Cristina NualART

Tag: Painting

The Schwarzenegger Ghostsign and other gems from Ho Chi Minh City’s public space

The Schwarzenegger Hide and Seek is my book chapter in Advertising and Public Memory, published by Routledge. For this investigation, I found rare examples of hand-painted shop signs still visible in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in the second decade of the 21st century. Visual research suggests that urban Vietnam had a strong body of hand-painted signs, even during war time, but few examples now survive in this country that has developed rapidly in recent decades. Hand-painted shop signs, adverts and propaganda have practically disappeared from the public space, overtaken by vast quantities of computer-generated signage commonly printed on plastic or vinyl.

cnualart_Ghostsigns chapter

The photos in the book are greyscale, but here you can admire the signs in full colour:


Hand painted sign for Chánh Nghia cake decorators, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo by Cristina Nualart, 2015



Hand painted sign (now gone) on body building club, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo by Cristina Nualart, 2011


As someone who is fascinated by the power of the object, especially the found object, from arte povera to material culture, my interest in hand painted signs is quite predictable. Stories of my first thrills in this field in Vietnam appear in this post from 2012: The last hand painted sign in Saigon.















The Hong Kong – Vietnam art connection

HK-VN_WordJuly14This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, July 2014, pp.88-90.


HK_cnualart_BuiCongKhanhBui Cong Khanh’s installation The Past Moved (2010) at Hong Kong Art Basel 2013.
Art galleries continue to invest in expensive Hong Kong floorspace to show Vietnamese artworks. Why is so much Vietnamese art shown in Hong Kong? Is it time to bring the trade back home, or is the Chinese metropolis the locus of success?

Half of the Vietnamese alive today weren’t born when all this started
For most of the 20th century, no country outside of Vietnam (and a few in the Eastern Bloc) ever saw contemporary Vietnamese art. Despite a rich 70 year tradition of painting, much art was under wraps even in Vietnam, where mistrust and censorship kept things lying low for decades. In Hanoi, art ‘collectors’ were friends of the artists, who mainly bought the artworks to help the painters survive. That changed in 1991, when a Hong Kong art gallery, Plum Blossoms, presented Uncorked Soul, a group exhibition of Vietnamese artists. ‘The exhibition had a startling effect, if not an immediate one’, says Nora Taylor, art historian at the Chicago School of Art, ‘it took a few years for galleries and museums elsewhere to notice Vietnamese contemporary art.’ But foreign collectors jumped at the opportunity.

In the early 90s, Hong Kong’s yuppies travelled to Hanoi for exotic weekends away. For investment and pleasure, they would buy ten or twelve Vietnamese paintings at a time, recalls Suzanne Lecht, an art consultant. Suzanne’s life was transformed by Vietnamese art. Graduates from the Hanoi Fine Arts University were the first generation that, from the early 1980s, could choose to paint something other than propaganda art. When Suzanne encountered the art of ‘the Gang of 5’, as five of the graduates called themselves, she was inspired to make their art her mission. With no time to waste, Suzanne moved from Japan to Hanoi in 1993, the same year that Vietnamese art was exhibited internationally for the second time, in Holland.

Plum Blossoms are not just for Tet
Plum Blossoms was the first foreign gallery to introduce Vietnamese painters abroad. Over ten artists from the north, centre and south were chosen for Uncorked Soul. Many of the artists had worked with the first government owned art gallery in Hanoi, founded in 1965. At that point, not one was known outside Vietnam.   In 1991, the Vietnamese authorities had just lifted the ban on abstract art. At the Plum Blossoms exhibition, abstract paintings shone radiantly in their newfound freedom. Figurative works had transitioned from Socialist Realist iconography into more expressive images. New artistic forces were born.   Instrumental to the Uncorked Soul show was the hardback catalogue. It wasn’t just a book to be judged by its stylish cover. Today one might say it was an effective marketing tool. But the text, by writer Jeffrey Hantover, enlightened the outside world on how modern Vietnamese painting – that obscure and exciting art – had evolved. Interviews with the artists and some historical background helped art lovers see the importance of what these artists were looking at. It probably contributed to more than one investment in art, and at high returns, no doubt.

