Viet­na­mese Art: Ur­gen­cy

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A fee­ling of ur­gen­cy do­mi­nates Viet­na­mese contem­po­ra­ry art: the ur­gen­cy of the need to re­write his­to­ry, to bear wit­ness, to construct an art scene, to edu­cate and make a po­pu­la­tion aware. The war and its conse­quences still weigh hea­vi­ly on lo­cal art, even if more and more ar­tists are now ad­dres­sing more recent so­cial, po­li­ti­cal and cultu­ral is­sues. Their over­ri­ding concern is to reap­pro­priate a frag­men­ted and constant­ly chan­ging coun­try. In spite of the ob­vious dy­na­mism and the ma­ny pri­vate ini­tia­tives, the al­most non-existent mar­ket, cen­sor­ship, a pres­crip­tive state and the ab­sence of pu­blic sup­port threa­ten this in­no­va­tive ener­gy.

It is dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss Viet­na­mese art wi­thout first put­ting it in context. At war from 1945 to 1975, the coun­try re­mai­ned iso­la­ted un­til 1986, the year the coun­try adop­ted its so­cia­list-orien­ted mar­ket eco­no­my un­der the name Doi Moi. The birth of Viet­na­mese contem­po­ra­ry is al­so da­ted to that year. A new free­dom al­lo­wed the lan­guage of art to evolve and the in­cep­tion of cri­ti­cal ar­tis­tic thin­king, es­pe­cial­ly as of the 1990s. The Viet­na­mese com­mu­nist party, at the head of a one party state, still do­mi­nates the de­fi­ni­tion and su­per­vi­sion of cultu­ral po­li­cy, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion of any ar­tis­tic event has be va­li­da­ted by the pu­blic au­tho­ri­ties. Conse­quent­ly, cen­sor­ship is rife and it is com­mon for ex­hi­bi­tions and al­ter­na­tive ve­nues to be clo­sed down since the state sup­ports on­ly tra­di­tio­nal art made in kee­ping with so­cia­list rea­list ca­nons and re­jects contem­po­ra­ry art. In fact, most mem­bers of the pu­blic have lit­tle sense of the exis­tence of “contem­po­ra­ry art,” and in­deed the term may not real­ly be ap­pro­priate. If what is meant is experimental art with a re­flec­tive, cri­ti­cal content, then per­haps the term “in­de­pendent” is to be pre­fer­red, since it takes no­thing from the West but marks a fun­da­men­tal break with of­fi­cial art, which conti­nues to be taught in uni­ver­si­ties. Against a pro­pa­gan­da dis­course which co­vers all areas of so­cie­ty, ar­tists as­sert other truths. Most of them seek to de­cons­truct exis­ting nar­ra­tives in or­der to pro­vide new pers­pec­tives on the coun­try’s his­to­ry and si­tua­tion. Tran Tuan, for example, took his fa­mi­ly sto­ry as the ba­sis for Fo­re­fin­ger (2013), an ins­tal­la­tion of mul­ti­co­lo­red so­fas in the form of fin­gers made of ani­mal skins or hu­man hair. They re­present fin­gers that the ar­tist’s grand­fa­ther de­li­be­ra­te­ly cut from his chil­dren’s hands to keep them from being conscrip­ted for the war against Cam­bo­dia. For Tran, born in 1981, the war and its scars will re­main sen­si­tive ques­tions as long as Viet­na­mese are igno­rant of what real­ly hap­pe­ned. These themes may seem re­pe­ti­tive when vie­wed from abroad, but Dinh Q. Lê, too, be­lieves that there is still urgent work to be done with the lo­cal pu­blic. Born in Viet­nam in 1968 but rai­sed in the Uni­ted States, this ar­tist has been constant­ly del­ving in­to the coun­try’s recent past in or­der to shed light on its com­plexi­ty. Light and Be­lief (2012), for example, is a col­lec­tion of sketches made by Viet­na­mese sol­diers du­ring the war, which the ar­tist col­lects. These as­to­ni­shin­gly se­rene dra­wings tell yet ano­ther sto­ry. The work is ac­com­pa­nied by in­ter­views, ty­pi­cal of this ar­tist’s me­thod and his at­tempt to re­cons­ti­tute a col­lec­tive me­mo­ry. For The Far­mers and the He­li­cop­ters (2006) he gives us the voice of Viet­na­mese men and wo­men for whom the ubi­qui­tous he­li­cop­ters came to sym­bo­lize the war. Lê is trying to break free from the cli­chés pro­pa­ga­ted by Ame­ri­can culture, which for him are just as re­duc­tive as of­fi­cial pro­pa­gan­da. Ac­cor­ding to him, the Uni­ted States have ne­ver stop­ped fa­bri­ca­ting the his­to­ry of the Viet­nam War, a his­to­ry that he does not re­co­gnize in which the Viet­na­mese people are pre­sen­ted as mere back­ground, tee­ming and de­hu­ma­ni­zed ant-like fi­gures.


