Some thoughts on art, visual culture and general eye candy
I make pictures like I read books – I have lots on the go at the same time. This close-up detail of the acrylic paint and the pencil on the watercolour background of this drawing from the Chemical Flowers series is finished, but it’s friends in the series are not mature enough yet, so this big sister is waiting till they can all be introduced to polite society together.
I found this picture of a Christmas card I made as a child. It’s funny now to see all those lit candles and box of matches all over the floor, with children walking around obliviously. I assure you that my family was very careful and such reckless fire hazards were entirely the product of my imagination. I wish you all a bright and imaginative end of 2012 and a happy new year!
This essay, originally written in French by Laurent Colin, was first published in Vietnamese on the art discussion website Soi.com.vn. Since Soi does not currently publish in other languages, in collaboration with the author I edited the English translation shared here. The opinions expressed are those of Laurent Colin and do not necessarily represent my views. Copyright remains with Laurent Colin.
If we try to assess the evolution of the artistic production in Vietnam over the last twenty years, the immediate conclusion which comes to mind is rather depressing. It seems now clear that, whereas the economy has been growing since the end of the 80s, the arts during that time have been going through a period of stagnation, if not a regression. Oddly enough, this happened precisely when galleries and dedicated art shows, inside but also outside Vietnam, were flourishing with the inevitable “workshops”, “symposiums” and others vacuous “art talks”.
As noticed ironically by Mai Van Hien (1923-2006) when I last met him in Hanoi in 2003, there have never been so many artists and galleries in the capital of Vietnam but paradoxically so little art. The discourse about art appears to have progressively replaced art itself.
The fact that the Vietnamese art scene seemed unable to emerge on the international stage, whether in the context of sales organized by renowned auction houses [i] or in international art fairs – and in spite of desperate attempts to imitate Chinese or Indian kitsch which dominate these kind of events – or to awkwardly step in the world of video, performance or installation – illustrates what some people already call a failure. Others, more optimistic, still think it only marks a temporary empty period for Vietnamese art.
The impatience which prevailed at the beginning of 2000 in the face of unkept promises by the young generation, little by little, left room for disappointment, boredom and, finally, indifference. Tired of artists who were getting nowhere, the small circle of real art lovers in Vietnam seems to have given up, leaving the stage to the troops of foreign advisors, overseas Vietnamese or to rich expatriates, suddenly self-promoted established collectors.
The artists themselves are not at all fooled by this situation. The titles as well as the content of some exhibitions which I saw back in 2009 in Hanoi candidly reveal their state of confusion (Where are we now? ArtVietnam Gallery; Who do you think we are? Bui Gallery). Another sign of the time is that some artists decided to stop painting altogether. Do Phan, for example, now dedicates himself to writing, a means of expression still resisting the commercialization, superficiality and pretentiousness that nowadays too often characterize Vietnamese visual arts.
If, for once, we decide to leave aside the usual discourses which consist of getting over-excited by the first exhibition of any Fine Art School fresh graduate, or in expressing empathy for the “poor Vietnamese artist victim of his or her environment”, and try to analyze the real causes that led to this situation, we can understand quite easily that the responsibilities are varied and interlinked : galleries which are not doing their job, foreign institutions which run desperately behind a so-called Avant-Garde, immature artists following what they perceive as market expectations in order to receive in return international recognition, the non-existence of critical discourse and the absence of local public interest and domestic market.
To begin, let’s forget about the robotic works of Nguyen Thanh Binh, Hong Viet Dung, Thanh Chuong, Bui Huu Hung and others which saturate the galleries. These actors have no other ambition than to sell by the kilo products meeting the expectations of foreign clientele. And, after all, why not if it works? Still it is sad to notice also that talented artists such as Dang Xuan Hoa or Hoang Phuong Vy tend too often these days to adopt mass production and even plagiarize themselves.
If we look more seriously at the young creations exhibited in galleries worthy of the name or institutions in Vietnam or on the international stage, the situation is no less worrying.
Le Quang Ha is probably one of the most gifted artists of the new generation, even if, given the general level, that compliment does not mean much. Having shown gouaches and very honest oils on canvas in the 90s, Ha quickly opted for big formats (oils but preferably lacquers) with political and provocative references: fat and contorted policemen with dark glasses, politicians or state officials with ties, sharp teeth and bulging eyes, handling threatening dogs, fighting with sprawling monsters. On some occasions, Ha also deals with international politics (e.g. with a reflection on terrorism, Bush, Bin Laden – The American Dream, Terrorists or Terrorized?). But at the end of the day, there is nothing really subversive in this criticism of the political/police violence or of the dehumanizing system. The content, as well as the technique and style, although masterful, are simplistic and the related commentary remains poor and harmless. We scratch the surface and stay at the level of the slogan or sterile provocation. The difficulties surmounted to exhibit such works in Vietnam cannot be considered proof of artistic quality, nor serve as content, any more than the commercial success presupposed by the fact that foreign collectors appear to be convinced of confronting a virulent diatribe, and reassured by the evident resemblances with what Chinese artists [ii] have produced for years.