NguyenTrung_UncorkedSoulNguyen Trung featured in the Uncorked Soul exhibition catalogue.
Nguyen Trung’s uncorked soul
Mekong Delta artist Nguyen Trung, now in his seventies, was one of the artists whose work first made it to Hong Kong. In his youth, wanting to see French art at its best, Nguyen Trung had tried to escape to Paris in the 1960s. His plan failed the first time, but the painter did get to Paris 30 years later. Many of the paintings he made in his year Paris in 1990 were exhibited in Uncorked Soul. In Hong Kong, Trung also had the opportunity to discover powerful artworks by Chinese artists, and this made an impression on his eager soul.

Other Vietnamese artists were also excited to visit what was then a British territory. In 1997, Suzanne Lecht organised another exhibition in Hong Kong, The Changing Face of Hanoi, taking all five exhibiting artists with her. For most of them, it was their first trip outside of Vietnam. This show was smaller in scale and scope than the exhibition at Plum Blossoms gallery a few years earlier, but it kept Vietnamese art from slipping back into invisibility during the transformative Doi Moi decade.

Hong Kong makes Hanoi look up and Hanoi makes Hong Kong look around
Vietnam transformed in all directions. A Hong Kong company in 1995 had built the first high rise in Hanoi, the Central Building (31 Hai Ba Trung). Suzanne had assisted the developer, a supporter of Vietnamese art, to procure two large bronze statues by sculptor Le Cong Thanh for the building’s entrance. Hong Kong investors gave Hanoi something to look up to.

Another First
Whilst the Uncorked Soul exhibition was a phenomenal promotion for Vietnamese art, international fairs are the best publicity. The people milling about at art fairs, dealers, collectors, museum curators and general art lovers are the first ones to notice changes and new developments in the art world. The first Vietnamese gallery to participate in an international art fair was Galerie Quynh. From 2010 to 2012, Quynh had a yearly booth at Art Hong Kong, the original Hong Kong art fair. ‘In those 3 years we saw very few Vietnamese visitors’, laments Quynh. But she did sell to a small number of Vietnamese from the diaspora, and, of course, to foreigners. Now in their tenth year of operation, the gallery is working hard in Vietnam to build trust with affluent locals, who are increasingly keen to learn about art.  

HKArtFair11_HoangDuongCam_cnualart_GQLightning in U Minh Forest  by Hoang Duong Cam. Galerie Quynh, Hong Kong Art Fair 2011.

VN art in the noughties
From the nineties to the noughties Vietnam got richer. Not evenly or consistently, but abundantly enough to energise the country with buying buzz. Expensive handbags, however, are higher up the Vietnamese shopping list than paintings, comments Shyevin, owner of Vin Gallery in HCMC.

Like most other gallerists, Shyevin, although based in Vietnam, knows that sales will often be better elsewhere. She has done art fairs in Korea, Singapore and, of course, Hong Kong.  Hers was the only Vietnamese art gallery in the luxury Hong Kong hotel that hosted the Asia Contemporary Art Fair in May this year. Vin Gallery received visits from a few Vietnamese who live in Hong Kong. ‘They were very happy to see our gallery there, and came to say hello,’ Shyevin is pleased to say. But they don’t buy, she notes, ‘they think is cheaper back home’. Foreign visitors were curious about Vietnamese art, surprised to actually see some. Lots of questions were asked, especially about lacquer painting. Sales were made, with Hanoi landscapes making it to the bestseller list omeprazole dosage. Vin Gallery had competition at the fair. A number of Hong Kong galleries who deal in Vietnamese art were also exhibiting at Asia Contemporary.

Another Saigon-based professional, Craig Thomas, knows this. The Craig Thomas gallery, which shows Vietnamese art exclusively, participated in the Affordable Art Fair in Hong Kong this year, and will be returning next year. The well-organised fair, he said, attracted a large number of buyers from China.

Decades after the Plum Blossoms success, artist Nguyen Trung’s work is still shipped to Hong Kong. His latest abstract canvases and new sculptures were admired merely weeks ago, in Art Basel. Cuc Gallery from Hanoi was the only Vietnamese gallery to participate in one of 2014’s most prestigious art fairs worldwide.  Asian collectors, savvy about the cultural and historical value of Trung’s work, took out their credit cards.

HK_cnualart_CucCuc at her booth, surrounded by Nguyen Trung’s artworks in Hong Kong Art Basel 2014.

Evidently, art collectors are interested in Vietnamese art. But all the gallerists mentioned here agree on one thing, that the collectors of Vietnamese art are rarely Vietnamese.‘Hong Kong is the biggest banking centre in the world. It’s a good market’, says Suzanne Lecht, ‘Vietnam is a small market’. She compares the situation to Japan in the 1980s. Rich Japanese would only buy artworks by Mattisse or other famous names because the worth would be known. ‘It’s the same in Vietnam now’, she says. Like Shyevin, she sees that the shopping priorities of wealthy Vietnamese are geared towards status symbols. The solution to keeping the best Vietnamese art in Vietnam, then, must be to brand Vietnamese art as an object of desire on a global scale.