For these ar­tists, their work of­ten pro­vides an op­por­tu­ni­ty to car­ry out re­search, to dis­co­ver the culture and his­to­ry of their own coun­try, which has ma­ny gaps. Re­search in the field, the ob­ser­va­tion of eve­ry­day life and mee­tings with mar­gi­na­li­zed po­pu­la­tions—their ap­proach is al­most eth­no­lo­gi­cal. The pro­duc­tion of know­ledge seems to be one of the fun­da­men­tal at­tri­butes of Viet­na­mese contem­po­ra­ry art. Born in 1986, Truong Cong Tung was quick to swap pain­ting and lac­quer for vi­deo and ins­tal­la­tion, which he felt were bet­ter ve­hicles for conveying mea­ning. For him there is no bar­rier bet­ween art and do­cu­men­ta­ry, al­though that is not a term he uses to de­fine his work. The at­tach­ment to the land, po­pu­la­tion mo­ve­ments and the ex­pro­pria­tion of pea­sants are at the heart of his themes. Across the Forest (2016) is a vi­deo ins­tal­la-

tion that do­cu­ments the si­tua­tion of the pea­sants of his na­tive re­gion, the Ja­rai eth­nic mi­no­ri­ty, who are threa­te­ned by de­fo­res­ta­tion and in­dus­tria­li­za­tion, two phe­no­me­na that are trans­for­ming their en­vi­ron­ment. In Viet­nam the land is still the pro­per­ty of the state and one as­pect of the coun­try’s mo­der­ni­za­tion is the fre­quen­cy of for­ced po­pu­la­tion mo­ve­ments. This kind of aes­the­tic do­cu­men­ta­ry na­tu­ral­ly raises the ques­tion of the na­ture and le­gi­ti­ma­cy of the know­ledge that is pro­du­ced. In Let­ters from Pan­du­ran­ga (2015) Nguyen Trinh Thi consi­ders the Cham mi­no­ri­ty in the cen­tral re­gions of Viet­nam but uses as the me­dium for their voice let­ters writ­ten by the coun­try’s eth­nic ma­jo­ri­ty, the Kinh. This ar­tist born in Ha­noi in 1973 ques­tions the au­tho­ri­ty of his own dis­course. Who is qua­li­fied to speak in the name of these mi­no­ri­ties? Can an ar­tist speak for other people? For Tran Luong the pro­duc­tion of know­ledge ne­ces­sa­ri­ly takes the form of par­ti­ci­pa­to­ry ex­changes. Born in Ha­noi in 1960, he is a pio­neer of Viet­na­mese contem­po­ra­ry art and the founder of the coun­try’s first in­de­pendent art space, Nha San Stu­dio, which ope­ned in 1998 and was clo­sed by the go­vern­ment in 2010. To­day, he sees him­self as more of an ac­ti­vist, ta­king a high­ly com­mit­ted, di­dac­tic ap­proach. Most of the time he works in tough areas, see­king out mo­dest wor­kers and those ex­clu­ded by so­cie­ty. Tran wants to re­found art, to turn it in­to a cri­ti­cal ap­pa­ra­tus ca­pable of trans­for­ming a so­cie­ty foun­ded on be­lief in­to a so­cie­ty foun­ded on know­ledge. For his per­for­mance Lap Loe (2007–) he pro­vokes the au­dience by as­king people to hit him with a red scarf, the com­mu­nist sym­bol of ca­ma­ra­de­rie. Like Tran, most of these ar­tists were trai­ned in pain­ting or other