Another rising star recently promoted by galleries is Ha Manh Thang, who recycles with a Vietnamese sauce, but with no imagination or qualms, the old recipes of Chinese Pop Art with the usual flavor of cynicism. He mixes traditional images of Vietnam (characters in costumes) or of communist propaganda (Bo Doi in uniforms) with symbols of modern life: brands (Moschino, Louis Vuitton, D&G, GAP…) and popular icons (Hello Kitty, Minnie, Batman…). In brief, here again, we find the same dullness which for years has invaded the galleries of Shanghai. Paradoxically, this rather weak production fully belongs to the westernized and mercantile influence the artist intends to condemn.
In the mid 1990s, the Hanoian art scene presented promising signs illustrated notably by the first works of three young graduates of Hanoi Fine Art School (Nguyen Quan Huy, Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Van Cuong) supported by their professor Truong Tan, this latter having rapidly acquired a certain fame due to the strength of his work on “do paper” as well as by the issues he tackled. Today, with hindsight, what remains?
Nguyen Minh Thanh has been very successful with his androgynous and often narcissistic portraits with a touch of buddhism and organic harmony. Even if aestheticism has now replaced the initial originality and if the simplicity of subjects and forms can no longer hide the lack of real content, there is no doubt that there will always be a foreign clientele for this niche.
Nguyen Quang Huy became notably known for his series of large canvases reproducing almost photographic portraits of ethnic minorities. The position of the characters diluted in blue/grey and the way they look at the viewer refers to some extent to the work of the Chinese artist Zhang Xiogang. In some cases, however, their eyes are doubled and blurred, a process already used in the 20s by Man Ray. But while Marquise Casati (Man Ray 1922) has wide open eyes full of desire and passion, the characters of Huy have lifeless eyes and, in the absence of real plasticity, his work is then reduced to an Orientalist ornament, quite close to a product by Bui Huu Hung, with enough modernity in the making to be commercially acceptable.
Finally, Nguyen Van Cuong, who began with a very interesting graphic work on paper, stagnates too and is now overstating the case by still denouncing without much imagination the usual social plagues (money, sex, corruption, and so on). He switched from “do paper” to acrylic painting or, as for Truong Tan, to lacquer. But the lacquer for Truong Tan (as for Le Quang Ha, Nguyen Minh Thanh or Nguyen Van Cuong) brings nothing. On the contrary, it sterilizes. The visual effect of lacquers replaces the spontaneity of the drawing. To convince oneself, one can compare current decorative and mannerist lacquers by Truong Tan, with his ink drawings of the 90s, in which simplicity and strength bloomed without any heavy aestheticism.
Here I have discussed some typical examples to illustrate the poverty of recent developments, but this list is far from exhaustive. To summarize, these are the issues that are damaging the credibility of contemporary Vietnamese art:
- The mass production of consumer goods rather than works of art (Bui Huu Hung, Nguyen Thanh Binh, and co.) but also the absence of renewal affecting established artists (Dinh Y Nhi);
- The proliferation of big formats as if Vietnamese artists were thereon paid per square meter by clients who want value for money;
- The opportunistic use of lacquer as a traditional material in a contemporary context (Truong Tan, Nguyen Van Cuong, Le Quang Ha, Nguyen Minh Thanh), which supposedly also adds value in the eye of the collector (who too often, unfortunately, disregards works on paper). But this pseudo-diversion of a local medium has obviously nothing to do with the traditional technique. This latter includes repeated polishing of colors patiently applied layer by layer to obtain depth and lights. These principles are totally ignored by most current artists and result in flat works without mystery, in the end rather similar to the imitation lacquered reproductions of Air France ads of the 60s, or covers of Tintin comic books, such as those found in shops on Hang Bong street;
- The overwhelming number of self-portraits: far from questioning who is looking at them (as was the case with the striking self-portraits produced by the elder generation, notably Bui Xuan Phai and Nguyen Sang), these are merely the display of insignificant egos (Le Quy Tong among others, but the list of Narcissus [iii] is long);
- The contemplative aestheticism, which to a certain extent reminds us, although in a different medium, of Tran Anh Hung’s film. The range of artists with a decorator’s instinct is quite large (from Bui Huu Hung to Nguyen Minh Thanh), portraying each time a heavy mixture of false spirituality, ancestral serenity or guaranteed Buddhist atmosphere. Imagery includes, as needed, incense, draping robes and bamboo, but also repeated ethnic references, sometimes supposedly used to denounce the traps of exoticism (Nguyen Quan Huy);
- At the opposite end of this decorative trend, we can find a strong focus on current social evils with simplistic sociological or political messages: critics of the consumer society (Pham Huy Thong, Nguyen Van Cuong), the fate of women in Vietnamese society (Nguyen Thi Chau Giang, Dinh Y Nhi), the solitude experienced in expanding big cities (the polluted megalopolis that attracts uprooted people from the countryside being opposed to the protecting structure of the village – Do Tuan Anh), basic condemnation of politics, police violence or corruption (Le Quan Ha);
- Last but not the least, and as already mentioned: the repeated Chinese references [iv]. Vietnamese artists have apparently decided to follow the path already taken many years ago by their neighbors. The latter have definitely encountered vertiginous success in the contemporary art market (in terms of sales if not in terms of quality) followed by a crisis which has sharply corrected the excesses, with only a few established names remaining and benefiting from the upturn. But in Vietnam, the “Made Like in China” is still affordable, and the crisis, in spite of the reduction in sales and closure of galleries, proved not to be enough to unmask impostures and stop the plagiarism.
