image of a motionless man sleeping on his side while a third layer had a stream of current street-scene footage. Never betraying a direct meaning, the installation was meant to be suggestive of mixing memory with ongoing reality, which then, of course, become future memory.
Another installation incorporating video, memory of memory, was shown at Nha San, Hanoi’s first privately run alternative space. In three clear glass bowls, small television sets were placed ad filled with water ( much like a fish bowl). There was the implication of water “transferring” memory. One monitor showed Huy in front of the a Buddhist Pagoda praying to the viewer, another had a shot of a street scene in monitor, and the last one was a “taking head” of a schoolgirl. Related to the previous piece he further probed methods of displaying the inherently hazy and inexact experience of memory.
Huy’s most recent performance, Anvil, also took place at the Goethe Institute and was simple in execution and concept. Dressed casually in street clothes, Huy wrapped his entire body tightly with a common manila rope. Then using a metal kitchen knife he proceeded to attempt to cut and hack himself free by striking the rope on top of an iron anvil. The exercise was futile and impossible-that was the point. He was publicly acting out his own frustration with expressing himself-the difficulty of working, of making something good and worthwhile.
When quizzed about where his allegiances lie, Nguyen Quang Huy insists that he is primarily a painter. He explains that the performances and installation inform his art in general, but does not want to be restricted by any specific method of working. On the subject of the meaning behind his work, he is much less exact. This is probably best because the real value of his artwork rests with the viewer’s interpretation of his idiosyncratic but stimulating image making.
Vietnam Today’s Yesterday
From Marx to Market
Background article at exhibition project of the East West Foundation[EWF] early 2004 Octaaf Roefs
After ten years of special attention to modern painting in Vietnam the East West Foundation [EWF] presents from January 2004 in locations in Leiden, Kopenhagen and Amsterdam hundred paintings by ten Vietnamese artists, seven from Hanoi, two from Saigon and one from the old royal city Hue. The youngest one is thirty, the oldest sixty three. In addition to spread in age the EWF was looking for and found in them quality, an own accent as well as diversity. Particularly the younger ones among them who dissociate them- selves from the Vietnamese gallery circuit visibly deep into the own and the Vietnamese identity, make one curious about past and future developments. What happened after the mutilation of Fine Art under Marxist influence and what is the market bringing about in a country where averse to both influences the talent is growing profusely?
What could, against the background of this selection from Leiden, be done better than reflect briefly what the UNESCO with others collected about the history of modern painting in Vietnam !). Among and after this follow some remarks about:
– French, Russian and Chinese influences,
– the meanwhile arisen situation in the Vietnamese Fine Art scene,
– a still recognizable difference in the art of North- and South-Vietnam,
– the artistic damage inflicted in 1998 by auction houses in Singapore.
– the position and the possible role of Vietnamese painting in East-Asia
Stirring historic development
Under the communist regime which after the reform resolution Doi Moi – and after the fall of the Soviet Union as well as the détente in China by degrees permits more liberties it lasts until the nineties before young painters, the first ones the ‘Gang of Five’ wrest themselves from the People’s Realism that had become sacrosanct. Tran Luong [born ‘63], one of the selected artists, was a member of this ‘gang’. It orientated itself worldwide to developments in modern art. This has been proceeded by a stirring development about which here the following:
In the first forty years of the last century educated citizens are looking disdainfully to the traditional Vietnamese culture. They have picked up western ideals. They want to liberate themselves not only from the French colonialism but also from the own tradition.
In ‘Tradition and Acculturation’ 2) Nguyen Quang points to the lack of a definite conception with regard to the Indochinese region, which has been influenced from the west by India and finally by France, the western colonist, that between 1861 and 1884 had taken possession of the country. In the Fifties followed a lively association with the Soviet Union where quite a lot of Vietnamese continued their study and/or went to exhibit. Actually painting in Vietnam had restricted itself to religious images. It had been no more than a decorative by-product of the much more important architecture. Ancient Buddhist, Taoïst and Confusian motives formed the subject. Too often, however Vietnamese art is seen as determined by Chinese rulers. When between 1861 and 1884 France colonized this already hundred years before China Buddhist country had lived under Chinese hegemony since the third century before X, a situation that lasted until in the tenth century and by which calligraphy, painting on silk, lacquer painting and the division in periods of ceramics followed Chinese developments. After the tenth century not any Chinese dynasty didn’t have an offspring that did not start a war against Vietnam. The influence lasted, for also at the royal court in Hue following the Chinese custom the pupil copied his master. Long, before the Chinese came there had been prehistoric culture that carries back into the bronze and the stone era. What comes from Vietnam is different from the art from other east Asian countries. ‘Vietnamese moderation, grace, simplicity and gentleness. Buddhist art, whose main features gentleness, has its own peculiar beauty quite different from Chinese, Japanese and Korean art which may at first view seem to be identical to it’ emphasizes Nguyen Quan. 3) certainly typically Vietnamese are already for ages the popular folk prints made in the villages Dong Ho and Hang Trong which spread to all sides.
Painters needed to make a building complete, are a part of the community. They are not looking for self expression, a need that only occurs under the influence of the French education and with this the rising individualism. Through this the roles of art and artists become different. The first acquaintance with contemporary western takes place when France transports its contribution to the world fair to Hanoi and exhibits it there, but it lasts until 1925, before the colonizer establishes in Hanoi an art academy for its kolonisator in Hanoi for the Indochinese part of the State.
State of ferment in the Thirties
In the generation born between 1905 and1925 lives a strong longing for change that finds expression in politics as well In the mentioned article ‘The Evolving Context of Contemporary Vietnamese Painting’, a contribution of Neil Jamieson from which much has been derived the development is sketched. Jamieson memorizes the establishment in 1925 of the Indochinese School of Fine Arts in Hanoi, an expansion of the secondary school system introduced by the French. He signalizes the discharging of the first student class at the same time as the founding in 1930 of the ‘Indochinese Communist Party [I.C.P.] and points to the origin between 1932 and 1939 of a by the West influenced individualistic poetry which qua form and content differs totally from the traditional. A same kind of occurs in short stories, novels, news papers and historic texts. Already soon four graduate painters from the first years, the ‘Four Masters’ obtain reputation: Nhai Tri, Nhi Lan, Tam Van and Tu Can. In the second half of the nineteenth century often stubborn resistance had been given to the colonizer, a resistance that was suppressed heavy and effectively. as a result in intellectual circles shame and despair rise. The traditional civilization has failed. In order to get equal to the colonizer new westerns means seem to be indispensable.
In the new Art Academy directed by Victor Tardieu, an able French painter, students receive and take full freedom. Although some of them choose for academism and precise realism – in fact this time is over – it is not advised. The nineteen century Western naturalism seems even more strange to the own tradition than the contemporary trends. Jeffrey Hantover writes: ‘Their own artistic traditions – – the Vietnamese eye – primed Vietnamese artists to feel an aesthetic kinship to Matisse and the Modernists, to understand what they were saying in their art. Vietnamese artists found soul mates in Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse, Klee, Kandinski and the youthful Picasso.’4). Students were encouraged by Tardieu to look around and to find inspiration in their own country. The painting on silk and the lacker technic lead to fascinating combinations of western modern education and materials from the own tradition. In twenty years the academy accepts yearly some ten percent of those who apply, from the 149 applicants 128 reach the finishing line. The graduation of the first painters takes place in a context of cultural fermentation and social change. Like the political pioneers and the makers of ‘New Poetry’ painters supply their own revolutionary fight with the tradition. Some believe in the capacity of art to reform and to improve society. We can see the Thirties as a period of collective reorientation, a quest for self respect and values in a modern world in which the traditional Vietnamese culture is detracted as shameful and unusable.
World War II
With the dawn of World War II in western Europe the French colonist and his leader Marshal Pétain come under German supervision and Vietnam is dominated by Japan. Meanwhile artistically the feeling gets root that individualism and reformation of the Vietnamese culture offer less satisfaction, are respectively less easy than one had thought in the beginning. At the end of 1940 France has surrendered to Germany. Japan is in control in Vietnam. Emphasis to discipline and dedication, to work, family and the native country further a movement to heroic historic themes from earlier era’s get attention and a new accent falls on the country. Vietnamese intellectuals change this conservative tendency to nationalistic direction. In 1945 the Indochinese School for Fine Arts closes its doors, 5) and 6). From the most talented – Van Nguyen , Nguyen Sang , Duong Bich Lien  and Bui Xuan , later became known as the ‘Four Pillars’ of Vietnamese painting, only Nguyen Sang has just in time finished his academy education. In September ‘45 Ho Chi Minh announces the formation of an independent state: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Polarisation in politics and painting
Just like the political development the art of painting is going off in two directions: Politically there is in 1940 on the one hand the overthrow of the French rule by Japan and four month after the liberation in France the Japanese surrender followed by the resumption of the French hegemony. In March ’45 the Japanese took over the power, but four months after the German defeat in France Japan surrendered. On the other hand in the North the resistance against the returned French becomes active. In painting a comparable polarization comes into being. The new in the North founded democratic republic establishes a new academy, but already before the lessons start in 1946 the resistance battle against the colonial domination starts. The Communist resistance is going to identify itself with the also in Russia imposed simple ‘people’s realisme’ to which stands the ‘decadent’ reaction with modernist tendencies, among which abstraction and influence of Picasso. Even if after 1945 for the communists the accent is moving in nineteen centuries realistic direction, it may be clear that from 1930 until 1954 under strong French influence a substantial amount of more or less modern paintings has been produced. The orientation makes a shift from France to the Soviet-Union countries where until the eighties Vietnamese go for study and exhibiting and get seasoned in the social realism. Nora Taylor dedicated her dissertation 6) to art and Vietnamese politics.