tra­di­tio­nal tech­niques. Tea­ching to­day still draws on the tra­di­tion ins­ti­tu­ted with the crea­tion of the Beaux-Arts school in Ha­noi by the French in 1925. Wes­tern tech­niques are com­bi­ned with lo­cal ar­ti­sa­nal ones. So-cal­led contem­po­ra­ry tech­niques are the­re­fore an as­ser­tion of free­dom, the most fre­quent­ly used being ins­tal­la­tion and per­for­mance. Not that tra­di­tion is aban­do­ned in these cases; ra­ther, it reap­pears but in a more concep­tual or even iden­ti­ty-dri­ven guise. For example, Bui Cong Khanh (born 1972) col­la­bo­ra­ted with ar­ti­sans in his vil­lage to create the ins­tal­la­tion Dis­lo­cate (2016), com­pri­sing a large en­semble in jack-fruit wood. Al­though he ear­ned his di­plo­ma as a pain­ter, Bui likes to work with wood, ce­ra­mics, plas­tics or tex­tiles, using these me­diums to re­vi­sit tra­di­tion. It so hap­pens that his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were a ca­bi­net­ma­ker and a wood car­ver, and so this ins­tal­la­tion is a way of brin­ging his fa­mi­ly his­to­ry in­to re­la­tion with that of his re­gion. Bui is known for his se­ries of vases in blue and white por­ce­lain whose mo­tifs in the Chi­nese style illus­trate the current conflicts bet­ween the two coun­tries. This work illus­trates the se­mi­nal rich­ness of the Chi­nese he­ri­tage while em­pha­si­zing the current threat re­pre­sen­ted by Chi­na. Viet­na­mese art draws on the ma­ny tra­di­tions dis­til­led by the cultu­ral in­fluences ab­sor­bed by the coun­try over its long his­to­ry. From the West, for example, it takes the myth of Lao­coon, which is com­bi­ned with the Hin­du myth of the chur­ning of the sea of nec­tar, when the ser­pent king al­most poi­sons the whole world. These are some of the ele­ments be­hind the vi­deo ins­tal­la­tion Ser­pents’ Tails (2015) by Uu­dam Tran Nguyen, which seems to be trying sum up all the ener­gies that consti­tute to­day’s Viet­nam in the form of a mul­ti­co­lo­red, ten­ta­cu­lar crea­ture swol­len with air, a mons­ter that man must fight while at the same time fee­ding on its ener­gy. The sub­ject here is much more the mul­ti­fa­rious and frag­men­ted iden­ti­ty of Viet­nam, ca­pable of ta­king on any kind of ap­pea­rance, any form, than the harm­ful ef­fects of mo­der­ni­za­tion. If com­mu­nist idea­lism is a thing of the past, what is it that conti­nues to bind people to­ge­ther?

Viet­na­mese people ra­re­ly use the pro­nouns Me or I but tend ins­tead to po­si­tion them­selves in the context of so­cial re­la­tions.(1) Des­pite the de­ve­lop­ment of the mar­ket eco­no­my, the sense of be­lon­ging to a com­mu­ni­ty re­mains ve­ry strong. Ho­we­ver, this an­cient so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion is being sha­ken by the coun­try’s eco­no­mic growth and fast mo­der­ni­za­tion.