HK_cnualart_PropTalkSan Art curator Zoe Butt and The Propeller Group talking at Hong Kong Art Basel 2014.


Text and photos (2011-2014) by Cristina Nualart


How is lacquer painting evolving in the 21st century?

TuDo_Word_April14_cnualartThis article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, April 2014, p.166.


“MEMORIES”, lacquer exhibition by 5 artists,
Tu Do gallery, 53 Ho Tung Mau, D1, HCMC, Vietnam.
Until 30 March 2014.


Imagine inspecting molten asphalt that has been poured like lava over Pompeii. Tu Do’s group exhibition of lacquer paintings should be looked at close up. Forget what the shapes may represent. Get close enough to smell the oily vapours of the medium.


One must put aside dismissive prejudices about subject matter to see how lacquer painting is evolving. Bear in mind that even the Le brothers, the Hue duo of rising art stars who recently participated in the Singapore Biennale, make brightly coloured lacquers that on first impressions look a lot like shop-ready commercial art, whilst simultaneously creating stunning video work and metaphorically rich performance art.

TuDoLacquer1_cnualartThe mid to late 90s in Vietnam were still a time in which experimental artworks were uncommon. That art was made at all during those difficult times should be celebrated. For this reason Phunam’s conventional lacquers are, for the period, not to be dismissed. His are the oldest works in this exhibition. Works made a decade later are understandably richer in new techniques, but Phunam’s large depiction of a tribal musical performance should be admired for the complimentary colour contrast beating all over the picture. The faces, too, are unusual in their balaklava-like synthesis.

TuDoLacquer2_cnualartTradition demands that a lacquer painting should be sanded and rubbed until all brushstrokes have been bulldozed into a perfectly flat image. Xuan Chieu is the artist in this show who best represents that esteemed practice. Inlays of eggshell and mother of pearl have been finely grinded. Patches of gold leaf gleam amongst the original powdered mineral colours that tradition calls for: three shades of red, and ocres. Geometric forms in indigo blue and forest green are rarer in first generation lacquer paintings, so enjoy their Sapa-like coolness.

TuDoLacquer3_cnualartThe pastel colours in Duong Tuan Kiet’s paintings indicate that they contain little natural lacquer, a treacle too dark to permit sugar pinks and mint greens, when used as art schools teach. His pieces look like oil panting on canvas, whereas lacquer is always painted on smooth wooden surfaces. Kiet does cover the blank canvas in gold leaf before he paints, a technique used in lacquer to give glow to the painting. These canvases propose another innovation in lacquer’s evolution: its inclusion into the vast collection of ‘mixed media’ paintings.


TuDoLacquer5_cnualartVo Xuan Huy is an art lecturer from Hue who tries to take lacquer painting to the third dimension. Thick impasto, deep cracks, puddles of honeyed glass and ripples formed by fast evaporation are the geography of his abstracts. Lotus flowers, Chi circles and other easy symbols stamped into the pigmented mud do seem to cheapen the visual experience from afar, but I have not come across another artist who is so keen to sabotage the polished surface of traditional lacquer.

TuDoLacquer6_cnualartNguyen Xuan Anh moves from urban depictions to experimental abstracts. The latter are very interesting. The two large ones in this show are vigourous expressionistic exercises, with texture reminiscent of Tapies and graphic power as strong as Franz Kline’s. Anh collages sack cloth and drips colour onto otherwise traditionally crafted lacquers abundant in polished eggshell.

Whilst other lacquer artists elsewhere are creating new finishes by using spray paint and glass-like polyester resin, the art in this show is innovative within the limits of possibility of natural lacquer.

10 things you should know about Vietnamese Art

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, September 2013, pp. 76-79.



1 Ceramics

ceramics_hcmc_historymuseumAncient civilizations of the Red River Valley, in the clay-rich north of Vietnam, learnt from China how to fire pottery. Khmer and Champa ceramics also influenced Vietnamese craftspeople. After the Chinese domination of Vietnam ended, during the Ly and Tran dynasties, Vietnam created the most sophisticated ceramics of Southeast Asia. In the 14th century, Japanese tea masters treasured their Vietnamese imports. European merchants traded vases from Bat Trang, a pottery village near Hanoi. But history praises and then dismisses. By the early 20th century this was all forgotten and Vietnamese ceramics were written off as provincial. But in 1997, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese ceramics dating back 500 years were found in a shipwreck off Hoi An, history paid attention again. Vietnamese ceramics really are special. Distinctive patterns include combinations of dragons and flowers, a duo not seen in Chinese pieces.