© Laurent COLIN, 2011
[i] If major auction houses organized Asian Modern Art sales on a regular basis (or even South-East Asian sales), we would notice that the proportion of paintings by Vietnamese artists is limited. In parallel, the number of works by artists from Thailand, Philippines or Indonesia has constantly increased – not to mention China and India, which have always dominated these sales. Today, Vietnam is mainly represented by artists of the very first generation who emigrated and died abroad. We thus find in every sale the usual “Bunches of Flowers” from Le Pho or numerous “Mother and Child” by the same artist or his colleague Mai Thu, or the vaporous landscapes of Vu Cao Dam. The auction houses, which do not really have any expertise on Vietnamese art, no longer dare present painters of the “Vietnamese Modernity” (Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Nguyen Sang, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Tien Chung) after selling works which proved to be fakes – damaging their credibility. The new generation is absent.
[ii] Cf. Yang Shaobin and his series “Police”.
[iii] The Dogma Self-Portrait Award organized in 2011 was in principle an interesting initiative but led to uneven results. In the best cases, the artists’ technique managed to compensate for the lack of original introspection.
[iv] We could add in this list of Chinese influences and without being exhaustive at all, the “Hyper-realism” (cf. Le Vuong) or the “Neo-realism” (cf. Nguyen Van Phuc) which inevitably refers to the works of Liu Xiodong with the same approach of the body or the “Cynical Realism” directly inspired by Fan Lijun or Yue Minjum. Similarly, even if Tran Trong Vu’s artistic approach certainly does not belong to the same marketing logic, we can’t help it but think that his grinning characters look terribly like the hilarious chaps produced by Yue Minjum. Based in France, Vu decided several years ago to turn his back to the poetic works of the 80s/90s to opt for installations using in particular plastic support for his paintings. It is yet not sure that, in spite of the honesty and ambition of such projects, that these installations targeted at Institutions have more to say or in a more personal way than his first works.
Artists as victims of their environment?
To explain the current slump in Vietnamese art, and the absence of international recognition, there is a natural (and too easy) tendency to exonerate local artists by presenting them as “victims”. Victims of difficult material conditions, victims of a narrow-minded Fine Art School which continues to privilege conventional education ignoring conceptual art and the new forms of visual art, victims of the absence of venues in which to exhibit or opportunities to learn about new creative trends and, finally, victims of the lack of interest of local authorities with the right to impose censorship.
Whoever is a little bit familiar with Vietnamese art circles knows very well that this victimizing speech is totally biased and misleading. Paradoxically, it is probably much easier these days to be a young artist in Vietnam than in any European country. As a matter of fact, nobody can deny that most names that I have quoted so far benefit from a status and material conditions well above common people in Vietnam (and so much the better for them) [v]. This talk of empathy serves as an excuse for a local artistic community to not really question itself. It is also fully supported and spread by foreign advisors/curators devoted to the assistance of “Vietnamese artists in despair” as it justifies their actions and the related necessary sponsorship.
But where in Europe can a fresh graduate who has yet proved nothing have easy access to a gallery to exhibit his or her works, publish catalogs, print invitations and organize openings? In the last couple of years, foreign institutions, inside or outside Vietnam, always eager to team-up with Third-World Avant-Garde, were fighting among themselves to welcome and assist the same little circle of official artists from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, while they are often unable in their own country to support contemporary creation and public art education. In relation to the small size of the Vietnamese artistic community, the number of invitations received every year to exhibit abroad or participate in a residence in Europe, Japan, Singapore, the US or elsewhere significantly exceeds what their counterparts in the West can expect. Thus, the Vietnamese artist is from the very beginning probably overexposed if we take into account the maturity of his or her artistic research.