As aside I I touch the development during the Moaist regime in the People’s Republic of China, the country where already during the Southern Sung, 1127-1297 had reached an unequalled bloom. Many especially modern artists have already at the end of the thirties escaped from China running away from the occupying Japanese. Quite a lot of traditional ink painters flee in 1948 together with Chang Kai-Sheks army and followers to Taiwan, but the remaining traditionalists are maligned in their country as feudal and bourgeois. They disappear for good or for long in the tin mines or in the countryside. Russian oil painters with an old-fashioned academic education come as professors in Chinese art academies to learn the students how a painting in fact should been made. Sculptures made in Russian style appear in many Chinese cities. In the eighties the gradually less contested traditionalists get back their positions and their authority but, already soon they find modernistic younger ones facing them. Via Hong Kong comes a craze from America imitated paintings in the world which, however, have their own pop-art flavour. When the Vietnamese painter Ta Ty is exhibiting in 1946 in Hanoi his cubist art is cheered on one side with exaggerated wordings and maligned on the other. In order to involve students and intellectuals in the fight already in 1943 Truong Cinh, from 1941 until 1956 General Secretary of the’ Indochinese Communist Party’ [I.C.P.] raises a ‘cultural front’. Opposite to the patriotic resistance art he spots obscurantist decadent utterances of art. If an artist refuses to take side, than until in the nineties in spite of the reform of 1986 the obligate communist common places are dug out again. Bourgeois intellectuals from the city feel themselves beyond all praise and superior and too good for the ‘scientific, social realistic and revolutionary resistance art. Scientific signifies here without religious themes, mysticism and idealism and with assumption and popularizing of a Marxist perspective. A total dedication to the wishes and the needs of the people is demanded. Painting needs to educate, to appeal to workers, farmers and soldiers and to entice them to sacrifice themselves for the revolution. Painters who in the cities stay under French supervision and go ahead on the way of modern art renewal are baking expensive cookies’ for a nation that’s crying for ‘bread’. The border between propaganda and art is gone.
Painter, soldier with the soldiers
Whithin the scope of this article it leads too far and Jamieson passes it over but whether and how much and from when the communist resistance and the accompanying art theory get encouragement from Russia and later also from China is an interesting question. Although it never became rough or bloodthirsty much work of the gifted ‘Four pillars’ who don’t live anymore but who internationally are well known and for whose paintings is still paid the most money stems from the revolutionary war tradition. Except for Bui Xuan Phai who for health reasons only briefly [until 1950] stayed in the hills all were during a long time soldier with the soldiers. In the privacy of his home otherwise Bui Xuan Phay is painting secretly also abstract work which he keeps hidden in a box When in 1946 the fighting starts many artists leave their civilian world behind them and follow the rebellious forces to the hills. They devote their talent and energy to the resistance fight. In 1949 even an art academy is founded in Viet Bac situated in the zone occupied by the rebels, an academy where in 1955 more than twenty painters have been graduated: The Resistance Class. Ngoc Van healed from his French examples and his generation fellow Tran Van Can, two of the ‘Four Masters’ are director and teacher. Social Realism would help the warriors to fathom the objective laws which rule the universe and the society. Among these artists and those who remain behind in the cities and in South-Vietnam the gap is becoming wider and wider. Outstanding painters shaped in the ‘Indochinese School of Fine Arts’ like To Gnoc Van and Nguyen Tu Nguyen, one of the ‘Four Pillars’, take extraordinary efforts to reconciliate their artistic skill and temperament with the propagandistic needs of the revolution. According to Truong Chin impressionism, cubism and other modern tendencies are ‘gaudy mushrooms’ sprouting from the rotten wood of colonialism, unscientific, antirevolutionary’ applied at the service of colonialism, if not because of own interest. ‘A number of interlocking front organizations and clandestine newspapers introduce the ICP-position on art to a wide audience of intellectuals.’7)
North and South
After the defeat of the French in 1954 in Dien Bien Phu and the linking conference of Geneva Vietnam is divided along the seventeenth parallel in a communist northern and a non-communist southern part. The ‘Pillar’ Nguyen Sang born in the south stays in the north but the earlier mentioned ultra modern Ta Ty and others leave for Saigon and continue there the modern tradition in Vietnamese art. Since 1913 there was already a little academy in Gia Dinh at the edge of Saigon and in 1957 one is established in the old royal city Hue situated against the southern north frontier. Between 1955 and the year 1975 in which the north triumphs over the Americans who have their army in the south, this south is marked by openness for the western outside world, pictorial diversity, longing for experiment and subjective experiences among which fear for and horror of war. Also today it’s yet conspicuous that painters from Hanoi more than those from the former South-Vietnam are inclined to figurative portraying and a more abundant use of color. This has nothing to do with communist aftereffect as the mondial development is penetrating everywhere and everyone is making what he or she likes best. It is, however, typical that the in Saigon living Do Huang, who became known by his abstract monochrome ‘urban scapes’, explains he is needing sometimes to go figurative. He experiences this as a sort of creative lubrication. Through the years, anyway, the capital Hanoi has stayed thé cultural and intellectual centre, focus of the real unadulterated Vietnam. It is then with purely artistic motives that the EWF chose for seven painters from Hanoi, two from Saigon and one from Hue. With regard to abstraction Hantover quotes Nguyen Quan who ‘believes abstract art requires an interest in philosophy that few Vietnamese possess.’ ‘For Quan the absence of abstract art is more cultural than political: ‘We (Vietnamese don’t like philosophy. That’s why we don’t make abstract art’ 8)
Hanoi, 1954 until 1976
Back to the past: Because they wanted to cooperate towards a new society after 1954 other artists, writers and intellectuals come back to Hanoi. It’s true, they are longing for greater freedom and irritated by the continuing restrictions of utterances of art and of the intellectual discussion. Since the end of 1956 the role of the artist is intensively debated. Newspapers which publish critical contributions are canceled out. The pressure on intellectuals is increasing and some of them are even sent away for re-education. The Ministry of Culture raises ‘artist associations’ in order to strengthen the guidance of ‘the Party’. In this climate the communist Ministry of Culture establishes in 1957 at the same place as the old one a ‘new’ art academy where the new generation of painters and sculptors is educated. Ngoc Van had been killed just before the battle of Dien Bien Phoe but number two of the ‘Four Masters’, Tran Van Can, becomes rector after having sworn off his former enthusiasm for French examples and having broken his ties with the French establishment.
In order to accommodate to the increasing needs in 1958 in Hanoi was also founded the ‘Academy for Industrial Art with courses for specialization in commercial art, industrial design, lacquer painting, interior design architecture, ceramics and other applied techniques and skills which would bring art into the daily life of the masses. Already soon revolutionary heroism became thé theme of painting. In both academies the students are imparted they are fighters on the cultural battle field, a reality that in 1960 becomes literally true for some of them. At that time the North is mobilizing for the liberation of the south, which in 1975 is becoming a fact.
Aside 2. How will things go in our century? When we look back to the former one we see how art repeatedly had to be used as a propagandistic tool for a perused ideology of fanatics that had to be imposed. Whether these see themselves as a bearer of a torch [fascist] or as a servant of the proletariat, represented by ‘the party’, they all turn themselves against something new: individual expression of individual emotion, exploration of the unknown. That so many in aptitude gifted and integer artists in Vietnam let themselves been led is linked with an in every way respectable élan: ant colonialism. Of course a parallel is possible with the Stalinist period in Russia settling up modern decadence and the inclination during Hitler/Göbbels to settle with ‘Entartete Kunst’. ‘Let hundred flowers bloom’ said Mao and cut them off. Serving the people the artist should at first deliver what appeals to the people and what it gulps down and then prevent that it enjoys something else. Starting as an open tolerant revolutionary society adding the deed to the word Cuba in the meantime also developed itself to a nation in which the individual had been deprived of his word, his free expression of opinion. The fundamentalist part of the Islamic world that denies women from rights and incites to murder disbelievers, also doesn’t leave a place to the individual. With the fear for renovation and the need to keep the people under control a society is closing itself from the outside world and it suppressing evolutionary impulses, like in Nazi-Germany, Soviet-Russia and Maoistic China where the artist had to work in service of the people no art of significance was accomplished. In the new millennium a fateful sign is the devastation of old Buddhist art works in Afghanistan. In Syria the cartoonist Youssef Abdelke was expelled in the eighties; the press is not free and a certain kind of second rate art is visibly preferred by the regime.
Vietnam where the most talented artists conform themselves for a time to politics gives maybe the most painful image of artistic [self] mutilation. With the best intentions and driven by ideals the very best artists act in service of social revolution. As an example I mentioned Ngoc Van, one of the ‘Four Masters’, who becomes rector. All ‘Four Pillars’, Phai, Sang, Nguyem and Lien, serve the revolution but they have in common an independent attitude and a serious concern with art, to which they can stay loyal. Not one of these renown celebrates resists vehemently however therefore not becoming a victim of the political pression.
Vietnam reunited: bureaucracy, violence and bitter poverty
In 1976 Vietnam is formally reunited in the ‘Socialist Republic Vietnam’ The Americans are away. Hope for freedom and prosperity is alife but calm fat years don’t come. Yet apart from the human suffering left behind by America and the damage done to men and environment in the next four years the national income is hardly increasing and the incomes and available food per head of the population is shrinking considerably. In the central mountain area ethnically given nationalistic revolutions at and over the border with Cambodia break out. For years Vietnamese troops are fighting in Cambodia. Irritated by this the People’s Republic of China harasses the Vietnamese northern frontier. and causes a lot of damage.
With the shrinking of the already so low prosperity and the continuous fighting in the north in 1980 the mood of consensus arisen by the battle against the French didn’t ascend. Bureaucratic rules do not only smother the artistic creativity. The malaise also hitted the agriculture, the inland business and the business abroad and the very system of state enterprise. In paintings the portraying of the existing reality gradually makes room for images of the reality as this should be and after some time – on the way to utopia – should or shall be. Depending on class background artists are eligible for education*, rations, material and scarce facilities.
Doi Moi, 1986
From Marx to Market
Against 1979 the urging for change is felt. In the course of the eighties [perestrojka] also in Vietnam slight improvements are entering. The process of reform is reaching its top in ‘Doi Moi’ the reform policy at the end of 1986. Then slowly the beginning of a market for the plastic arts is turning up. The ‘Pillar’ Bui Xuan Phai is experiencing increasing attention, also from countries abroad. His collegue-Pillar Nguen like he had already in 1984 his first and only exhibition. In spite of the restriction of contacts of Vietnamese people with foreigners some trade and sale is developing. The fifth Politburo Resolution softens the strict ideological control to art in image or in written form. Also the nude form is allowed. Jamieson’s article is finishing with a song of praise at which some marginal comments are still suitable.