More recently, international art collections are buying some of the ceramic pieces created with tradition and wit by contemporary artist Bui Cong Khanh.

From 2012, Truong Sa island boasts a national record: the largest ceramic mosaic, a giant Vietnamese flag. Designed by artist Nguyen Thu Thuy, the 310.000 piece mosaic weights 3.5 tons. At 25 metres in length, it is so big it can be seen on satellite images.

2 Dong Ho woodcuts

Folk art has been celebrated as testament that the masses, not the ruling elite, are the makers of national culture. Historian Tran Quoc Vuong claims that ‘all the characteristics and superiority of Vietnamese culture are crystallized in the culture of villages’. Clans around Dong Ho village, in Northern Vietnam, made the village famous centuries ago for its woodcuts, a hand-made precursor to photocopies. An artisan carves lines onto a flat block of wood, covers it with ink and prints onto paper. Rustic pictures of proverbs, ritual ceremonies or daily scenes were displayed on walls. Some images symbolised good fortune or guarded the house, other prints alluded to social injustice. Smaller, joss-paper pictures of houses or vehicles are burnt as offerings.

3 Indochina Fine Arts School

Art, you might think, would offer some therapeutic solace when your country is experiencing a traumatic confrontation with an invading culture. In colonial times, artist To Ngoc Van, one of the ‘Four Masters’ of Vietnamese painting, wasn’t merely consoled by art. He saw art as an active instrument of change. Art, he felt, was a journey into new ways of understanding. His colleague Nguyen Gia Tri, like many of the poets and writers in 1930s Vietnam, wanted to ‘wash the eyes of the public, to enable them to see in brighter, clearer, newer ways’. Art enabled new ideas to be integrated with the old ones, and to extract the best of both worlds.

The Indochina Fine Arts School, inaugurated in 1925, married French liberalism and Vietnamese traditionalism, and gave birth to Vietnamese modern art. The two French founders, Tardieu and Inguimberty, strongly encouraged their art students to preserve their heritage by adapting local traditions. The school operated for only 20 years, but with irrevocable influence. For some time, this influence was a bone of contention, due to resentment towards French occupation. Now the institution is accepted as the catalyst of the nation’s modern art. The School’s graduates are highly revered artists who have put Vietnamese art on the international art market.

4 Lacquer

Laksa, a Sanskrit term meaning a hundred thousand, is where out word ‘lacquer’ derives from. Gum lacquer is a sticky substance secreted by insects. Obviously you’d need a hundred thousand or more to get any useful quantity of the gum. But in Vietnam the lacquer is plant-based, secreted by one of several varieties of native trees. The genuine product is a treacle-thick sap used to make wood waterproof. The urban myth is that the ubiquitous shiny vases and decorative paintings sold in every tourist shop across the country are ‘lacquer’. They are made with polyurethane resin, a toxic chemical compound that should not be used to serve food in.

Since Asian prehistory, lacquer was a resistant and decorative way to preserve wooden objects. Temples and palaces gleamed with the luster of lacquer, encrusted with mother of pearl or gold leaf patterns, captivating intrepid traders from the West. In the 1600s, ‘Chinese varnish’ became so popular with European high society that a fake lacquer was invented in Italy.

Whilst Japan and China argue over who developed the finest lacquerware, Vietnam turned lacquer into a Fine Art. After seeing the rich, glossy colours of the lacquered altar of the Temple of Literature, the art teacher of the Indochina Fine Arts School suggested to his students that they should try to paint with lacquer. They did. Traditional lacquerware technique met modern art, and history was made. Less than a century later, Vietnamese art is famous more than anything for its lacquer paintings, and Nguyen Gia Tri is the most respected lacquer painter.

nguyengiatri_lacquerCentral, South and North Spring Garden (1988) by Nguyen Gia Tri.
Lacquer on wood, 200×540 cm. Collection of the HCMC Fine Arts Museum. 