As for the attitude of local authorities, its supposedly negative impact must be objectively analysed to avoid the cliché of the oppressed artist who has to stay underground. In Vietnam, you have state-owned structures to exhibit art, including contemporary art, and the Vietnamese Fine Art Association has made significant positive efforts recently to be involved, with sometimes limited results as the young generation still prefers to be supported by foreign sponsors, more prestigious in its view. Concerning the pressure and control exercised, if one cannot deny it exists and has to be deplored, it also has to be noted that the impact remains limited as the few sensitive subjects are identified and leave the artist with enough room of manoeuvre. I personally consider more violent the economic censorship in Western countries, where most artists are deprived of financing or places to exhibit.
Finally, the very traditional teaching provided by the School of Fine Arts in Hanoi is just another cliché. If one can blame this institution sometimes for being rather conservative, one cannot also deny its recent efforts to adapt, and that generations of former students have benefited from a high level academic education hardly found these days in Europe. If, from time to time, Vietnamese artists manage to attract the attention of art circles, it is with no doubt due not only to their personal talent but also to the quality of this basic education initially introduced in Yet Kieu Street in 1924 and continuing until now (hoping this level can be maintained). Thus, when artists recently tried to break out on their own in the alluring world of installations, videos and other performances (still not in the core program of the School), the vacuity of the artistic content appears blatant.
Numerous but non selective galleries
While galleries have sprung up everywhere in Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City, it is still difficult to find a place with an exhibition policy with a critical approach and coherent aesthetic criteria. The following categories can be suggested for those who wish to identify the different types of structures in this artistic jungle:
- Galleries for tourists or souvenir shops with their cheap exoticism (silk-painting, lacquers depicting the One Pillar Pagoda…)
- Self-proclaimed “Art Galleries” (for example, in Hanoi: Apricot, Green Palm, Hanoi Studio, Thang Long, Van Gallery) which all offer, on several floors and under halogen spotlights, the same selection of allegedly established values (Nguyen Thanh Binh, Hong Viet Dung, Nguyen Thanh Chuong, Pham Luan, Bui Huu Hung, Nguyen Thanh Son), with young ladies in ao-dai showing you around and promoting any art mass producer as a “Vietnamese master”, “a leading artist in famous collections in the US and Europe”. Thanks to the crisis, several galleries in this category have closed. Besides, the real economic rationale of these structures owned by shopkeepers (rather than art connoisseurs) has always been questionable. How can they be profitable? Where does the money come from? What is the real motivation of the owners?
- Lastly, galleries managed by foreigners on a Western model and international criteria which, despite their apparent professionalism, still often suffer from a lack of perspective and selectivity. Priority is put on concepts, ideas and objects to create buzz and be talked about and, secondly, to present or sell anything under an Avant-Garde veneer.
However, those who still think that if Suzanne Lecht had opened in 1994 a silk shop in Hang Bong rather than a gallery of contemporary art (ArtVietnam [vi]), the Hanoian Art scene would not have suffered too much are wrong. Despite the lack of selectivity illustrated by this rather strange policy which consists in putting on the main stage graduates fresh out of Art School or letting artists regularly show exhibitions which are just a mere rehash of what they have done for years, there is absolutely no doubt that such structures with international standards are much needed to assist the development of Vietnamese contemporary art.
Similarly, if the significant investments made by The Bui Gallery since 2009 do not always succeed in compensating some weaknesses regarding the selection of works and artists, it still gives a good idea of what may be achieved one day in Vietnam to enable competition with established galleries elsewhere in Asia (subject to concentration upon mature art works rather than on experimental but too often conventional products).
Hanoi, as Ho Chi Minh City, saw in recent years contemporary galleries and alternative spaces/projects that knew good and bad fortunes (some closed or fell asleep) and a chaotic artistic agenda targeted mainly at expatriates (Salon Natasha, Ryllega Gallery, Suffusive Gallery, Studio Tho, Maison des Arts in Hanoi and Gallery Quynh, A Little Blah Blah or San Art in Ho Chi Minh City)[vii].
But too often, the job of the gallery owner in Vietnam is complicated by the immaturity of the artists who do not understand the necessary loyalty to a structure that supports and promotes their work over time. Whatever the efforts deployed by the manager of the gallery, perceived rightly or wrongly as that of sales professional with limited artistic judgment, the artists of Vietnam are ready, from their very first success, to go to the competitors – as they generally reject any exclusivity and any dialogue with a gallery that questions the evolution or the stagnation of their work.
