A vi­tal art beat

Hanoi’s cul­tural scene is flour­ish­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - NATASHA DRA­GUN

When I first vis­ited Hanoi in 1995, the art scene mostly con­sisted of Old Quar­ter shops sell­ing kitsch wa­ter­colours of women in rice fields. For all the hype Viet­namese art had re­ceived in­ter­na­tion­ally af­ter the re­forms known as Doi Moi, there was very lit­tle in the way of in­de­pen­dent gal­leries or ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces show­cas­ing the city’s wealth of con­tem­po­rary cre­ative tal­ent.

For many years, the only way to gain any un­der­stand­ing of Hanoi’s artis­tic land­scape was to visit the Viet­nam Fine Arts Mu­seum, a for­mer girls’ school trans­formed into a space hous­ing more than 2000 arte­facts. Af­ter Doi Moi, the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion in 1986 to al­low for­eign trade and pri­vate own­er­ship, artists seized op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­con­nect with the global art scene and to cre­ate more than just pic­tures of heroic work­ers and peas­ants.

The Gang of Five — Hanoi artists Hong Viet Dung, Ha Tri Hieu, Dang Xuan Hoa, Tran Luong and Pham Quang Vinh — led the charge and rose to in­ter­na­tional fame in the 1990s for their neo-clas­si­cal ex­pres­sion­ist work. Oth­ers fol­lowed and are cred­ited with lay­ing the foun­da­tion for the coun­try’s al­ter­na­tive art move­ment.

A hand­ful of pi­o­neers used this mo­men­tum to open spa­ces nur­tur­ing in­creas­ingly ex­per­i­men­tal art forms, en­cour­ag­ing di­a­logue and the shar­ing of ideas. Iran Phuong Mai, the daugh­ter of poet and art critic Duong Tuong, was one. Her name­sake Mai Gallery is cred­ited as Hanoi’s first pri­vately owned ex­hi­bi­tion space open to the pub­lic. Be­fore it, non-state-ap­proved art events were mostly un­der­ground af­fairs in homes and cafes.

It in­spired the launch of other niche es­tab­lish­ments, such as the Apri­cot Gallery, which is still op­er­at­ing as a show­case for min­i­mal­ist artists such as Le Thiet Cuong, whose fam­ily fled Hanoi for the coun­try­side from 1964 to 1973 to es­cape Amer­i­can bomb­ings. About the same time, Amer­i­can art con­sul­tant Suzanne Lecht recog­nised the po­ten­tial and con­verted a French villa into a cre­ative sa­lon. Lecht, who es­corted then US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton around the city’s gal­leries in 2000, launched Art Viet­nam Gallery in 2002, of­fer­ing a sur­vey of the avant-garde scene. She moved lo­ca­tions a num­ber of times, then fi­nally closed ear­lier this year to re­turn to her orig­i­nal 1994 home-based gallery, now open by ap­point­ment.

When it launched, in 1998, Nha San Stu­dio was con­tro­ver­sial and ground­break­ing in equal mea­sure. The first artist-led and non-profit con­tem­po­rary art project in Viet­nam, the stu­dio was a space for founders Nguyen Manh Duc and Tran Luong to nur­ture some of the most imag­i­na­tive and dar­ing artists. They were forced to close in 2011 un­der pres­sure from au­thor­i­ties, who were al­leg- edly un­happy with a the­atri­cal per­for­mance fea­tur­ing a naked ac­tor. But Duc and Luong per­sisted, and went on to or­gan­ise a se­ries of mo­bile ex­hi­bi­tions in the years that fol­lowed be­fore start­ing the Nha San Col­lec­tive in 2013 to sup­port and chal­lenge artists through pub­lic ex­hi­bi­tions, ed­u­ca­tion and ex­change.

They set up their head­quar­ters in art precinct Zone 9, which was short-lived but much-loved. Home to more than 60 stu­dios, gal­leries, restau­rants and bars, the hub was ini­tially des­tined to be­come Hanoi’s ver­sion of Bei­jing’s 798 Art District, pro­vid­ing a safe space for a new gen­er­a­tion of ex­per­i­men­tal artists. Au­thor­i­ties closed it af­ter 10 months — of­fi­cially for vi­o­lat­ing safety reg­u­la­tions, un­of­fi­cially for po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial rea­sons.