Two marginal notes at Jamieson’s optimism
Recognizing the new freedom for plastic artists with reference to writers and journalists Hantover is writing: ‘doi moi has its risks and keeping one’s pen straight its one’s pen straight its costs.’9)
1 Truong Tan, who directly after his graduation in 1989 is appointed as academy teacher has to let go his homosexuality secretly in his art. In the beginning of 1993 an EWF- board member is buying as the first one a painting of his hand with which he – it’s rolled – passes the customs. Truong Tan has showed his pastiche of Leonardo da Vinci’s the ‘Last Supper’ only to a couple of friends. In stead of Jesus and his twelve apostles thirteen imposant genitals [stante pene] were enjoying the meal. At an exhibition that Truong Tan is holding a year later in Hanoi together with an American colleague already during the opening the police is taking away all his works. Homosexuality stops at the border of Vietnam is the philosophy. Let us, by the way not forget that the same could have happened thirty years earlier in Europe and the United States. For years cooperation of the government is refused to catalogues of exhibitions in which Truong Tan is participating. In this period Truong Tan is usually showing his Buddistic work and his lacquer paintings in Hanoi, but this Vietnamese Keith Haring is reserving his male nudes and explicitly sexual performances for showing abroad, e.g. in France, where he lives for half the time.
2 That the artworks of Tran Luong, member of the former ‘Gang of Five’ and in the meantime widely appreciated, are per usual full of threatening eyes, which are peering around, this nasty memory is generally ignored. In spite of some sensitivity still existing in the West it is now clear that a politburo does not interfere in the art of painting.
When Jamieson wrote the end of his rosy colored contemplation the commercializing of cotemporary art in Vietnam was not yet as irritating and threatening, but nowadays it is hard to recognize the wood for the trees, the qualitative good art.
In 1993 and 1995 one meets in Hanoi and also in Saigon already artists, who in response to the impression the visitor showed work or the stack with serious work or the stack of more pleasing typical Asian paintings, loved by the average tourist. Damaging was in this connection the Vietnamhausse created in 1998 and nurtured from auction houses in Singapore. Through this influence in the following years not only the number of galleries doubled but also countries outside Vietnam got inundated by this ‘easy’ work. A Dutche example is Christie’s in 1999 in the Circustheater at Scheveningen. On the occasion of the performance of Miss Saigon the auction house presented an exhibition. Some old masters were shown, but the majority of the paintings were landscapes by dubious quality – some with people in it. The image that is given with this of nature and level of modern art from Vietnam is misleading and offensive.
The power of the market In the meantime, with exception of political protest, the government is not putting limits to what and how is pictured and portrayed. In its website even Truong Tan figures with the work that would have given him problems a decade ago. The only things that count are the proceeds in the market economy. One wonders what damaged/damages more the level of modern art in Vietnam: The communistic pressure of earlier days or the nowadays market terror. The result of this is that most serious artists, particularly the younger ones, do not want to offer their paintings to the numerous well frequented galleries. Their work can be found in Salon Natasha or in the Gallery of the American woman Susan Lecht, both located in Hanoi.
Generally some of these younger painters do receive invitations to exhibit abroad, resulting in a dismal division in the scenery of the contemporary Vietnamese world of art. After all they are the ones who reflect according their conscience. They discuss the substance about their identity, the origin and existence of the Vietnamese culture. Through plans by workshops and exhibitions with foreign artists in and outside Vietnam this group forms the plastic arts to an intellectual, philosophical process. Unfortunately many a talented promising young painter who chooses the difficult path looses courage and aims at easier successes. The art scene has to get over the confusion brought by the ‘hausse’. In1989 this confusion did not exist. At that time in Hong Kong ‘The Uncorked Soul’ appeared. The ghost came out of the bottle. For the first time young modern innovators got also attention.
In 1993 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Medical Committee Netherlands-Vietnam work of nine painters was exhibited by the Gate Foundation in the Amsterdam Museum of the Tropics.The EWF choose again Tran Luong. In the past ten years no equal follow up was given to this initiative.that relatively speaking attracted little attention. The EWF hopes to further together with ‘Vietnam Vandaag’ a sequel to the exhibi-tions held in Paris in 1997 and in 1999 in Berlin. By showing also work of older painters the Dutch selection differs. In Paris the Waalse Volksgemeenschap brings to the Centre Wallonie Bruxelles [accross from the Musée Pompidou] a very justified exposition toge-ther with an informative catalogue ‘Du fleuve rouge au mékong’10). Also Gap Vietnam 11) in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin justifies in various ways the high level of contemporary art of Vietnam. Selective names of the EWF are Nguyen Minh Thanh, Truong Tan. Nguyen Quang Huy took part in Berlin and Le Thua Tien in both. Generally speaking Vietnamese art is the focus of afficiciodes and collectors in the last ten years especially by organizers of expositions. The curricula of the chosen exhibitors witness wide spread and many sided activity. Le Thua Tien, Nguyen Minh Thanh, Tran Luong and Truong Tan presented apart from paintings also performance-art and installation at many sides.
Is there A role for Vietnamese modern art in Asia?
The present development is not one of particular countries, but global. Just the same it is enriching and useful to realize where a piece of art comes from, from which it stems, what its roots are. Art and the artist get closer to the observer. A dialogue is more fascinating than a nondescript monologue with a ‘nowhere man’ from ‘a nowhere land’. Artists from East Asia should look around and observe. Vietnam located in the centre of East-Asia and its modern art already fitting in the own tradition during three quarters of a century in an own manner has all chances.
It is Vietnams specific colonial history that makes it different from other Asian countries. As is said before modern fits elements of traditional Vietnamese art, so Jeffrey Hantover writes: Contemporary Vietnamese painting emerges out of a complex dialogue of present and past, a dialogue between the country’s cultural inheritance and the esthetic tradition of the West, a dialogue between art and history’12). Insofar the Vietnamese who in the thirties denied their origin were not right. Hopely the reader will forgive the imperfections in the following cursory flight over East-Asia:
After Japan in the Meiji period opened itself for the outside world, the West, for a considerable time one goes on manufacturing traditional scrolls, with the so called Ni Honga 13) it introduced even a renewal, one is for some time still busy making woodcuttings and for short the traditional ceramic is yet blooming. At the same time, however, briefly after 1900 Western literature and painting get attention. Many painters from China get to know it by deepening in Japan. In Shanghai, ‘the whore of the East’, an interesting development is taking place in the twenties and thirties. With the forming of the Axle Powers and the conquest of East-Asia this development in Japan stops but after World War ll westernizing goes on and quickly mutual influence comes into being, in design for example of Japan and Italy. Soon Japan is playing a strong role in the global architecture. Only in the Nihonga style an unexportable own genre, the tradition is yet living to some extend. In contrast with Vietnam the link between modern art and the own tradition seems to be weak.
Curious but not more than that is in the eighteen century the limited influence of Western painting delivered in China by the Jesuit father Castellioni who about 1750 painted western realistically in a Chinese technique 14). Since the Opium War and the disappearance of the Ching Dynasty in 1912 many young artists go into Western literature and painting. Shanghai harbours important painters influenced by the West. Afraid for the Japanese occupation in 1938 a number of them, the most important ones, is refuging for Singapore and founding there the Nanyang Academy, where beside Western modern art the Chinese Tradition as well as the new environment are getting much attention. In Chins itself where Tsjang Kai Chek and his followers were taking away the most and the most exclusive art treasures had left for Formosa [Taiwan] is under Mao’s regime no place for Western art. Only conservative Russians are allowed to deliver a tasteless contribution. At first in the late eighties and aside from the academies where they are educated young Chinese start to go into modern Western art with video and via internet. Often they are children of high Party-members, because it’s asking some money. Especially the American pop-art is catching on. In the nineties their number expanses. For some time Hong Kong is their first channel to the outside world, like Singapore already was since the start of W.W. II playing a role. These city states, however, are too small and too much directed to money than that they could play a meaningful cultural role in East Asia. Moreover China opened in the meantime so widely that one henceforth in more fields can communicate directly with the world outside. As stated the Vietnamese found points of contact for example in a still living tradition of prints. Would it have been possible for the Chinese to look back to their nearly abstract painting from the Song period [1127 – 12 76] a much more flowing transition would have been possible than the rough break with People’s Realism followed by an own interpretation of American pop art. Unfortunately the leap to the past, a leap to the meanwhile unknown, was too far and too deep. At a visit in 1994 to some academies one could notice that modern youngsters on the one hand handed in dutifully their ink- or oil paintings in the academy and on the other hand in a sort of guerrilla plodded for work to their own heart, as it is to find in ‘Chinese Art post 1989’ 14), an extensive overview catalogue that in 1989 has been published by Hannart Gallery in Hong Kong.15). The development in Taiwan and South-Korea is somehow comparable. Since the fifties they are existing on themselves and they draw from the Chinese respectively the Korean tradition, while on the other hand they already soon come in contact with the Western culture. In an often recognizable manner both nations deliver valuable contributions to modern art.
Movies don’t get attention in this text but it’s conspicuous that Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan in this field all four are yielding interesting productions. The level of Vietnamese films, especially documentaries, is also high but for an own fully fledged industry of play movies means, an infrastructure, are missing. Also Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia yet didn’t come up to that In my Eastasian little row are – beside the Philippines [less interesting] – missing Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Also about these some comments:
Indonesia has a very frequented academy in Yogyakarta where narrative and decorative aspects are popular, a quickly improving academy in Jakarta and the best in country in Bandung, where influences from the Islamic and Arab Art are dominant. Of course there is the Balinese academy in Den Pasar. There, but also in Yoga, elements from the Hindu tradition, are given attention, making the art city Ubud famous, but also prone to kitsch. Meanwhile on Java and Bali live also autonomy working artists whose frame of reference developed worldwide. Very different and much further developed is the situation in Malaysia. When the English colonists let in 1963 they left behind an infrastructure of artists and art teachers taught at English institutions. Apart from that were the Chinese artists, instructed up to date at the before mentioned Nanyang Academy in nearby Singapore. Moreover Malaysian artists trained in Australia, America and Europe returned eagerly in order to form rapidly an infrastructure of modern academics, a museum director, critics and culturally grounded officials. While there is a small majority of Islamic-Malaysians also the art of the Middle East. Works through. The Institute of Technology in KualaLumpur has a well equipped academy. Interesting and immediately recognizable different in this country is the art of the Chinese part of the population, a minority of 40% with its own schools and a big art academy founded by Chung Chen Sun, a famous Chinese painter, whose works were exhibited in 1997 under the title ‘Free Scope in Chinese Tradition’, showing a retrospective review.