Per­for­mance is one of the me­diums in which ar­tists choose to re­spond to these changes, es­pe­cial­ly be­cause it of­fers a means of ap­pro­pria­ting space and re­thin­king the po­si­tion of the in­di­vi­dual in re­la­tion to a new, di­so­rien­ting en­vi­ron­ment. This is one way of un­ders­tan­ding the per­for­mance made by Nguyen Huy An in 2007, when he mea­su­red the streets of Ha­noi with thread and then ga­the­red this up in­to balls in a ges­ture that com­bi­ned the fa­mi­liar tech­niques used by his fa­mi­ly, who are wea­vers, with the at­tempt to find or­der in chaos. For 1120 Steps K.N. (2012), the ar­tist mea­su­red the height of a buil­ding with sheets of pa­per, which he then pre­sen­ted as a pile in a conden­sed, hu­man-sca­led ver­sion of the buil­ding, ma­king this height sud­den­ly ac­ces­sible and tan­gible. The new in­di­vi­dua­list va­lues pro­mo­ted by so­cia­list ca­pi­ta­lism are not ne­ces­sa­ri­ly sy­no­ny­mous with the li­be­ra­tion of the in­di­vi­duals. Cru­shed by an unstable, ag­gres­sive en­vi­ron­ment, ob­ses­sed by new ma­te­rial needs, and so­li­ci­ted by both pro­pa­gan­da and ad­ver­ti­sing, the in­di­vi­dual is squee­zed. Pham Ngoc Duong’s sculp­tures, People in the Ci­ty (2010), are por­traits of these ci­ti­zens who are as­phyxia­ted, re­du­ced to com­pact, pon­de­rous blocs. Vo­lun­ta­rist po­li­cies, cor­rup­tion and res­tric­tions on free­dom all weigh on the in­di­vi­dual. Se­ve­ral ar­tists re­present the hu­man fi­gure as fa­ce­less, or with blur­red fea­tures, as if the iden­ti­ty is mis­sing. Nguyen Thai Tuan’s Black Pain­tings show men and men with holes where their faces should be. They are ano­ny­mous, in­ter­chan­geable fi­gures caught up in a coer­cive sys­tem. The tube of paint in Bad Co­lour (2014) by Nguyen Manh Hung re­pre­sents the free­dom of the ar­tist, which is tram­pled un­der­foot by the mi­li­ta­ry. In or­der to get through the net of cen­sor­ships, cri­ti­cism is usual­ly for­mu­la­ted el­lip­ti­cal­ly, ad­dres­sed to an au­dience al­rea­dy in the know. For example, a vi­deo by Nguyen Trinh Thi, Un­sub­tit­led (2010), func­tions as an act of re­sis­tance and pro­vo­ca­tion. The ar­tist fil­med the com­mu­ni­ty of ar­tists stan­ding as they ate. Must they give ac­count of them­selves to the go­vern­ment even for such a ba­sic act? The dis­so­lu­tion of the in­di­vi­dual is par­ti­cu­lar­ly to the fore in the work of Tif­fa­ny Chung. In her to­po­gra­phic en­sembles, men are re­du­ced to mold, dots and sta­tis­tics. This ar­tist born in Da­nang in 1969 but rai­sed in the Uni­ted States works with geo­gra­phi­cal maps, ana­ly­zing in depth the da­ta they im­ply in or­der to bring out their so­cial, psy­cho­lo­gi­cal and his­to­ri­cal di­men­sions. She is par­ti­cu­lar­ly in­ter­es­ted in the hu­man cost of ur­ban de­ve­lop­ment in terms of cri­sis, the loss of col­lec­tive me­mo­ry and so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal da­mage which oc­curs when po­pu­la­tions are for­ci­bly mo­ved. An ar­cheo­lo­gy pro­ject for fu­ture re­mem­brance (2013) do­cu­ments the his­to­ry of the Thu Thiem dis­trict in the sub­urbs of Ho Chi Minh Ci­ty. Once one of the re­gion’s bu­siest mar­kets, to­day the area has been ra­zed as part of em­ble­ma­tic plans for the crea­tion of a bu­si­ness dis­trict. The Viet Kieu, Viet­na­mese ar­tists who grew up abroad and then came back to live and work in their home coun­try, are no doubt the ones who are doing most to ex­pand the

