Vietnamese Art: Urgency
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.
THE PRODUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE
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)