Then there is Thailand, where in 1989 in ‘Orchid’ mall, well known through its antique shops and – auctions, the first large show of contemporary art was opened by queen Sirikit. ‘In the early nineties modern Fine Art was ‘booming’16). Already in 1934 the Italian Corado Feroci founded in Bangkok the Silpakorn art academy. In his article ‘ Twenty Vietnamese painters, Aspects of Contemporary Vietnamese painting’ the Thai critic Catvichai Promadhattavedi emphasized the difference with and the advantage of the French art education in Hanoi which he praised and of which he remarks: ‘The French influence survives war years and remains a crucial fact in Vietnamese art to this day’17) In 1996 this statement would still be true but by the increased globalization the validity seems to loose. Apart from the aforementioned Vietnam had a sixty years earlier than Thailand a modern art scene. The Vietnamese painter le Thua Tien was in 1999 not at random a visiting lecturer at the above mentioned academy.
Against the background of the contemporary development in plastic art in East-Asia flimsily mentioned here it is maybe worthwhile but less and less relevant: Scrounging doesn’t take place at the neighbors anymore. By now we are all neighbors and internet erases borders. All the same and probably in contrast with the nowadays ideas about world art, it remains – and that the EWF wants to emphasize – a meaningful purpose also to bring together and to show together Eastasian art, as it is done every two years by one of the countries.
Arrived here the tired reader will ask himself what were the aim and the purpose of this essay. Scientific it’s not, neither of course, complete or systematic. Dwelling accross a wide field I gave pieces of information interlarded with idea’s and outbursts. My goal has been reached, if my rather incoherent story stimulates readers to curiosity, verification and if my text spurs on to observe. If so, they may get annoyed to their hearts content at the mentioned and other shortcomings. What was it about? I recapitulate: introducing the EWF exhibition project, historically about the vain Vietnamese resistance to the French colonist of the nineteenth century, the inclination in the thirties to make oneself familiar with useful western abilities, what became possible through the French reform of education, about the New Poetry made along the same lines, the founding of an academy lead by French artists in Hanoi, to get even with their own traditions which later nevertheless play a meaningful role in modern art, the founding of the Vietnamese communist party, the W.W.II- period with Japanese occupation, emphasis to duty and a nationalism that the communists restrict in their direction. The gap between communistic revolutionary art and ‘gaudy mushrooms sprouting from the rotten wood of colonialism’ became wider. In 1954 the liberation struggle ended in a splitting up of a northern part with a ‘red’ and a western part with a face looking to the west. Painting in the north degenerates into political propaganda like this happened under Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Talented celebrities have to do the the splits. After the American retreat in 19976 and the conquest of the south follows poverty in a devastated country. Just like in Russia and China in 1986 with ‘Doi moi’ communism gets a more human face. The new tolerance concerns also the Fine Arts. The bottle is uncorked, the soul can come out. A possibly slight difference between northern and southern painting is briefly mentioned. Economically as well as culturally the country is opening itself. Some qualitatively good exhibition projects – Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin – are signalized just like the commercializing that leads to a division in the present art scene. The circumstance that in East-Asia Vietnam was the first to come in contact with modern western art and that through this the own plastic tradition and methods and materials got plenty attention, lead to a short and cursory panorama of modern art in this wide region. Although nowadays mutual influence and trends are worldwide the EWF attaches value to see and to let see how these translate themselves in the reality of Asian art. For neighbor countries Vietnam can play a valuable inspiring role.
1) Neil Jamieson: ‘The evolving Context of Vietnamese Contemporary Painting’ pag.14 t/m 28 from ‘Cultural Representation in Transition, New Vietnamese Painting’, publication by six organizations, among which four Asian, the UNESCO and the Ford Foundation,1996
2) Uncorked Soul, Contemporary Art from Vietnam, Plum Blossoms (International), LTD. 1991, ISBN 962-7287-08-04, page 9-16
3) see 2) page 12
4) see 2) page 30
5) see 1) page 18, cfr. Le Quoc Bao (Ed.) (1990) 25, 31, Truong Dai Hoc My Thuai Ha Noi (The Hanoi College of Fine Arts).
6) Nora Taylor : The artists and the State :Politics of paintings and national identity In Hanoi, Vietnam 1925-1995, Cornell University, 1997
7) see 1) page 18
8) see 2) page 31
* A case in point is the exhibition in 1999 by Galerie Amber of the painter/biochemist Dr. Bang Duong Bang. His uncle, ex teacher at the Indo Chinese Academy for Fine Art, taught him to paint, Because of his elite birth he was not allowed to enter the Academy but studied Chemistry.
9) see 2) page 33
10) ‘du fleuve rouge au mékong, Les nouveaux courants du Vietnam’, Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles, 1997 Paris
11) Gap Viet Nam, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 1998
12) see 2) page 19
13) Frans Boenders: Subliem en bijna niets, BRT Belgium, 1990 pages 217 – 228.
14) Michel Sullivan: Art and Artists of China, London 1996, page 6
15) Chinese Art since 1989, Hannart Gallery Hong Kong 1989
16) State of the Arts in Thailand, Gridtdthya Gaweewong, pages 136/137
17) see 1) Thai Ba Van: The exposure of Contemporary Vietnamese Fine Arts to the World’, pages 29-38
VIETNAM TODAY: an exhibition project by the East West Foundation 2003/2004
From January 4 until February 3 the East West Foundation (EWF) presents “Vietnam Today”, an exhibition on modern Vietnamese art in Amber Gallery and Art Gallery Caro both in Leiden, The Netherlands. This exhibition will be shown later in Amsterdam, Vienna and Aarhus in Denmark.
Earlier this year EWF-Secretary Mieke Schneider and gallery owner Irma de Wit selected ten artists and one hundred pieces of their work: seven painters from Hanoi, two from Saigon and one from Hue. All of them have a large exposure abroad. They are between thirty and sixty-three years old, and they also differ in their approach and working style. Taken quality as our basic assumption, the EWF has put together a divers mix of techniques, styles and subjects. Besides oil on canvas and lacquer ware on wood, the selection contains Vietnamese “dzó” paper paintings and cardboard objects. Most obvious is that nine of the ten modern artists are inspired by tradition in Vietnamese society and often by the current revival of religion and tradition,m which started in the early nineties.
In 1925, the French painter Tardieu founded the “Ecole des Beaux Arts” in Hanoi and confronted Vietnam immediately with modern, western art, leaving out the difficult period of renaissance up to and including romanticism. With the liberalization policy of 1986 (doi moi), Vietnam bit by bit distanced itself artistically from its ‘folk realistic’ and socialist-realist styles. During auctions in Singapore in the same year (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Glerum) the new openness let to a real boom in Vietnamese art. Gradually Vietnam accepted worldwide developments in modern art also at home and today taboos in the work of local painters don’t almost exist anymore.
The number of art galleries in Hanoi and Saigon doubled in a very short period. But many tourists (from Japan, China, Australia, Western countries) who visit the country nowadays are not interested in modern art as well, but in a kind of exoticism with a touch of modernity. And unfortunately the demand determines the supply.
The boom in art of 1990’ and the mainly tourist market do make it complicated to get a clear idea about good quality art. A few years ago a group of young artists decided not to show their work anymore in the commercial galleries. First the Marxist doctrine and lately the art market made them take that decision. With this selection EWF wants to prove that this group of very talented headstrong artists doesn’t want to be ruled by anyone or anything whatsoever. These painters therefore rightly also get a lot of attention abroad.
1. Nguyen Trung (1940), studied at the Gian Dinh academy near Hanoi and is very well known internationally: exhibited among others in The United States, France, Australia, Japan, The Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Korea, Singapore and Hongkong; lived for several years in Paris and in the eighties in Cambodia. After he was influenced by Chinese calligraphy he used different styles, but since the eighties he is called an ‘abstract expressionist’ and is much appreciated for his spiritual esthetics, mainly inspired and influenced by Buddhist Khmer culture.
2. Vu Dan Tan (1946), autodidact from Hanoi, exhibited in Havana, Bangkok, Helsinki, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kassel, Berlin, Taipei, Macao, Aukland, Brisbane, Tokyo, Paris and many times in Russia. Being 57 years old, he is the most innocent, fanciful painter, sculptor and a maker of small objects and installations (e.g. his Cadillac Project in 2002). His themes are never essentially local or national. In his series ‘Fashion’ he parodies fashion designs, but also plays a mysterious play with the absent body.
3. Phan Cam Thuong (1957), first studied and since many years teaches Art History at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hanoi; exhibited among others in New York, Vermont, France, Singapore and Hong Kong; lives in the Buddhist But Tap Pagoda (14th century) on which he wrote an art historic study, one among many other art historic books. Except from making wood block prints he is a painter and a calligrapher. During the war he lived like many of his contemporaries at the countryside. The old folk art and the village life inspire him until today: his woodblock prints show a dance, a funeral, a procession and all kind off Buddhist rituals. Since the revival of Buddhist religion in the early nineties many artists like Thuong are inspired by it.
4. Tran Luong (1960) Hanoi, around 1990 a member of the innovative ‘Gang of Five’; exhibited in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Yokohama, Karlsruhe, Singapore and New York; inspires young painters not to go commercial; creates water color on ‘dzó’ paper with a very subtle result, video-installations, objects and oil on canvas; particularly abstract fantasies from childhood with a fascination for the underwater world. “Life in my country flows and streams will there be war or peace, if rich or poor”.
5. Do Hoang Tuong (1960), studied and is working in Saigon; exhibitions in Paris, Aarhus, Singapore, Manila, Tokyo, San Francisco, Washington, Seoul, Oakland, Bassano del Grappa (Italy), Kuala Lumpur; points out lost of the own culture and values; in ‘(sub) Urban Landscapes’ he shows old construction sites, giving us feelings of loneliness and alienation. By expressing dust from concrete, by texture and color he touches with material the human experience.