Abroad, galleries exclusively or partially dedicated to Vietnamese art, offer the same range of what is presented locally: commercial products (Apricot Gallery and OC-EO art in England), so-called Avant-Garde under influence (IFA in Shanghai) or a mix of both (Thavibu Gallery in Bangkok).
Before concluding on the beginnings of the Vietnamese art scene, it is worth having a quick look at another recent interesting phenomenon. Since the beginning of 2000s, and mainly in Ho Chi Minh City, more cosmopolitan and less artistically structured than Hanoi, legions of foreign artists/curators [viii] appeared, mostly from Vietnamese origin, and settled down. Educated in the West (particularly in the US), they are keen to help and give a new insight on contemporary art (and probably also a new start to their career) in Vietnam. In theory, their return to this country was an ideal opportunity to build a bridge between two cultures: Western contemporary art (notably video, performance, installation) and a Vietnamese artistic potential likely to be waiting for them to take-off. Some of these newcomers enjoyed an already established reputation and recognition by international institutions. But at the end of the day what we saw was no more than a small but very dynamic circle of Viet Kieu talking to other Viet Kieu. What was the real impact for Vietnamese artists of these experiences which mobilized over the decade, mainly in expatriates’ circles? Even if all projects should not be treated equally as some of them did prove to have real content, we were still too often confronted with an average body of work similar to what is regularly presented in Western countries, but in a simplistic form stuck in a Vietnamese context, faced with total confusion and misunderstanding from the audience. There are several reasons for that: a still fragile artistic legitimacy but also complicated individual stories and relationships with the country, plus, in certain cases, a limited knowledge of the local culture (not to mention a total ignorance or claimed indifference towards what Vietnamese artists had done before their arrival). Their Vietnamese origin, their open-mindedness, and their will -often honest- to spread the Avant-Garde message, protected them from any colonialist suspicion, a common worry in Vietnam as soon as you import foreign references.
Lack of domestic market and local interest
There is no denying that one of the main obstacles to the development of Vietnamese contemporary art is the quasi-absence of a local market. In the past, before the opening of the country, there were a few passionate collectors [x] benefiting from some level of purchasing power at a time when most of the population, and particularly the artists, was experiencing real poverty. Such art connoisseurs bought works for very little directly from artists as the latter were not in a position to sell publicly nor exhibit works that were not in line with the Party aesthetics norms. These enlightened collectors who were also inspired businessmen, smart enough to develop an interest in art at a time when art was not a day-to-day priority, managed to gather in their homes major artworks by leading artists. In return they gave some support in a very personal way to the art community. Unfortunately, after their death, these precious collections were mostly scattered, instead of being taken care of by museums. As for the heirs of the artists, they proved to be, as usual, more business than art oriented, selling quantities of significant works to foreigners (mixed, if needed, with forged ones).
Today, we notice little interest among the Vietnamese for domestic artists’ works. This is not perceived as a constraint by contemporary artists who usually do not give a damn about the local public, their target remaining foreign institutions and buyers.
Yet, the economic development in Vietnam recently lead to the rise of a new bourgeoisie for which a taste for art is part of the social outfit or, more simply, individuals taking a real interest in the national heritage. Thus, a new generation of Vietnamese collectors, not exclusively but mostly from overseas origin, is coming up with a clear focus, for the moment, on antiques (bronzes, Hue ceramics, and to a lesser extent on established values of the first generations of the Fine Arts School of Indochina) but no real appetite for contemporary art. Gradually, things will probably evolve with an increased number of local experts and art lovers with aesthetic awareness. But we are still miles away.
© Laurent COLIN, 2011
[v] With even in some (still rare) cases the bourgeois outfit (colonial houses, branded cars…). As for Thanh Chuong, he did not hesitate to simply build on 3 hectares a “Palace” 30km from Hanoi. An interesting initiative if it was limited to testifying to the cultural heritage of Vietnam and not something done to promote his status and his repetitive works (please also note that you have to pay for the visit).
[vi] www.artvietnamgallery.com. ArtVietnam Gallery in Nguyen Khac Nhu street closed in August, 2011 which may be a sign of the difficulties encountered to maintain a contemporary art space in Vietnam. In spite of the reservations one could have sometimes regarding the selection presented, this closure is definitely not good news for the Hanoian art scene.
[vii] All these projects should not be assessed in the same way, as some had a positive impact on the development of Vietnamese art, such as Salon Natasha which played a pioneer role in Hanoi in the early 90s.
[viii] To name but a few: Dinh Q Lê, Tiffany Chung, Richard Streitmatter-Tran, Phi Phi Oanh, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Ha Thuc Phu Nam. Also the French artist Sandrine Llouquet, or Australian artist Sue Hadju and curator Zoe Butt.