5 Silk Painting

The fragility of fine silk probably means that considerable silk paintings have been lost since the technique was adopted from China around the 3rd century. Vietnamese silk painting had its heyday in the 1920s, when misty, soft, images were created by Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984), ironically, because he wasn’t doing so well at mastering oil paint. After he exhibited his lyrical silk art in Paris in 1931, his career took off and he became an international sensation from Milan to Tokyo. As the master of Vietnamese silk painting, his success continues. Earlier this year one of his works fetched record prices ($380.000) at an art auction in Hong Kong.

The delicate art of silk painting is used with reinvigorated panache by contemporary Vietnamese artists Le Hoang Bich Phuong and Bui Tien Tuan, among others.

6 Soldier Artists

In 1950 a new art school was set up in Viet Bac, the Resistance Zone, to train artists who could produce easy to understand visual messages to unite the people into rising up against colonial rule. Artists were seen as the soldiers of the front that was the cultural battlefield. Some of them also fought in combat, as well as recording the revolution’s progress in a pre-gadget age. The art school was spearheaded by To Ngoc Van, the artist whose education at the Indochina Fine Arts School had made him see art as an instrument of change. He died before the 1954 victory of  Dien Bien Phu. The Resistance Class operated for 5 years, flourishing due to its isolation from the outside world and the fervour of its mission.

7 Propaganda Art

National art workers were recruited by the Ministry of Information in 1957 to make ‘real art’. Their propaganda posters were bright, original and direct, just what is needed to motivate and persuade effectively. Images of brave, defiant and hard-working people were painted with tempera on paper, and sometimes copied by amateurs to disseminate them on walls and bridges all over the country. The ‘scientific, national and popular’ style that could ‘portray the truth’, was officially defined as Socialist Realism, since its debut in the International Fine Arts Exhibition of 1958.

At present there are fewer than 10 full-time propaganda artists left in Vietnam. One still active is Luang Anh Dung, who says he loves the job he has been doing for 30 years, because it has the power to help people understand government policies. In post-reform Vietnam, his images show not only the soldiers and farmers that inspired previous generations; now we see computer programmers and office workers as symbols of development and economic growth.

Digitally printed images, sadly, loose the charisma that made the original hand painted propaganda posters become collectors items.

8 Abstract Art

Vietnamese paintings of the 1930s frequently show 19th century European techniques. But flashes of Picasso’s influence made it into some works inclined towards new ways of expressing reality.  Ta Ty (1922-2004) had been a Revolutionary artist, but has become better known for experimenting with non-representational art. By chance, he was able to see a French magazine with pictures of European Avant-Garde art. He must have been jolted, but he relished the intellectual aspect of trying to understand these paintings. Curious to explore, he tried it for himself.

In Hanoi, a 1951 solo exhibition of Ta Ty’s cubist paintings caused some controversy, as you might expect if you show pictures that people don’t understand. Party Secretary Truong Chinh fiercely opposed the new painting styles. Despite the critique, Ta Ty, was keen to investigate the potential of these breakthrough artistic ideas, and by the 1960s, he was making abstract art. Few other Vietnamese artists have become abstract painters, perhaps disappointed that abstract art was banned from national exhibitions until 1990. All over the world, abstract art has been accused of evil wrongdoings by detractors who like to know what they are looking at.

Aside from the artist’s estate, some of the few remaining works by Ta Ty in Vietnam can be found at Tu Do gallery, 53 Ho Tung Mau, District 1, HCMC.

taty_hcmc_fineartsmuseumGrowing (1972) by Ta Ty. Oil on canvas, 170×320 cm.
Collection of the HCMC Fine Arts Museum. 


9 Dinh Q. Le

‘Culture is a basic need’, declares the cover of the Prince Claus Fund brochure. In 2010, the Dutch foundation awarded a generous prize to artist Dinh Q. Le, for ‘exploring different constructions of reality, providing inspiration and practical opportunities for young artists, and for advancing free thought and contemporary visual expression’. Le’s artworks have challenged dominant American perceptions of the Vietnam War, by showing the damage done to Vietnam.

As a child, this artist from Ha Tien learnt from his aunt how to weave grass mats. As a university student in the US, he used that same weaving technique with large photographs, some of which are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Le was the first Vietnamese artist to have a solo show in that seminal institution. Dinh Q. Le is also co-founder of the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts in the US, and San Art, in HCMC.


Dinh Q Le receives the
Prince Claus Award
in Saigon in 2011.