6. Truong Tan (1963), exhibited in Paris, Sydney, Bangkok, Saint Brieuc, Tokyo, Munster (work in museum of lacquer ware), Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, Berlin, Frankfurt, Limoges, Kopenhagen, Bielefeld: taught lacquer ware art at the Academy in Hanoi; presented video-installations and acted in performances; lives half year in Paris, half in Hanoi; was a not excepted sensation in the nineties as the Vietnamese Keith Haring with explicit homo creations on canvas and in performances. Like others uses frequently Buddhist motives.
7. Le Thua Tien (1964) Hue; studied at the Art School in Hue where he is working presently; in 1994/1995 he was a visiting scholar at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam; exhibitions in Leiden, Boston, Vermont (‘Price for independent Asian Artists’), Paris, Berlin, Leiden; paints on canvas, silk, paper and makes lacquer ware on wood, organized in the United Stated the image and sound show ‘Fossilized War’. He also was a visiting teacher in Bangkok. He often uses motives from the old Cham culture and Buddhist symbolism.
8. Nguyen Quang Huy (1971), studied at the Academy in Hanoi and exhibited already during those years in Bielefeld, Germany. Meanwhile also in Aachen, Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore, Fukuoka and Australia; makes video art and works, sometimes with others, on installations and performances; his strongest works are his paintings on ‘dzö’ paper with Chinese ink and flowing water color in pink and blue; surroundings of a sitting Buddha, torsos with enormous lips instead of a face. In recent years he also paints oil on canvas portraits in blue of countryside women with traditional hairstyle and hair cover.
9. Nguyen Minh Thanh (1971), Academy in Hanoi, exhibited in Aachen, Amsterdam, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Bielefeld, Singapore, Fukuoka, Berlin, Norway and Sydney;
as a versatile talent he creates many different installations, is not afraid to use bright colors on huge sizes of paper, paints faces from snap shots on big paper sheets and dresses the bodies in fantasy Asian clothes, paints recently also still, detailed figures on silk in a wooden frame.
10. Le Vu (1972) studied at the Academy in Hanoi, exhibited in New York and Buenos Aires, is working together with Tran Luong, whom he assisted by making an installation in New York earlier this year; is very fond of oval shaped spots, flowing on ‘do’ paper, because he says: “They blossom automatically, forming themselves in the shape of a nest. Finally they also shape themselves to “figures that existed already in my memory”.
Note: All artists already exhibited already in Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh-city.
The list of places of exhibitions is, especially for the last year, incomplete.
Solo exhibitions and participation in-group exhibitions are not distinguished.
Fore more information, please see www.eastwestfoundation.org
Review: Open Studio at Binh Quoi Village,
Ho Chi Minh City
The intention behind a recent 10-day workshop and exhibition at Binh Quoi Village was to encourage young artists to work beyond the dominant paint medium in Vietnam and explore other art practices, namely installation. The participating artists included the show’s chief organizer, 41-year-old Do Hoang Tuong and a group of Ho Chi Minh City-based painters – Nguyen Nhu Huy, Nguyen Thanh Truc, Do Xuan Tinh, Nguyen Thi Kieu Giang, Ly Hoang Ly, Mai Anh Dung, Le Tung Quan, Nguyen Trung Dung and Nguyen Minh Phuong – most of whom had never created installations before.
The large, plein air venue was an ideal site for experimenting with installation. A number of the works seem to have been directly inspired by their immediate surroundings. For example, Nguyen Nhu Huy photographed Binh Quoi Village’s natural environs for The Grammar of Seeing. Approximately sixty photographs lay in grid formation on a pre-existing concrete slab set within the grounds’ lawns. Closely fitted glass panels were placed on each photograph and then bracketed with the same red electrical tape that wrapped a nearby wooden bench. The tape was also placed around the border of the concrete slab and in two intersecting diagonal lines connecting the corners to form a large red “X.” Under the glass mounts, the blurred photographs of trees, leaves, grass, sand, twigs, water and clouds were further abstracted by reflections from viewers and the sky above. Successfully exploring the way in which humans absorb visual data, the work forced viewers to examine what usually would be dismissed as periphery or non-relevant information.
Nguyen Thi Kieu Giang and Mai Anh Dung made more direct use of the venue’s grounds for their installations. In Movement of Heaven and Earth, Giang positioned three hundred small paraffin lamps around the perimeter of a putting green, placing a single, slighter larger lamp in the center. When lit, the installation was a solemn display that encouraged quiet meditation from viewers. Mai Anh Dung’s White consisted of nearly one hundred origami birds perched on rocks, in flight or standing at the edge of a small pond. The delicate birds were curiously at home in their environment. While both installations were visually striking, they did little to engage the viewer either conceptually or viscerally.
Nguyen Minh Phuong’s Growth was a playful installation of over fifty crooked poles wrapped in colorful fabric of a palette normally associated with the Tay Nguyen ethnic minority of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Planted amongst trees and foliage, the poles resembled young saplings sprouting from the earth. The work was perhaps an optimistic look at the increased attention that tourism has brought to the Montagnards.
Also focusing on social issues were Le Tung Quan’s Under the Sun and Do Xuan Tinh’s City. Under the Sun consisted of over a dozen effigies fashioned from short, vertical strips of wood painted with primitive faces and topped with real conical hats. The installation could be interpreted as an homage to the millions of farmers in the country. City, on the other hand, exulted in the dynamism of modern urban life. Thin metal rods bent into zigzags buoyed up colorfully painted cardboard boxes wrapped in clear plastic and studded with shiny metallic rivets. The generic human forms painted on the sides of the boxes added to the cheerful and animated spirit of the work.
Nguyen Thanh Truc’s melancholic White Memory, hinted at a poetic, hidden narrative. Seventy-three rectangular canvas strips hung in nine columns from two thin bamboo poles strung between two trees. Resembling both scrolls and square sails, the canvases were laced together with hemp rope and supported by chopsticks woven into the material at top and bottom. One panel near the top of each column was stenciled with white letters and numbers and then dry-brushed with viridian paint over a mask of two arcs enclosing a cross. In front of this canvas “curtain,” sat an object resembling a crouching animal or the frame of a chair. Wrapped tightly in black canvas, the object appeared somber as if contemplating what hung before it.
Children of the Creator by Do Hoang Tuong was an elegantly simple installation of seven triangular blocks of white wax laid on the grass in the shape of a cross. Rope, which was dipped in the wax and then coiled freely on top of each block, provided an element of individuality to the otherwise uniform blocks. An eloquent metaphor for artistic practice, the work highlighted both the restrictions and the freedoms that are inherent in an artist’s psyche.
Of the two installations Nguyen Trung Dung created, the more interesting work was The Egg Chronicles. A large plaster egg, pierced with dozens of hypodermic needles, hung suspended from a tree branch by a metal chain that passed through its body extending to a group of real chicken eggs on the grass below. Two plaster eggs were fused together resting on a bed of straw against the base of the tree while another egg simply lay nearby. Referring to contentious topics such as genetic engineering, cloning, and even the youth drug culture prevalent in Vietnam today, the work was a simple, well-conceived piece.
The exhibition’s most ambitious installation, Ly Hoang Ly’s Mam, measured three and a half meters high and eight meters in diameter. The work was a giant cone constructed from the round, aluminum serving trays from which the piece derives its name. Supported by a rope frame and a central wooden post, the shiny trays changed appearance according to the varying degrees of natural light throughout the day. Accessible through a small opening, the interior of Mam had a violent atmosphere. Dead leaves blanketed the floor, strewn chopsticks and bent trays lay on the ground and wooden rods pierced the white supporting post that was painted with red gashes. Hanging from the rope stays were grainy, black and white photocopies of nude women in poses emphasizing their athletic physique. The work was at once a celebration of women’s strengths and a critical look at their role in Vietnamese society.
Open Studio was a challenging exhibition that successfully demonstrated the creative potential of Installation art both to the artists and the viewers. As more exhibitions of this kind are encouraged, it will be clear that this art form does indeed have a place in contemporary Vietnamese art practice.
Author: Quynh Pham
Published in Asian Art News – January/February 2002
Copyright © Asian Art News, 2002
Reproduced by kind permission of Asian Art News.
© 2000-2002 Galerie Quynh. All rights reserved.
Wild At Art
The Vietnam Investment Review; 4/15/2002; Mai Anh
Hands up if you’ve ever heard of a local artist called Bao Toan? You haven’t? Well, surely you must have heard the names Dang Thi Khue, Hoang Ly or Dinh Cong Dat bandied about – the nation’s leading art critics say it’s only a matter of time before these people become household names. The people listed above are part of an elite group of Vietnamese artists involved in performance and installation art. This contemporary art form is becoming increasingly popular amongst avant garde Vietnamese artists.
One local art critic told Timeout that the vast majority of Vietnamese artists had previously shied away from performance and installation art because they were afraid of the reception the eccentric artistic medium would receive.
Now, it seems, more and more artists are getting on the performance bandwagon, and local art critics are even going so far as to suggest that contemporary art could soon be at the fore of local art movements. Nguyen Quan, a respected local art critic, says that performance and installation art is often the easiest way for artists to approach tricky social issues. The impact of issues such as superstition, social evils, urbanization and globalization on society is difficult to capture on canvas, Quan said.
“Installation and performance art is becoming more popular, especially in Asia and southeast Asia,” he said. “In a number of recent art exchange shows, Vietnamese installation art works were well respected, even though this art form is still very new in Vietnam,” he said. Art critic Bui Nhu Huong agreed, saying the development of this art form was to be expected if the country wished to integrate into the global economy.
She noted, however, that artists should put more thought into the relationship between the performance and the actual message they wished to convey. “I have seen numerous installation pieces in Vietnam and they were all quite impressive,” she said. “But artists must be more aware about the images they are creating and the messages they want to convey,” she said.
Of the exhibitions she had seen, Nguyen Bao Toan’s Dong Doi (Comrades) Nguyen Minh Thanh’s Mot Con Duong Va Dong Lua (A Road And A Rice Field) and Tran Luong’s Chay (Flow) stood out as installations that successfully mixed art and traditional values.
“The most important thing for an installation’s success is the message,” Huong said. “This demands life experience and a certain amount of sensitivity from the artist.” The cost of putting on an installation art show in Vietnam is often borne by the artist, with most artists assuming that people will not pay to see something a little out of left field.