The col­lec­tive has moved mul­ti­ple times since and is now based at Hanoi Cre­ative City, a multi-storey build­ing that is de­vel­op­ing into Zone 9, Mark II. The graf­fi­tisplashed space is slowly fill­ing with live-mu­sic venues, in­de­pen­dent de­sign bou­tiques and an out­let of Cre­ative Lab by UP, of­fer­ing arty work­shops and classes. It has been open two years, but in a city where gal­leries come and go in a mat­ter of months, HCC might fi­nally have the sup­port to de­velop into the in­te­grated cre­ative hub Hanoi re­ally needs.

“We’re push­ing the bound­aries, but not step­ping over them,” says Vin­cent Nguyen, one of Hanoi’s new gen­er­a­tion of artists mak­ing the most of changing gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ment. I meet him at DocLab, an in­cu­ba­tor for film and video art. It’s a “small cen­tre for big ideas”, says Nguyen, one of many stu­dents mak­ing the most of Doc- Lab’s fa­cil­i­ties, such as work­shops, cour­ses, equip­ment and dis­cus­sion groups for in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers and me­dia artists. It opened in 2009 and has ex­pe­ri­enced con­sid­er­able re­sis­tance, pri­mar­ily be­cause many Viet­namese films are still pro­duced by or­der of the gov­ern­ment. But DocLab’s founders, the Goethe-In­sti­tut, Ger­many’s global not-for-profit cul­tural in­sti­tute, and the present man­agers are adamant it will thrive, and “push open a door to the world for Viet­namese doc­u­men­tary films”.

The owner of art-filled bar Ta­dioto, Viet­name­seAmer­i­can jour­nal­ist Nguyen Qui Duc, was an­other of the ten­ants forced out of Zone 9 when it closed. His new base in the city’s Old Quar­ter is also a place for cre­atives to find in­spi­ra­tion and share ideas. Duc hosts ex­per­i­men­tal live mu­sic and spo­ken-word per­for­mances, which vis­i­tors en­joy in rooms filled with orig­i­nal art­works, an­tiques and whim­si­cal tchotchkes (trin­kets). Lo­cated in a French villa nearby, Manzi is a cafe cum gallery with an ex­hi­bi­tion space ded­i­cated to up-and-com­ing artists such as Nguyen Manh Hung, who sees the com­i­cal side of the coun­try’s rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion and mod­erni­sa­tion.

Even the city’s ho­tels pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for the scene to flour­ish. In the cen­tury-old Sof­i­tel Le­gend Metropole Hanoi, trav­ellers can check out con­tem­po­rary art in the lobby be­fore head­ing to the ter­race bar over­look­ing the pool. And on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake, the bou­tique Apri­cot Ho­tel (also be­hind Apri­cot Gallery) has more than 600 art­works, in­clud­ing pieces by Mai Thu, a master of silk paint­ing, and Phan Ke An, whose po­lit­i­cal paint­ings caused a stir dur­ing the Viet­nam war. There are a num­ber of paint­ings by Bui Xuan Phai, whose work was banned for decades.

One of the best ways to un­der­stand Hanoi’s cre­ative evo­lu­tion is through the lives and works of its artists on a So­phie’s Art Tour. Launched by Bri­tish expat So­phie Hughes, who has worked in the arts in Asia for al­most 10 years, the ex­cur­sions in­clude pri­vate col­lec­tions, mu­se­ums, stu­dios and con­tem­po­rary gal­leries, with in­sight­ful com­men­tary on those who have stud­ied, fought and doc­u­mented sig­nif­i­cant changes in 20th and 21st-cen­tury Viet­nam. “I could see an in­ter­est­ing scene de­vel­op­ing,” says Hughes, who first vis­ited the coun­try in 2004. “There are artists who have had in­cred­i­ble lives.” • apri­cot­gallery.com.vn • apri­cotho­tels.com • sof­i­tel-le­gend-metropole-hanoi.com • so­phiesart­tour.com

So­phie Hughes leads an art tour, top; Viet­nam Fine Arts Mu­seum, above cen­tre; art-filled Taidoto bar, above

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