10 Art Residencies in Vietnam

Artist-in-residence programmes are cultural exchange initiatives. A number of institutions all over the world fund artist residencies, giving artists anything from a small room to a several thousand dollars to buy art materials. They give creative practitioners the opportunity to work with other people, develop new art projects and share their ideas within a new community. Vietnamese artists have been invited, over the years, to work in other countries, from Japan to Germany, for a few weeks or months at a time.

But since May 2012, a residency programme exists in Vietnam: San Art Laboratory, in HCMC. Focusing on the talent in home territories (as yet, the programme does not fund international artists), it provides studio space, a stipend and a whole lot of expert artistic support to young Vietnamese artists. Six artists have benefited so far, and two more are currently starting their residency. The public gets access to Open Studios, artist talks and exhibitions, and the artists get everything they need to concentrate on their art for some months. Culture is shared!


Text and photos by Cristina Nualart


El silencio en el armario

casoalcacer1998_80x80_cnualartTengo un secreto en el armario de la ropa que no se usa. La ropa que está siempre fuera de estación, porque cuando salen las prendas estivales, entran las de invierno. Nunca es temporada para lo que esconde ese armario.

Detrás de algún abrigo largo, donde más oscuro está, hay un cuadro que no ha visto la luz, casi, casi, desde que lo terminé, en 1998. El caso Alcácer fué el primer feminicidio mediático que me golpeó de jovencita. Me dió pesadillas.

Enfrentada al horror humano, una pila de vendas (¡vendas!), alambre del que pincha, y pintura roja y negra se ofrecieron a mis manos como chivo expiatorio del subconsciente. 20 años después del crimen, el repelús sigue vivo, también en ese cuadro negro coronado de rosas sangrantes. Culpo al inconsciente colectivo por la simbología demasiado arquetípica.

Me asombro (nunca mejor dicho – me extirpé la sombra…) de las horas de trabajo, moldeándo a mano cada pétalo, con plena consciencia del tema del cuadro, y ningún recuerdo del horror que debía estar ocupando mi mente.

Terminado el cuadro, participé en una exposición colectiva en el centro juvenil de la población donde vivía. Pero rechazaron este cuadro, y yo sabía que me lo censuraban. Igual que la verdad de lo sucedido, la pintura espinosa desapareció en el armario que apenas se abre. Y allí sigue. Cubriéndose de polvo como las investigaciones cerradas.


Con otra obra, el mes que viene participaré en una exposición colectiva de arte feminista en Inglaterra, The Femail Project. Para que no todo lo que hay que gritar se quede amordazado.





Go wild on a Friday evening: buy some art

In Saigon, I just attended a fund-raising exhibition of paintings by children who are HIV positive. Since I have plenty of my own artworks, I really don’t need anymore, but the children had done some really nice work. I had to buy this is a little gem of a painting. The maroon rectangle in the bottom corner just did it for me:


Art trends at Hong Kong Art Basel 2013

After 5 years of rapid growth the Hong Kong Art Fair this year was rebranded Hong Kong Art Basel. The space is the same, but the price of the entrance ticket has gone up – that’s what branding does. The art fair, a commercial initiative that showcases artwork from Western and Eastern galleries in equal measure, has expanded its reach with additional talks and city-wide events.

Intelligence Squared sparked off ideas with a debate on the value of art. Matthew Collings did a great job as a speaker, and the moderator was excellent, but the best contribution came from the man in the audience who told panelist Amy Capellazzo that her arguments for the market being the best judge of art had ruined, for him, the magic of the wonderful art in the fair!

Hong Kong’s art fair is popular in every sense of the word. Weaving one’s way between $20-a-glass champagne stalls and children’s buggies, some themes seemed to resurface intermittently amongst the 2 floors of world galleries. Here is an illustrated overview:

That thinking machine of ours is probably making a frequent appearance to remind us not to leave all intellectual activity to the automated machines.

HK_tabaimo_cnualartShow Through I by Tabaimo
Lithography, gampi papers, nylon thread on teak frame, 2009.

HK_MarbleBrain_cnualartGisant (the Silk Spun in the Brain) by Jan Fabre
Marble sculpture, 2012.

Roman Standard by Tracey Emin
Patinated bronze and wood, 2007.

In 2008, as all things craft were exploding in popularity, a contemporary tapestry exhibition in England led some of the world’s best known artists back to this technique which had been almost forgotten after the Renaissance. A number of examples of the thread weaving art dotted the Asian art fair.

HK_detail_KikiSmith_tapestry_cnualartDetail of a large tapestry by Kiki Smith.

hk_kimsooja_cnualartDetail of a tapestry by Kimsooja.