Installation art first appeared in Vietnam in the early 1970s, although a younger generation of artists has definitely brought the medium to the fore since 1997. An important factor in the success of any installation is the so- called ‘shock factor’. An installation should be eye-catching, impressive and shock the viewer a little, said Huong, adding that artists with extroverted personalities
were often attracted to this slightly outlandish art form. Artists Truong Tan, Nguyen Van Cuong and Luu Hoang Ly are all
stereotypical examples of a performance artist, she said. Recently, some artists visited Mao Khe Coal Mine in Quang Minh
province in order to prepare for a performance called Black & White, which focused on the hardship that coal workers face every day.
The performance, which took place at the artists home in Gia Lam more than one month ago, attracted plenty of attention from local art critics.
Exhibition Opens Window On Nation’s Modern Soul (Nov 15, 2002)
|HA NOI — A must-see art exhibition for those who want a panorama of Vietnamese contemporary fine art is underway in the capital city.
Titled A Vietnamese Soul, the show features a deluge of 100 works by 25 leading artists from the north, the south and the center of the country. They include Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Do Quang Em, Le Thiet Cuong, Tran Luu Hau, Dinh Tham Poong, Do Son and Le Quang Ha, whose works in miscellaneous styles grace the three-story exhibition space at the Viet Fine Arts Gallery.
A mélange of works by veteran artists and raising phenomena, the exhibits introduce an insight into the world of traditional brushes, occidental influences and personal improvisations in an assortment of mediums from oil, lacquer and water colors, to gouache on paper and paper-cutting.
Ancient Dance by 80-year-old Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Do Phan’s Earning for Life or 45-year-old Nguyen Duc Hoa’s H’Mong People Selling Wine all revive familiar scenes of folk life, one of the endless inspirations of Vietnamese fine art. The slenderness and boldness of Tran Luu Hau’s (born in 1928) strokes produce different shades and moods for his series of nudes in oil.
Meanwhile, 25-year-old Le Quy Tong’s Under the Bridge or Dinh Tham Poong’s Trees Under the Sunlight reflect the influence of modern art in their ideas and presentation. Le Quang Ha’s creations, 39, as known among Vietnamese art connoisseurs something “unfamiliar to be liked” at this show once again confirm the artist rebellious but courageous determination to break free from any traditional norms.
The art exhibit refutes the commonly raised idea among critics and art enthusiasts that Vietnamese contemporary artists lack creativity in their work.
According to C. David Thomas, director of the Indochina Arts Partnership, Viet Nam has seen for the past 10 years the awakening of a vibrant art scene with the opening of many art galleries.
The thriving of commercial galleries and their churning out of artistic junk food, however, adds impetus to the need for an outlet of quality Vietnamese art for enthusiasts. Otherwise, the domination of mass-produced art stales the art scene, bearing a similar signature style to those paintings signed dozens of years ago.
Series of paintings available these days featuring the old-quarter, countryside and traditionally-dressed girls resemble the classics of Bui Xuan Phai, To Ngoc Van and Nguyen Phan Chanh, whose names symbolize the birth of Vietnamese contemporary fine art.
In a bid to create a professional forum for talented potential painters, the Viet Fine Arts Gallery opened to add unique spice in the Hanoian art landscape.
The Vietnamese Soul remains open until November 21 at the Viet Fine Arts Gallery, 96 Hang Trong Street. Readers also can visit www.vietfinearts.com for the exhibition. — VNS
Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency
So where to from here? Performance and installation art is still a relatively new art form in Vietnam, and it still faces some acceptance problems. But once it is accepted by people across the board, it will provide artists with another art medium with which to communicate their ideas, concepts and notions. After all, isn’t that what art is about?
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Gap Viet Nam (Nov 19, 2002)
|by Michael Thoss, House of World Cultures
Vietnam is opening up – despite the crisis in Asia and the continuing monopoly control over power of the United Socialist Party. This is an opening up towards the West and her Asian neighbors, but also – although still hesitant – an internal openness, in relation to her own history. The host of the last Asean-Conference who was praised by the International Monetary Fond is increasing allowing her representatives to participate in international meetings and art exhibitions, for example in April 1998 at the Asia-Europe-Meeting in London and now, one year on at the Vietnam Festival in the House of World Cultures (Haus der Kulturen der Welt), which is opening to coincide with the conference of European and Asian foreign ministers in Berlin.
This development is also making itself felt in the country itself, e.g. in the willingness to experiment of the artist scene in Hanoi, Huú and Hô-Chi-Minh City. This is in no small part due to the reform policy Doi Moi, which in addition to foreign investors has for a short while now also been attracting Western artists and curators to Vietnam. These encounters lead in turn to numerous invitations abroad for Vietnam’s artistic community.
A series of important exhibitions in London, Paris and Brussels showed in the last year alone an impressive panorama of Vietnamese painting since the founding of the first art academy in Hanoi – the Académie des Beaux Arts d’Indochine – by the French colonial power in 1925. Next to the masters of the Paris School and representatives of socialist state art, there were some individual examples of work from artists who are scarcely 30 years old, and whose work is in stark contrast to that of the previous generation .
This ‘change’ in Vietnam’s contemporary art announced itself as early as October 1987, when the then General Secretary of the politburo Nguyen Van Linh demanded higher quality and a greater variety of expression at an informal meeting with artists and cultural specialists. This was the sign of the end of an era, in which state run artist federations had the monopoly over the purchasing and commissioning of art work. Although the state run artist federation in Hanoi has today around 300 painters registered with it, the ‘State artist’ transformed himself with Doi Moi into a small enterprise, dealing directly with private buyers and galleries and setting the prices for his work himself. Since the beginning of the 90s more than one hundred galleries have opened in the whole country, and museums in Singapore (1995), Japan (1995/96) and Thailand (1997) presented the first major exhibitions of contemporary Vietnamese painting abroad. The opening up of the economy also stimulated demand for Vietnamese art in the country itself, especially from foreign business people and diplomats, who order it to embellish their newly opened offices in Vietnam.
Until the end of the eighties it was customary for Vietnamese painters to organize themselves into groups, such as the neo-expressionist Hanoi ‘Gang of Five’ or the ‘Group Ten’, a circle of abstract painters in Ho-Chi-Minh City. The younger of these artists have now started to reject such groupings according to stylistic direction, working techniques and subject areas and are also starting to challenge the very dominance of painting itself, by including installations, performances and new media in their work as well. This ‘Generation without hang ups’ – as the gallery owner, art critic and collector Tran Duong Tuong of Hanoi terms it – has freed itself from the doctrines of its teachers, without breaking away from its origins and traditions. After years of isolation it must be said that these artists counter the fickle fashions and trends of the international art business with distance and composure.
The opportunity to exhibit abroad (and be present there oneself), is a relatively new experience for Vietnamese artists. In their own, radical subjective language of images and forms the artists invited to Berlin refuse to be part of any representative art form and are engaged with aesthetics and subjects of everyday life – no different to young German artists. In the strained relationship between Communism and commerce, caught between the temptation to earn their living with their art work, and the requirements of the Party for them to remain representatives of a ‘patriotic’ and original Vietnamese art, many art academy graduates seek a third and spiritual path. In today’s Vietnam, in which honoring the teacher and the master often replaces a still lacking art criticism and theory, the road to artistic self-realization remains strongly influenced by a Buddhist and Confucianism inspired view of life.
The Gap Viet Nam project is a studio as well as an exhibition. For one month we have invited 16 painters from Vietnam and the world wide Vietnamese Diaspora to Berlin, to allow them to work and exhibit together. The studio character of this encounter, Gap in Vietnamese, should give an impression of the dynamism of the fresh start which characterizes the young Vietnam today. In addition to this there is the external perspective which the artists’ Vietnamese roots give us of the country of their parents. Through the medium of contemporary art you can see the cultural variety of Vietnam, but also its divided history.
The Vietnam program in the House of World Cultures is meant as a contribution to the historically still heavily impaired dialogue between Vietnamese living in Vietnam and those living abroad. Each ‘Diaspora’ maintains its own romanticized and historically dated image of the ‘real’ home land. This can also be seen in Berlin, where the ‘reunification’ of the South and North Vietnamese in the West and East of the city has still not been fully achieved, where both communities possess their own, contradictory images of home. A similar story is to be found amongst the 2,5 million Vietnamese in France, Australia and the USA.
However in this context we must also mention the contradictory ‘Vietnam images’ of the Germans, from which Berlin remains strongly influenced to this day. A whole generation of Germans in the East and the West were fed the line that the fate of divided city rested solely on the conclusion of the Vietnam War. The 68 movement in the West and the official solidarity campaigns in the East used Vietnam for very different but always self centered purposes. The fact that from former German sympathy with the Boat people of South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese contract workers only a widespread suspicion towards the approximately 90,000 Vietnamese living in the country remains, says primarily something about German attitude.
With the combined Vietnam program, the House of World Cultures is undertaking a two month long process of approaching contemporary Vietnamese Culture, free from national borders and ethnic classifications. However we want to avoid thereby offering new space for the projection of western stereotypes, fears or desires, or a stage for nationalistic self representation. In the 10th year after the fall of the Berlin Wall inviting more than 50 artists, writers and academics from Vietnam and the world-wide Vietnamese Diaspora to Berlin, bestows a certain symbolism on the planned series of events.
A GLIMPSE OF CONTEMPORARY VIETNAMESE ART
By Art Critic Duong Tuong, 2000
It is not very long since Vietnamese art in general and contemporary Vietnamese art in particular emerged from unrecognition – I’d rather say anonymity – to have its say on the world’s art scene. For a long period, scholars and researchers in the West were prone to dismiss Vietnamese culture as a wan replica of Chinese or a mishmash of French-Chinese-Indian cultures. That VietNam owes much to those great civilizations is undeniable, but it in no way means that Vietnamese culture is a mere pro-duct of mimicry. It is safe to say that what has enabled Viet Nam to survive as a nation through an aggregate thousand-odd years of foreign domination is that she has known how to digest foreign influences and incorporate their quintessence into her own culture.
In these days, when people are speaking of an identity crisis in Asian art, Vietnamese art has become a center of attraction. Indeed, Vietnamese art works, in the last decade, have been increasingly sought after by foreign collectors and art lovers. Exhibitions of contemporary Vietnamese art organized in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, the USA, Argentina…have commanded attention and acclaim.