treat­ment of lo­cal is­sues by pla­cing them in a glo­bal context. For example, the ques­tion of re­fu­gees is ra­di­cal­ly re­vi­si­ted in the work of Chung and of Dinh Q Lê. His ins­tal­la­tion Era­sure (2012), consis­ting of a boat run aground amid­st thou­sands of fa­mi­ly pho­to­graphs, ac­com­pa­nied by a vi­deo, speaks not on­ly of the his­to­ry of the boat people but al­so about the set­tling of Aus­tra­lia, and, cur­rent­ly, the si­tua­tion of the mi­grants now hea­ding to Eu­rope. The Viet Kieu have done a great to sup­port and sti­mu­late the lo­cal scene, at least in the South. Lê, Chung and the ar­tists of the Pro­pel­ler Group have crea­ted San Art, the coun­try’s most ac­tive col­lec­tive space. The Nha San Col­lec­tive in Ha­noi has al­so crea­ted an ar­tist-run space. The pur­pose of such ini­tia­tives is to off­set the de­fi­cien­cies of the coun­try’s art tea­ching and lack of mar­ket struc­tures. These spaces pro­vide ins­truc­tion in eve­ry­thing, from the role of the cu­ra­tor to that of cri­tic, and in­clu­ding pu­blic re­la­tions The ob­vious risk being that it will create a sys­tem clo­sed in on it­self. Still, the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of col­lec­tives is cer­tain­ly sa­ving ar­tists from so­li­tude by crea­ting struc­tures condu­cive to crea­ti­vi­ty and ex­change. In the ab­sence of pu­blic fi­nance, fo­rei­gn foun­da­tions do the work of sup­por­ting contem­po­ra­ry art by ma­king spaces avai­lable. Still, it is of­ten ea­sier for Viet­na­mese ar­tists to ex­hi­bit abroad, which of course dis­tances them from the ve­ry pu­blic they want to speak to. The of­fi­cial stra­te­gy for cultu­ral de­ve­lop­ment was de­fi­ned by the prime mi­nis­ter in a mul­tian­nual plan run­ning up to 2020. Its es­sen­tial ob­jec­tive is to de­fend pa­trio­tism, ideo­lo­gi­cal awa­re­ness, ri­gor, hard work and fa­mi­ly va­lues. In such a context, Viet­na­mese ar­tists are constant­ly ha­ving to adapt and invent new lan­guages in or­der to as­sert their free­dom. Re­si­lient and te­na­cious, they are a bit like the men and wo­men sculp­ted by Nguyen Tran Tam in We Ne­ver Fell (2010), with their boun­ce­back bases: al­ways being pu­shed, they ne­ver fall and al­ways re­co­ver their po­si­tion.

Trans­la­tion, C. Pen­war­den

(1) Re­cherche sur l’iden­ti­té de la culture viet­na­mienne, Tran Ngoc Thëm – Edi­tions Thë Gioi 2016.

Ca­ro­line Ha Thuc is the au­thor of L’Art contem­po­rain en Chine, Nou­velles Edi­tions Sca­la; Af­ter 2000: Contem­po­ra­ry Art in Chi­na, Mars In­ter­na­tio­nal Pu­bli­ca­tions.

Tran Luong. « Lap Loe ». Per­for­mance au Goethe Ins­ti­tute, Ha­noï. 2013. (Court. l’ar­tiste) Ci-des­sous / be­low: Truong Cong Tung. « Across the Forest ». 2016. Ins­tal­la­tion, vi­déo

Tran Tuan. « Fo­re­fin­ger ». 2013. Tech­nique mixte. (Court de l’ar­tiste). Mixed me­dia

Bui Cong Khanh. « For­tress Temple, The Sto­ry of Blue, White and Red ». 2013. Por­ce­laine peinte à la main. 158 x 47 cm. (Court. 10 Chan­ce­ry Lane Gal­le­ry). Por­ce­lain, hand-pain­ted un­der­glaze blue and red Dinh Q. Lê. « The Far­mers and the He­li­cop­ters ». 2006. Ins­tal­la­tion vi­déo, 3 ca­naux, 15 mn (Court. 10 Chan­ce­ry Lane Gal­le­ry). 3 chan­nel vi­deo

Bui Cong Khanh. « Dis­lo­cate ». 2016.

(Ph. Tran Minh Thai)

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