HK_mohair_cnualartSelf Portrait as a Coffee Pot III by William Kentridge and Marguerite Stephens
Mohair tapestry, 2012. 

Glitter, beading, rhinestones and other bling
Was it the rise of new money, the influence of different cultures on the global catwalk or a defiance of austerity? Whatever the reason, bling has been giving a shine to the art market in the last decade.

HK_RakibShaw_cnualartDetail from The Disambiguation of the Myth of the last Shinobi by Raqib Shaw
Oil, acrylic, enamel, glitter and rhinestones on birch wood, 2011-12.

HK_KengoKito_cnualartCosmic Dust Gold by Kengo Kito
Oil and glitter on canvas, 2013.

HK_FarhadModshiri_cnualartBird Girl by Farhad Moshiri
Glass bead embroidery on canvas, 2013.

HK_CarBonnet_cnualartAn Old Breeze 13-3-2 by Whang Inkie
Car bonnet with pearly rhinestones.

Along with action painting, collage seems to be one of those inexhaustibly inspiring 20th century inventions.

HK_detail_PietroRuffo_cnualartPietro Ruffo’s photographic collage of an islamic patterned globe is captivating because of the 3D effect achieved by using pins to hold each shape in place.

HK_bindis_cnualartMaths by Bharti Kher
Bindis on panel, 2012.

Pictures of Magazine 2: Vase of Flowers after Claude Monet by Vik Muniz
C-print, 2013

Even some sculptures are a collage, such as the shopping trolley full of scrap metal, Wagon (miles and miles), by Ida Ekblad, or the porcelain pieces by Francesca DiMattio below:


Juicy Abstract paintings
Polyester resin (that glass-like chemical substance that Vietnamese tourist shops pass off as ‘lacquer’) or thickly dripped enamel make for a candy-gloss surface.

HK_IvanLam_cnualartI have hated you too much to be grateful of the day (part of a dyptich) by Ivan Lam
House paint, resin and model submarine on canvas, 2013

HK_resin_cnualartPeter Zimmerman pours thick layers of coloured resin over large canvases.

HK_strawberry_cnualartVanilla, Strawberry by Kenjiro Okazaki
Acrylic on canvas, 2000.

HK_Grosse_cnualartKatharina Grosse plays with enamel paint.

HK_metallic_cnualartTiang #2 by Handiwirman Saputra
C-print  and acrylic coating on metallic paper, 2012

But the artwork that made most people smile was not in the exhibition centre, it floated happily in Hong Kong bay: Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck

no images were found

Choe, Vietnam’s most loved truth teller

Choe_Hammock_cnualartHammock, by Choe, 1998, oil painting, 54 x 65 cm.

The septuagenarian couple that runs Tu Do gallery, the first commercial art gallery in South Vietnam, are still breaking ground in the local cultural landscape. They have just inaugurated a significant exhibition of artworks by Choe, one of the pen names of Nguyen Hai Chi. The first acquisition made by husband and wife when they opened their gallery, in 1989, was a series of twenty artworks by Choe. Some of those are now hanging next to works that belong to the private collection of the artist’s family. Although this retrospective is more thematic than comprehensive, it is worth visiting because many of these pictures are not for sale and rarely shown publicly.

In the 1960s, very young still, Choe began to draw satirical illustrations for Saigon newspapers. He became a popular caricaturist very quickly, and a number of national and international newspapers printed his unflinching portrayals of political leaders, both Vietnamese and American. As well as cartoons, Choe also taught himself how to paint in oils and on silk, always creating strong figures. The strength of line in his silk paintings set him apart from other practitioners of this gentle medium.

Like Ho Chi Minh and other well known Vietnamese figures, the artist Nguyen Hai Chi changed his name when it suited him. Cap and Kit were other pen names he used. Choe means ‘mouse squeak’. Apparently he chose that nickname to express the irritation that his lampooning caricatures provoked in his critics. Larry Green, from the Chicago Daily News, said that Choe was indeed as shy and quiet as a mouse, but he was ‘Vietnam’s most potent pen’¹. His incisive visual commentaries led him early on to have a monograph of his graphic work published in the US, The World of Choe, by Barry Hilton (1973). They also resulted in him being sent to a re-education camp in Vietnam twice.

It took Choe several years to pick up a pen after his second stint in prison. By then Vietnam was opening up to the world again, with the Doi Moi reforms. Choe pursued creative outlets like writing and music, and continued to paint and exhibit artworks. Although he was cautious not to inflame opinions as his self-confessed ‘reckless’ output had during earlier, turbulent times, Choe still gave visible form to a social critique that is otherwise sorely lacking in Vietnamese imagery.