Indeed, the art scene here is showing such a brimming vitality and explosive diversity as could never be seen in the past. The current blooming of Vietnamese art springs from our earnest urge toward self-affirmation as a culture with its own unmistakable identity and can be interpreted as the tumultuous release of long-suppressed of creative desires. This is a time of change and I’d rather lay emphasis on the younger generation. Vietnamese artists have now become more exploratory and go-ahead, trying to attune themselves to international trends as they are enjoying the benefits of artistic freedom of expression in the salutary climate of doi moi. A powerful upsurge of new art forms and revitalized traditions are moving Vietnamese art forward. Young artists are seeking their hallmarks based on their own experience and personal vision, increasingly showing self-confidence and audacity in their work. Theirs is a generation without complexes. They are not overawed by what their elders had done in their capacity as pioneers, nor do they attempt to make tabula rasa of the past. While doing their best to wed tradition with modernity, they are in no way traditionalistic, well aware as they are that traditions can sometimes become impeding and conducive to conservatism.
Of this young generation, the first group to gain international renown by their works is the Gang of Five, composed of five Hanoi painters: Hong Viet Dung, Ha Tri Hieu, Dang Xuan Hoa, Tran Luong and Pham Quang Vinh. Concurrently rising to prominence are such artists as Tran Trong Vu, Hoang Hong Cam, Nguyen Than, Bui Minh Dung, Le Quang Ha, exponents of a robust neo-expressionist trend. Among the foremost adepts in abstractionism, are Nguyen Trung, Do Hoang Tuong, Tran Van Thao. Do Minh Tam, Tran Luong, Le Hong Thai…The romantic-minded Nguyen Thanh Binh and Pham Luan charm with their sunny palettes and enchanting lyricism. Such cutting-edge art forms as performance and installation begin to be explored and are no longer unfamiliar to the public. The iconoclast Truong Tan turns a corner from orthodoxy by producing most unconventional works straightforwardly expressing his gay convictions. Nguyen Bao Toan, Nguyen Minh Thanh in Ha Noi and Le Thua Tien in Hue are among the first “engaged” installation artists to produce in Viet Nam. Mention should be made of Vu Dan Tan the Sorcerer who turns castoffs into art works, the minimalist Le Thiet Cuong, the unclassifiable Dinh Y Nhi with her hallucinatory black-and-white paintings, the instinctive Vu Thang with his compelling use of mixed media in lacquer painting….
Indeed, it is this complex-free generation that is setting the tone for the future of Vietnamese art. They do not content themselves with fo;;owing up traditions. They are fashioning a new vision that keeps drawing substance from national roots and are accordingly creating a new tradition – the tradition of the New.
At a Crossroads
Ho Chi Minh City’s art world has seen many ups and downs in recent years. Rich though it is in galleries and artists, who are making very good work indeed, the city is going through something of a crisis today. As the tourist industry has declined, so, too, has the art market. But while there is a vein of pessimism in certain quarters of the art world, there is a need to look to the future and to make some important changes on how the art business is carried out if the city is to compete with the current prestige of Hanoi.
It is just over a decade since Vietnam opened its doors to the world. The effect of this initiative has been profound for all segments of society. In particular it has transformed the contemporary Vietnamese art scene from a relatively quiet community to one full of extraordinary artistic activity. In these years, the country’s artists have achieved striking recognition regionally and internationally, from galleries, museums, and collectors. Interest in Vietnamese art continues to grow as does the increasing number of Vietnamese artists exhibiting abroad. All of this would seem to bode well for local artists and galleries, but for those in Ho Chi Minh City, a significant slowdown in the local market would seem to suggest that perhaps the recent boom times are over and that new strategies need to be applied to develop the market for the future.
Ho Chi Minh City is commonly viewed as Vietnam’s business center and this has, to some extent, handicapped the sales and promotion of the visual arts. As business is uppermost in people’s minds, the city’s art scene – a vibrant one, if essentially hidden – receives less attention than Hanoi’s. “Hanoi is considered the center of Vietnamese art and culture,” says Nguyen Thi Minh Hang, director of Hong Hac Gallery. “People usually go to Hanoi if they want to buy art.”
That Hanoi is viewed by many as the center of contemporary Vietnamese artistic activity is not based merely on the fact that this is the nation’s capital. There seems to be an approach to the business of art generally and the promotion of individual artists in particular by Hanoi’s galleries and independent consultants that is very different from that in the South. This is not to say that Ho Chi Minh City lacks good galleries, but there is a quality of presentation that is missing. There is a greater feeling that the art community is splintered. The general quality of exhibitions in the South is unpredictable and the relationship between artist and dealer seems more strained than in Hanoi. One doesn’t feel that sense of intense activity that one does in Hanoi. These factors well account for some of the current decline in interest levels amongst the general public. “Openings here are nowhere near as crowded as in the capital,” says Hang. “It is better to be a young artist in Hanoi where there is support and encouragement all around.”
Noting these problems and difficulties, a number of galleries and dealers in Ho Chi Minh City have expressed the need to be more active in raising the city’s artistic profile. Though this awareness of their situation and the intention to alter it is certainly welcome, it requires serious action. This is no easy task since there are a number of very specific problems. The obvious problem is that the majority of quality work made by artists is sent abroad before it has even been shown locally. The premier artists in the South currently sell a large portion of their work through foreign galleries or directly to collectors. While this raises the standing of contemporary Vietnamese art internationally, locally it has had an adverse effect. Galleries, which in the past relied on these artists as the mainstay of their business, are now desperate to find new talent of comparable quality in order to shift attention back to the city’s art scene. For too long the reputation of many galleries rested on “name” artists. Even the dealers with a genuine interest in art and artists seem to wait until artists come to them or have made a name for themselves elsewhere and so are picked up. To develop artists and their potential it is imperative that gallery directors learn about good art and seek out emerging and talented unknowns and to promote them.
But there are now galleries and dealers who have realized that waiting around for artists to knock on their doors is just not enough if the situation is to change. Since it was established in 1998, Xuan Gallery, managed by artist Dang Thi Duong, has shown the way with shows of work by primarily non-established artists, many of whom are students and professors of the Fine Arts University of Ho Chi Minh City. Duong’s attitude to the art business is one that many others would do well to heed.
“It is not good to select artists according to buying trends. There is a lot of talent in the city that has yet to be discovered,” says Duong. With the city’s art scene seemingly losing the momentum that began with doi moi, exhibiting work by emerging artists is more important than ever.
The leading gallery in Ho Chi Minh City for showcasing work of young and emerging artists is Blue Space Gallery, directed by Tran Thi Huynh Nga. In 1998, Nga organized 20 shows that introduced a wide range of new names and experimental work. “There are not many galleries here who are willing to support the work of young artists,” she says. “Obviously, there are certain financial risks involved but it is important to provide a venue for these artists to exhibit.”
But there is a catch-22 situation alive and well in the city’s art world (this is a general situation in many parts of Asia). Without contractual obligations, the promotion of new artists is fraught with difficulties for galleries. Many galleries are reluctant to expend their resources when there is no guarantee that the artists will remain committed to them. Contracts are rare in Vietnam and those that have been made have invariably been broken. Signing a contract is disconcerting for some artists who fear that their artistic freedom would then be confined. Those who have signed contracts in the past have breached them with the feeling that their work is not being promoted adequately. While this sentiment is not unfounded, it is important to understand the context within which the galleries arose.
The rapid development of the art market in Vietnam necessitated an equally swift emergence of galleries to meet demand. Within a short time, Ho Chi Minh City was inundated by galleries most of whose directors had little experience or knowledge of the intricacies of the art market or were simply interested in making money. The past decade, then, has been a learning experience for these galleries and many are realizing the need to become more professional in their practices if they are to endure. They are now more aware and willing to redress what shortcomings they have had in the past.
While both galleries and artists have shown the desire to develop more professional relationships, there still exists a general lack of understanding between the two groups. Artists continue to bypass galleries and sell work directly from their studios, yet this is not a practice that they welcome. The ideal situation would be to see dealers exclusively handling the selling of the work, promoting artists properly, and leaving artists to make work. Good marketing and holding regular exhibitions are essential but costly and most galleries simply lack the financial resources to carry these out. Moreover, it is difficult for galleries to find sponsors to help fund their activities when openings fail to attract large audiences.
To help alleviate their various burdens, galleries need to become more discriminating in the selection of artists they wish to develop. Some of the more important galleries in the city have already reduced considerably the number of artists they exhibit. “I used to have work by over a hundred artists but now I have 20 to 30. I would like to see this number even lower,” says Hang of the Hong Hac Gallery. Having established her gallery in 1991, Hang has been involved in the arts long enough to be able to recognize some of the changes that need to be implemented in order to survive in today’s market. “There are too many galleries in the city with too much work,” she says. “How can they expect to meet with success when they treat art as a mere commodity?”
Artists share a certain amount of the responsibility for the current situation. In the past, they sold their work indiscriminately to any interested gallery without realizing the detriments of this practice. However, they have begun to recognize that their work devalues as it becomes common in every gallery in the city. They are beginning to become more discerning about which galleries they sell to.
One gallery that has managed to excel in spite of the current climate is Galerie Vinh Loi. Pham Anh Dung, the director, is one of the most active dealers in the city. His gallery has had steady sales growth since its inception in 1992. The work a gallery exhibits is certainly one of the main ingredients for success or failure. Dung handles work by some of the most distinguished artists in the country and it is no surprise that his exhibitions are of consistently high quality.
“It is essential that gallery owners have a good eye for art,” he says. “In addition, they must remain active in supporting their artists.” Dung has collaborated with many regional galleries in organizing shows and travels abroad frequently to stay attuned to the market. With the exception of a few local collectors, Dung’s sells all his work to foreign buyers. As the number of visitors to Vietnam is relatively low when compared with other Asian countries, it is important that local galleries begin to tap the potential of the market abroad.
The absence of a local market – although there are a few important collectors in the city – is of much concern to galleries. Both finances and lack of education about the arts play a large part in the current indifferent attitude among the Vietnamese public. Developing the economy and raising standards of living are much more important to many people. As the economic situation in Vietnam improves, greater interest will certainly shift to the arts. In the meantime, educating the public about art is crucial if the local market is to develop in the future.
