Read part 1 of this essay here, and part 2 here.
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
[x] www.soi.com.vn (in Vietnamese) is currently the only framework for critique and debate. www.talawas.org has now closed, but used to play a similar role.
[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.