Unfortunately this exhibition does not offer any of the witty newspaper work that made Choe famous. Many of the originals were destroyed during the war, but some reproductions can be seen here. Two series line one wall of the gallery: ‘Visions of Summer’ is an unremarkable series of oil paintings, including Hammock (pictured above), which Choe created in France in the late 90s. There is a juicier body of illustrations, ‘Women of my country’, created for the Asia-Pacific Cartoon Exhibition held in Japan in 1995. We get a sense of the potency of Choe’s pen with these spontaneously raw but carefully drawn watercolours that critique social evils like alcohol abuse, incompetent parenting,  rote learning or deadweight husbands.

Choe_GetAwayFromBottle_cnualartGet Away from the Bottle, 1995, ink on paper, 26 x 35 cm.

A clear comment on how alcoholism traps people and wastes their lives away.

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Choe_sirens_cnualartSirens, 1995, ink on paper, 26 x 35 cm.

This curious image of an autophagic mermaid leaves me wondering. Is it a woman prepared to sacrifice herself for her family, as many do, or is it a woman who needs to draw from her own resources, and give everything she’s got just to keep her head above water? It could also be a feminist critique of the overconsumption of female bodies by the media, a propaganda so pervasive we all have to swallow it.

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Choe_PlanetDustbin_cnualartThe Planet and the Dustbin, 1995, ink on paper, 35 x 26 cm.

Many poor women in Vietnam, to survive, do for their city what a large proportion of women have to do for their households, get rid of the dirt and rubbish and clean up.

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Choe_Binding_cnualartBinding, 1998, oil painting, 50 x 61 cm.

This tidy image in balmy colours is one of the rare critical messages from the series of oil paintings ‘Visions d’Ete’ that Choe painted in Sauvigny Le Temple, France. The un-free man is chained to his desk, with in turn is chained to an invisible force  outside of the left side of the image. Should we imagine that the chain is binding the person to a superior, a corporation, or to the West at large?

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Witness, 1993, oil painting, 73 x 91 cm.

This is a stunning piece from the gallery’s own collection. References to Big Brother’s all seeing-eyes are not necessary. Vietnam’s own recent history has a strong record of breaches of human rights that allows the title alone to say all that is needed about this piece.

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Cyclo, 1992, silk painting.

This is an example of Choe’s contribution to silk painting. The medium was previously esteemed for the soft shapes and pale colours that it lends itself to, but Choe’s draughtsmanship overtook tradition and resulted in some scenic sketches of vibrant energy.

The current exhibition does not, strangely enough, give pride of place to some of the spectacular portraits of Vietnamese writers and poets that Choe painted in oil around the year 2000, a few years before his death. The gallery owns a few of these graphically brilliant pieces, drawn with dripped enamel, and coloured in limited harmonies that give plenty of space for the strong black lines to breathe. The exhibition catalogue shows good quality pictures of these paintings, and a couple of the originals can be found on the top floor of the gallery, amongst other semi-permanent displays. They are worth seeking out.

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Goodbye Saigon

I’m leaving Saigon (temporarily) to participate in Contemp’art 2013, a conference on art and urbanism in Istanbul. I’ll be talking about how artists in Vietnam have reacted to the rapid urban development around them. Speedy development looks a bit like the picture here: these are 20 layers in the process of making this lacquer painting, with some additional screenprinted layers, and a dusting of cement from demolished houses.


If you’d like more information on the materials and processes of Vietnamese lacquer painting, read this post.

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Does Contemporary Vietnamese Art still have something to say?

Part 1 of 3 by Laurent Colin

This essay, originally written in French by Laurent Colin, was first published in Vietnamese on the art discussion website 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.


Mai Van Hien in his studio. Pencil drawing by Nguyen Dinh Dang, 1987If 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.


Current trends

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.

Happy with Military Career, by Ha Manh Thang, 2010

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?

Image from

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.

Unknown Woman, by Nguyen Quang Huy, 2008

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.


Continue to part 2 of this essay here. Jump to part 3 here

Does Contemporary Vietnamese Art still have something to say?

Part 2 of 3 by Laurent Colin

Return to part 1 of this essay here. Continue to part 3 here.


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] 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.


Return to part 1 of this essay here. Continue to part 3 here.

Unless otherwise specified, text and images © 2017 Cristina Nualart

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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