[ix] Duc Minh, Pham Van Bong, Nguyen Van Lam, Nguyen Ba Dam, To Ninh , Tran Van Luu ou Hoa Hai. There were also private local collections held by friends of the artists in Hanoi. Tran Hau Tuan’s collection in Ho Chi Minh City remains a specific case as the owner was too young to really be friends with most of the artists and his approach based on very active marketing and publishing actions, buying and selling paintings by numbers, is not always easy to understand.
An Art under foreign diktat but which escapes criticism
In this context, one can assert that, for the last twenty years -and as was the case under colonialism- art has been sustained, guided and even imposed upon by foreign demand and essentially by the clientele of expatriates or travelers which are looking for works they expect and understand. The impact of this foreign demand proved to be negative even if it resulted in a better standard for living for artists. In a country like Vietnam, expatriates do not have many opportunities to spend their money and sometimes it seems that their artistic education is inversely proportional to their purchasing power. But as artworks remain relatively affordable, expatriates can rapidly see themselves as collectors and become specialists of local painting, although they did not show any real interest for art in their own country. Thus, in every exhibition opening, we more or less always find the same small circle of people from embassies, cultural centers, NGOs; businessmen recently converted to contemporary art, and self-taught foreign artists rooted for years in the country. The Vietnamese artist should not be afraid to be questioned during these gatherings which are part of the expatriate’s life and considered more as a social than an artistic event. The attending Vietnamese audience, mostly close friends or officials who do not know what exactly they are doing there, stand apart. Certainly, exhibition openings in Europe are nothing but a formal social game. Yet, unlike Vietnam, the game is also generally materialized in the press or on the internet as critical discourse. In Vietnam, there was until very recently nothing [x]. The exhibition reviews are mostly advertising without any critical content. And it is not the very moderate reservations expressed from time to time by “Kiem Van Tin” (alias “KVT”) in the very useful cultural website Hanoi Grapevine that are going to change it. In fact, his critics too often fade in a quasi-systematic enthusiasm (each exhibition being qualified as “thrilling”, “exciting”, “stunning”, “unforgettable”, “not to be missed”). Besides, the fact that KVT has tried to protect his anonymity reveals quite bluntly that the artistic community in Vietnam is still definitely not open to critics.
Another central pillar of the artistic life in Hanoi and Saigon which determines the orientations as well as the limits of the art world are the numerous cultural centers and programs (in particular, L’Espace or IDECAF for France, the Goethe Institut, the British Council or the Danish CDEF) which from the very beginning felt invested with the noble task to reveal Vietnamese art to the public and to support innovative artists who are, in their eyes, pushed aside. As they certainly do not want to miss the Avant-Garde train, the directors of such programs are usually quite keen to jump in the first wagon. They sometimes manage to discover meaning in installations not really conclusive or in vain performances. At the end of the day, they share among themselves the same small circle of artists who present more or less the same works these kind of institutions are expecting [xi]. This small world of people talking together and supporting each other does not actually cause any harm. The artists stamped by these cultural programs and proclaimed figureheads of Vietnamese modernity, are selected by foreign galleries or museums and travel like the official painters in the 60s-70s who were authorized by the Regime to visit sister countries.
Absence of perspectives and qualitative judgments
In addition to the fact that there is seldom any immediate critical commentary as far as exhibitions are concerned, there is also a lack of global analysis and qualitative judgment. Certainly, we can find numerous – and quite useful – books printed locally about Fine Art School painters and which are mainly a list of names illustrated by a reproduction of one of the artist’s work. And for what is published outside Vietnam, except may be some exhibitions’ catalogs, it is mostly limited to “coffee table books”. Monographs exist for the established values but here again they privilege the iconography rather than the analysis. If we want to put the history of Vietnamese art into perspective, it is recommended to refer to Nora Taylor’s book [xii] or Boi Tran Huynh’s research [xiii]. For a more sociological outlook, we can also read the articles of Natasha Kraevskaia [xiv] who has been following the evolution of Hanoian art scene closely for several years. It is however interesting to note that all these relevant works deal with Vietnamese art through a historical or sociological approach. But by doing so, they carefully avoid any aesthetic judgment with regard to the strength, the depth and the intrinsic quality of Vietnamese artworks, as if they had to escape from any critical evaluation. We can talk about the subject, about the technique, about the personal story of the artist, about deliberate or undergone influences, about the historical or sociological environment, but please no qualitative assessment on the work itself, no bold aesthetic choices, no scale of values.