While the galleries are not alone responsible for shouldering this great task, it is something they must regard seriously if they are to attract more Vietnamese buyers. As a younger generation begins to grow more aware of art, there will be a gradual emergence of local collectors. Many galleries have already begun considering art education. “I would love to organize art programs and lectures to generate more interest in contemporary art,” says Duong of Xuan Gallery.
Dang Hai Son and the artist Thu Ha of the Tu Do Gallery stress the importance of involving the Vietnamese community in their activities. “Although our customers are primarily foreign, we always advertise nationally in an effort to raise more awareness of the arts among the Vietnamese. We feel strongly in keeping the public informed of what’s happening at the gallery,” says Thu Ha.
Despite the current situation, most galleries in the city are optimistic about their future. Many regard the slowdown as a positive time of transition in which much has been learned. Yet, recognizing the changes that need to be made is only the initial step in building a viable business. Taking steps to implement radical and professional changes are very real challenges for the future.
Author: Quynh Pham
Reproduced by kind permission of Asian Art News.
© 2000-2002 Galerie Quynh. All rights reserved.
Asian Art News, 1997 By Ian Findlay and Helene Hagemans
The vitality of the contemporary Vietnamese art scene is being driven not only by clear commercial considerations, but also by artists and dealers committed to creating and promoting quality work.
Less than a decade ago, contemporary Vietnamese art and artists had little resence in their own country and virtually none on the international art scene.
Yet, just four years ago, the eminent critic and painter Ca Le Thang reported in the Vietnamese art journal My Thuat, “In 1992 a total of 130 groups and one man exhibitions were opened in Ho Chi Minh City, featuring works by local (Vietnamese) artists … and even (artists) from overseas. Over 5,500 works created by more than 200 artists were exhibited in 25 different locations; attendance numbers rose to over 400,000.” In that year, the first exhibition of Vietnamese abstract painting took place. During the same period, equally dramatic changes were taking place in Ha Noi.
Since then the transformation of the Vietnamese art world has continued apace. It has not only been in the profile which the nation’s art and artists have achieved that is impressive, but also in the quality and scope of the art and its representation through local, regional, and international galleries and museums, as well as the extremely important exchanges between the Queensland College of Art, Brisbane, and the University of Fine Art, Ha Noi, and the visionary Indochina Arts Projects spearheaded by David Thomas in the United States.
Although during the past two years there has been a decline in sales locally, the galleries-and a number of important collectors-remain at the heart of the drive to promote art in the major cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hue. Estimates as to the number of galleries in these cities vary widely since many are really no more than shop. In the major cities there are some 50 quite professional galleries. The Art that they handle ranges from highly popular landscape and figurative work to abstract and experimental work in lacquer and other mediums.
The sheer number of artists producing work is quite astonishing and this has helped to maintain the pace of development in the market. Many of the exciting artists who rose to prominence over the past decade are still active. At the same time, much commonplace work has been produced which has had an adverse effect on the reputation of some of the galleries. But more artists of distintion – Do Quang Em, Khuu Duc (ceramicist), Nguyen Quang Huy, Dang Xuan Hoa, Pham Luan, Tran Luu Hau, Nguyen Van Cuong, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Tran Luong, Le Quang Ha, Thanh Chuong and Pham Quang Vinh, for example – are being shown abroad regularly. At the first Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993 in Brisbane, Australia, Nguyen Xuan Tiep represented Vietnam. In 1996, three artists took part – Vu Dan Tan, Dang Thi Khue, Mai Anh Dung – to much acclaim.
Now that so many artists have had first-hand exposure to a broad range of Asian and Western art, there are some significant points of difference between their work and that of those who have had no exposure to other influences at all. The differences can be as subtle as the manner in which paintings are marketed and exhibited or as conspicuous as style and the handling of materials or simply the risks they take with their themes. While painting is the mainstay of the art scene, sculpture and ceramics are also becoming more visible. Photography, however, is perhaps the most visible of new developments, with exhibitions becoming more frequent. A number of photographers have had the opportunity to study in the West, which has also helped to raise awareness of Vietnam’s own fine photographic past.
There are no new major trends within the contemporary Vietnamese art world as yet. But there are rumblings. Installation and performance art are now beginning to be seen, albeit on a small scale. As Vietnamese artists travel more and are exposed to fresh influences, these art forms will certainly be seen more frequently. But, if one can speak of a trend, then it is to tradition that one must look. Lacquer painting has a long history in Vietnam, but it is only fairly recently that a broad range of artists have taken to it as a regular medium through which to express themselves in a contemporary manner. Vu Thang, the dynamic Hanoi artist, showed recently at Trang An Gallery just how powerful lacquer work, mixed with other media, can be. Lacquer is a good “example of using tradition in a contemporary context,” says Pham Quang Vinh.
Many artists are still producing semiabstract and figurative work for the market. But there are some never names around. Tran Van Thao and Do Hoang Tuong are considered two of the most interesting and promising painters currently working in Ho Chi Minh City. Thao, before 1992, painted nature scenes and landscape but is now inspired by “my remembrances of the war. Abstraction is the only style in which I can express my feelings.”
Artist’s group such as the “Gang of Five,” in Hanoi, and “Recent Works” group, in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, continue to work together and their members are known overseas. Foreign artists’ exchanges such as the Dutch-Vietnamese workshop, “Dalat Dialogue,” in 1995, and “April Colors,” in Hue, in 1996, included artists from America, France, Australia, Japan, and Vietnam. The presence of foreign artists which includes Eric Leroux (France), Nguyen Cam (France), Russell Craig (Australia), Bradford Edwards (the United States), Maritta Nurmi (Finland), and Veronika Radulovic (Germany) – has initiated, at grassroots level, exchanges which will be felt for a long time to come.
The changes in Vietnam’s current art scene have been welcomed by most artists. There is also greater enthusiasm, an elevated sense of self-confidence and defection among the artists, the vast majority of whom are men. There are different pressures now, though, and different standards. “In the past, I made more works, now I do less,” says the artist Le Quang Ha. “I spend more time on one painting. In the past, I was perhaps not so careful in my work.”
“Five to ten years ago, the art was terrible, but since the Government has opened up, the quality has improved. For me the best time to be an artist is now, in Hanoi,” says Thanh Chuong, one of the most important contemporary lacquer artists. “Now artists have better skills, there are now more styles than before. Now there is more choice. In the past, if someone asked a painter to paint a picture, they told the artist what to paint. Sometimes a number of artists worked on one painting. I can now do what I like and use my own ideas. It is a good time for Vietnamese artists. Artists are now more independent. The artists’ ways of selling their work have changed. Some artists paint and sell immediately. Others hold onto their works.”
These are the sentiments expressed by many young professional artists. To meet the greater sophistication, not only of the country’s major collectors, but also the international art community’s expectations of high standards, is definitely now an important driving force among artists. It is a question of improving or be left behind; taking a professional approach is more important than ever before.
“Artists have improved their skills. Now there are many more artists so they have to improve their skills if they are to survive as artists. Artists in Hanoi are much more open-minded and they think more about their work. Now it is easier for artists to go abroad and so they are able to see what is happening elsewhere,” says Pham Minh Tuan. “At this time, artists have a better understanding about themselves. They can live off their art now and don’t need other jobs.” But living off one’s work is not easy. While prices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City command between US$400 and US$3,000, a dealer may take 20% on the sale. But few dealers will handle work on consignment. They prefer to buy, which means that the artist might not obtain the best price for his work.
There are two quite distinct markets for contemporary Vietnamese art: local and international, although there is also a growing interest among some regional collectors, particularly in HongKong, where Gallerie La Vong leads the way with quality shows, Singapore, and Japan. The purchasing trends have changed, too, though the major buyers in some galleries tend still to be foreigners, individuals and overseas museums.
“During the past five years, we have sold a lot of paintings. I would say tat 95% of the buyers have been foreigners. Many Vietnamese do collect art, but as the economy improves, we expect to see many more,” says Nguyen Lai of Hanoi’s Nam Son Gallery. “Vietnamese are influenced by other countries, certainly. But they have their own style and preferences and these are not really influenced by overseas ideas. The culture and environment is quite different.”
Salon Natasha, the first gallery in Vietnam to be opened by a foreigner, Natasha Kraevskaia, took “different art” to its heart from the outset. Showing such artists as Vu Dan Tan, Truong Tan, and Le Hong Thai (a member of the International Association of Lacquer Painters, in Japan), as well as a host of foreign artists, Kraevskaia as followed the belief that her gallery should have “a special spirit and atmosphere, and represents the reluctance to separate the world of art from daily life.”
Cyril Lapointe, of the Red River Gallery, Hanoi, notes also the changes in the people who are buying art, as well as those affecting the artists at a more personal level.” The majority who buy are Westerners, many of them already resident in Asia,” he says. ” When I stated the gallery (two and-a-half years ago, my clientele was expatriate. About a year ago, I began to have local Vietnamese collectors buying. Now there are museums and institutions and government ministries buying more art. I see Vietnamese companies buying young Vietnamese artists work.
“Artists now are more professional. And the relationship between artists and galleries has changed as it has done with overseas galleries and museums and collectors. For the moment, the best artists who will continue to be there are those who can cope with the changes. Yet, with all the changes there are few artists who deal politics and social changes in their work”….
“In the past, collectors perhaps looked at it only as an investment,” says Thanh Chuong, “now they are looking at the art for itself.” Collectors are at the heart of the Vietnamese art world, corporate as well as individual. These men and women are responsible for maintaining private collections that might otherwise have gone abroad. Do Huy Bac and Tran Hau Tuan, to name but two of the most active, have built impressive collections. Both Bac and Tuan highlight one of the most important trends in contemporary Vietnamese art which is that they are now traveling overseas to purchase the work of leading Vietnamese painters and to bring it home….
Trying to predict the future is always dangerous. Yet it is possible to see with some measure of clarity what the near future may hold. As the economic situation improves, a strong and constant sale base will be established in the market. The decline of the market over the past two years has led to a more moderate pricing system across the board. One might expect to see more installation art being made, as well as more sculpture and ceramics. As more artists are shown overseas and come into contact with foreign artists working and exhibiting in Vietnam, we will see fresh flights of imagination and strong individual visual statements….