This neutral approach which privileges the context rather than the intrinsic quality leads obviously to certain excesses. The itinerant exhibition “Changing Identity” organized in the United States in 2007/2008 by Nora Taylor and dedicated to a selection of about ten Vietnamese women artists [xv], who supposedly deal through their works with the stereotypes imposed on them, illustrates this trend. First and foremost, except if we make the assumption that the quality of a work depends on the artist gender, separating female from male artists does not really make sense. Clearly this approach, probably inspired by Gender Studies as developed in American universities, does not bring much. It results in prejudiced categories with the opposite effect that the exhibition intends to reach. Finally, where is the coherence among works of such uneven quality, produced by artists who have nothing in common other than being women and Vietnamese? What do we learn about the fate, the expectations of the Vietnamese women? As the artist tries absolutely to bring a personal testimony on the condition of women, we lapse into caricature as in Nguyen Thi Chau Giang’s totally overvalued self-portraits (she is nicknamed the “Frida Kahlo of Vietnam”… poor Frida!) or in Dinh Y Nhi’s repeated paintings, yesterday in black and white and today in color.
This choice of referencing everything, of classifying by categories instead of looking at the work as it is, is also evident when we look at the different artistic periods of the – still short – modern art history of Vietnam. This is done by cataloguing on one hand artists whose work belongs to a nostalgic and sentimental trend, with a clear Orientalist bias (roughly the artists from the Fine Art School till the end of the 80s) and, on the other hand, the young generation of artists which occupy the ground since the mid 90s and who, instead of idealizing Vietnam as their elders did, are not afraid of aligning themselves with social problems and globalization. This overly simplistic labeling seems to have influenced Natasha Kraevskaia and Lisa Drummond, in the exhibition organized at the end of 2010 by the Goethe Institut, to celebrate Hanoi’s millennium anniversary. Once again, these categories do not really make sense and Phai’s empty streets or other drawings of workers or factories executed by leading artists sent to workshops at the time of the Agrarian Reform testify with honesty and strength to a precise historical moment while having a real artistic value. We would like to make similar positive comments about the works of many young artists who intend to denounce social evils by delivering copy/paste works based on what they saw elsewhere, characterized by the poverty of forms and the absence of innovative ideas.
To close, as far as analysis and research are concerned, let’s underline some interesting private initiatives such as the Dogma Collection [xvi] which tries to preserve and to promote Propaganda Art (involving leading artists during the Wars of Independence) or the Witness Collection [xvii], an ambitious project which apparently aims to gather, restore and present an important Vietnamese collection of significant art works. It is also worthwhile to mention the Asian Art Archive, a non-profit organization based in Hong-Kong, which intends to put on the map information about the art of South-East Asia, including, obviously, Vietnam.
It is however interesting to note that behind the examples quoted here-above (works, research, private collections…), we seldom find local Vietnamese specialists but foreigners (even if their knowledge of Vietnam would give locals full legitimacy to intervene).
To gain credibility, cultural project managers understood after a while that they could not only request the participation of overseas Vietnamese or the usual American, French, Russian, Australian, German speakers active for years in this sector but that they needed to urgently find more “local” references for organizing events.
Having realized that personalities such as Nguyen Quan, who regularly intervened on this scene, did not have much more to say, the role of ambassador of contemporary art in Vietnam, and almost everywhere in the world, seems to have been endorsed by Tran Luong. This latter is an artist who belonged to a pseudo-group of the 90s (‘Gang of Five’ [xviii]) and who started some years ago with interesting abstract works on “do paper”. But Tran Luong noticed quite quickly that it was more convenient to opt for installations or performances, still little known in Vietnam, to organize events and to explain to unfamiliar audiences the intricacies of these new creations. To better understand his approach, we can refer to the 2007 performance/video, where Tran Luong is brushing his teeth in Tiananmen Square to protest against the excesses of Maoism. Such a political courage and such artistic ambition leave us speechless but give a good idea of the depth of the analysis which was going to feed the multiple interventions of Tran Luong in infatuated art talks. We also understand better why Vietnamese contemporary art has so many problems to be taken seriously.
An unkept promise
It is clear that this analysis will not please everybody and that it could be perceived as pessimistic, unfair and somewhat excessive. Maybe some will find in my words some kind of backward nostalgia of the ‘lost innocence of the painting of the beginnings’.
Yet I do not believe that there was a ‘Golden Age’ of Vietnamese painting which would have come to an end in the 80s. But I do think that, before the opening of the country, Vietnamese art went through a significant period with no equivalent in other South-East Asian countries. This period has produced many talents, and genuine, creative, poetic works that found an echo among the local public.
Certainly, at that time, we often saw the academicism and the influences (among which the are School of Paris), a certain Orientalism or Social Realism, but in the best cases, and contrary to what we see at present, influences were not systematically overbearing, and the works, even if they belong to their time, seem less dated than those presented more recently.
Strictly speaking, it was not an artistic movement, let alone a school of thought, but a sum of marked individualities and different styles. Nothing in common, if we want to stick to the works of most well known artists such as Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Nguyen Sang and Duong Bich Lien, except the same rigorous approach to an art perceived as a necessity and which was meant to make us feel and think, through an apparent simplicity.
It was a period when, as Patrice Jorland says, ‘the artists regardless of their fields (writers, poets, film-makers, painters, play-writers, musicians…) were part of a community, maybe not unanimous, but in which members knew each other for a while and shared the hardship of the whole population’ [xix]. Today, the young generation shares experiences mostly with foreign institutions and does not really care about the values that marked the first steps of Vietnamese modern art: sensibility rather than cynicism, emotion rather than concept, subtlety rather than superficiality, artistic necessity rather than mercantile attitude.
Undisputedly, on its original ground and with the opening of the country in the late 80s, Vietnamese art had an opportunity to take off, even by challenging the preceding period. None of that happened, even if we once thought (wrongly) in the early 90s that a generation of gifted artists (Truong Tan and Le Hong Thai mainly, but also Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Van Cuong) would be able to write a new chapter.
The first movement of the Vietnamese art developed in the margins of History while reflecting such History, in the absence of an art market, in a country at war, almost in autarky and focused on other priorities. When such an art market emerged in Vietnam in its most primitive form, without proper direction and judgment, what could have been an opportunity, essentially resulted in a sterile formalism maintained by foreign demand and a standardized discourse. Caught between the patronage of institutions and the clientele of expatriates or ‘enlightened’ travelers, the artistic momentum stopped suddenly. Desperately trying to escape the suspicion of Orientalism that fell on the former generation, artists’ first priority became to please the international market, a trend which could be qualified paradoxically as ‘neo-colonial’. Terrified by the idea of seeing their work identified as part of ‘Vietnameseness’, they ended up diving into ‘Globalisation’ without being able to provide a distinctive vision.
Of course, there are still talented artists and there is no evidence that they have completely given up trying to find a voice of their own to express their inner stories and tell us about changes occurring in the Vietnamese society, thus putting an end to the depressing artistic period we experience these days.
© Laurent COLIN, 2011
[xi] In this regard, the exhibition “Green, Red and Yellow” organized in 2003 for the opening of the Goethe Institut in Nguyen Thai Hoc Street clearly marked a turning point (or a wrong turn) by giving a good place to quite weak installations and, beyond the good intentions, contributed to the confusion of values.
[xii] Painters in Hanoi : an Ethnography of Vietnamese Art, University of Hawaii Press (2004)
[xii] Vietnamese Aesthetics From 1925 Onwards, University of Sydney. Sydney College of the Arts (2006)
[xiv] From Nostalgia towards Exploration – Essays on Contemporary Art in Vietnam, Kim Dong publishers (2005)
[xv] Ly Tran Quynh Giang, Vu Thu Hien, Nguyen Thi Chau Giang, Dinh Thi Tham Poong, Nguyen Bach Dan, Ly Hoang Ly, Dang Thi Kue, Dinh Y Nhi, Phuong Do.
[xvi] Founded by Dominic Scriven with the assistance of Richard di San Marzano.
[xvii] Developed with apparently important means by Adrian Jones. This collection already counts numerous works, gathered in a very large perspective (more historical than aesthetic) and presents pillars of Vietnamese art but also major names, too rarely put forward so far, such as Nguyen Trong Kiem, Luu Van Sin, Nguyen Van Ty, Huynh Van Thuan or Nguyen Duc Nung (but also second class players in particular in the more contemporary part). See also www.asiarta.org a website which dedicates itself more specifically to the preservation, documentation, restoration of artworks from South-East Asia.
[xviii] This ‘group’ of artists really have nothing in common, apart from Tran Luong, Hong Viet Dung, Ha Tri Hieu, Dang Xuan Hoa and Pham Quang Vinh. It was more a marketing slogan forged by galleries at the beginning of the 90s than a collective artistic movement, let alone a “Gang” ready to revolutionize the art scene…
[xix] Bui Xuan Phai’s impressive series of portraits of this community comprises not only hundreds of sketches of his painter friends but also includes numerous portraits of writers and poets such as Nguyen Tuan or Vu Dinh Lien, film directors such as Luu Quang Vu or Tran Thinh, the photographer Tran Van Luu or the composer Trinh Cong Son.
This essay, originally written in French by Laurent Colin, was first published in Vietnamese on the art discussion website Soi.com.vn. Since Soi does not currently publish in other languages, in collaboration with the author I edited the English translation shared here. The opinions expressed are those of Laurent Colin and do not necessarily represent Cristina Nualart’s views. Copyright remains with Laurent Colin.
This evening I caught this image of the sun behind the Bitexco Tower, Ho Chi Minh City: