Cristina NualART

ART REVIEWS, ARTICLES & ESSAYS

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

 

Art with rubble: the eviction zone mural

After researching why many of the houses on the east of the Saigon river were destroyed, it seemed appropriate to make an artwork with the rubble, as a way of keeping together some fragments of the community that was dispersing. The image is a Saigon landscape, with the Thu Thiem area fading in the distance.

It took 100 kilos of cement, and six months of weekends to stick large quantities (3 taxis full) of rubble onto a wall. The mural is in the LIN centre for community development. The mural is made from pieces of brick, cement, mirror, floor tiles and walls collected from various demolished residences in Thu Thiem, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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The Thu Thiem New Urban Zone plan was approved in 1998. The first evictions started in 2002, and by 2010, when I first visited, some houses were still standing, but most of the area had been cleared. Many residents have moved far away, but when the mural was finished in May 2014, some people were still living amongst the rubble. The pieces in this mural were taken away from their original site, and have been mixed up and rearranged on this wall. We hope that all the families that relocated will likewise create strong bonds in their new communities.

Saigon’s Galerie Quynh: a decade of get up and go

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This article was published in 
Word Vietnam magazine, June 2014, pp.84-87.

A street sweeper pauses his broom in the middle of the night. From the shadows of the empty asphalt, he looks at two people sleeping in a glowing-red shop window. A ceiling of crimson roses and red velvet walls cradle the sleepers nested in vermillion satin. One night, 500 people gathered to see the softly lit, red bed. How many of the passers-by would be just as surprised to hear that the sleeping beauties were making art?

The 12 night-long performance was the first street-view art exhibition of its kind in Vietnam. The artist Sue Hadju created Magma: we’re not counting sheep in 2006, and it is one of the highlights of Galerie Quynh’s first decade of existence. The project is testament to the gallery’s mission: to bring innovative art to the Vietnamese public. ‘We didn’t get sponsorship, we had nothing for sale’, says Quynh, the gallery founder. ‘We wanted to support it. We never really thought about sales.’

Naturally, the event did not generate any revenue, but it did put Galerie Quynh on the international radar. Publications like Art In America, or the London-based Contemporary magazine, featured it.

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Another milestone was being able to exhibit the work of Japanese-American artist Bruce Yonemoto. Getting famous international artists to come and show in Vietnam is about as easy as getting Madonna to sing at your wedding.

Worldwide, Galerie Quynh is still probably the best known, if not the only known, Vietnamese gallery. Art historian Quynh Pham left her job in a well-known museum in California to return to her Asian homeland to found it. In 2003, when the gallery opened, Vietnam had very little in terms of an art scene.

In the 1990s, Salon Natasha and Nhasan studio, two artist-run spaces established in Hanoi, had opened the doors to contemporary art in Vietnam. At the turn of the millenium, international backing provided more cultural spaces in Hanoi, such as the Goethe Institute, the Ford Foundation, Alliance Francaise’s L’Espace, the British Council and the Danish Cultural Development and Exchange Foundation. Private galleries started popping up on Vietnam’s high streets, but most were just shops that sold paintings. They were not galleries that worked with artists to develop their careers and raise public awareness of contemporary practices.

Many commercial painting shops remain, but a lot of the important galleries have now closed. Blue Space, Ryllega, Bui gallery…

‘We’ve been knocked down so many times. It’s easy to give up’, Quynh comments, revealing her steely resolution to keep working hard to make her project mature. Disaster moments include the all-too-common having to move location, for the second time, because after renovating the venue, the landlord wants it back. Grit, and plenty of hard work, can solve most problems. ‘We all know that success does not come overnight’, Hoang Duong Cam, one of the gallery artists confirms, ‘we, together, shed a lot of sweat and tears to get to where we are right now.’

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When things seem hard, they usually get worse. The financial crisis slowed down global business even in buzzing Vietnam. ‘2009, 2010 were very hard years for us’, Quynh comments. Her clients, many of them Westerners, mostly live outside of Vietnam. Most gallerists in Vietnam are working hard to develop a collector base among the local population, and Quynh is no exception in trying to build relationships with wealthy Vietnamese businesspeople, who, for now, show little interest in art as a monetary and cultural investment.

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It’s not easy for a gallery to survive in a country where the majority of people don’t even think of looking at art, let alone buying it. ‘For the longest time’, Quynh recalls, ‘I would say for about 8 years, it was running like an art centre.’ Not quite like a non-profit, she clarifies, but only just managing to sell enough to continue their programming and fund their exhibition catalogues. Galerie Quynh has printed over a dozen publications on their artists.

The biggest challenge happened very recently. Contemporary art takes many forms and mediums, and as any cinema-goer knows, screen size, quality and resolution change the viewing experience. Hanging an exhibition for Tiffany Chung, an artist of worldwide fame, led to near breakdown on all sides. Tiffany’s multichannel video art requires sophisticated technology. ‘We don’t have the infrastructure here in Vietnam’, says a disappointed Quynh, ‘in future we will have to hire specialist people and bring in certain equipment.’

Technology is not the only obstacle. Try visiting the printing press because the looming deadline for a catalogue is not met, and leave at 3am covered in ink. ‘Always in Vietnam we have lots of production issues. Everything just takes time’, the gallery owner reveals. She employs a highly skilled carpenter to frame the artworks, but it has been known to happen that a picture is framed the wrong way up just before another deadline. Art, serious art, must be of the best quality. ‘We don’t have archival materials in Vietnam, so we have to bring them over from the United States or elsewhere’, Quynh notes, somehow with no exasperation in her voice.

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Despite all this, ‘we’ve never had a meltdown’, she smiles. ‘The key to our success is the relationship we have with our artists.’ Passion for art is Galerie Quynh’s driving force. ‘I don’t have an MBA. I come from an art history, theoretical background’, which the artists respect. Instead of giving guidelines on how artists can make their work more sellable, Quynh critiques their work (very bluntly, she admits) and motivates them to push their ideas further, ‘I really care about them as professional artists.’

In turn, the artists stood by Galerie Quynh, even during the low points. International sources have commented that galleries are wary to taking on Vietnamese artists, because they sell their art behind the gallery’s back, after the gallery has invested heavily in promoting them. Quynh is rightly proud to say that her gallery has only lost 2 artists in all of these years. ‘We’ve worked with 17 artists on different projects.’ The younger generation artists have built strong careers thanks to that partnership.

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Not that the gallery accepts any artist that knocks on the door. ‘A lot of artists have come to me and I’ve declined them.’ Quynh explains that art has to resonate with her. As a curator, her career depends on making choices she can defend with heart and soul. ‘I do feel that we are the leading gallery in the nation. We have solid programming. We have vision.’

The aim is not just to sell, but to make contemporary art from Vietnam more visible to the general public. Galerie Quynh has endorsed events and artists talks, and worked with organizations such as A little blah blah, Wonderful District, San Art, Zero Station and Dia Projects. International collaborations with various museums and artistic projects are significant. The gallery supported a fundraising event for Japan’s Red Cross, following the 2011 tsunami. From 2010 to 2012 Galerie Quynh was the first and only gallery from Vietnam invited to participate in the prestigious Art Hong Kong fair.

Galerie Quynh expanded in 2013 now has two exceptional art spaces in HCMC. Future world domination on the scale of Gagosian? Unlikely, given that Vietnam is still far from being a global art centre. But for that precise reason, because art experts from all corners are looking this way to see what they have missed, Quynh is networking more vigorously, ‘we need to start a dialogue with museums.’

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Not only that. More challenges are in the making. In the courtyard of the Fine Arts museum, a new space has just been renovated. Sao La, Galerie Quynh’s newest initiative, is not going to be a commercial space. There are plans for something a bit more experimental. Educational programs and opportunities for some of the emerging artists who may feel somewhat intimidated by the other local art establishments, with their shows planned at least a year in advance. One thing seems certain, failure will not be a deterrent to make it work. ‘I’m really excited about our future’, glows Quynh.

 

What the Artists Say

GQ10_CN2French artist Thierry Bernard-Gotteland seems quite blasé about exhibiting his artwork. He works as a lecturer and would make the art anyway, he shrugs. Since his focus is on sound art, it costs him nothing to create it on his computer, and he doesn’t need a physical place to store it. Yet he has chosen to work with Galerie Quynh because it keeps him in contact with other art professionals. It has also allowed him to expand his creative practice into, in his own words, more ‘traditional’ materials. Leather sofas in chains and self-playing music machines may not be your idea of traditional art, but he assures us, with solid philosophic reasoning, that it is.

Any artist that titles his work Square Eggs and Things Under Shells is going to either fail instantly or ooze enough creativity for at least two lifetimes. Hoang Duong Cam, one of Vietnam’s most playful artists, began his career in Hanoi, where ‘square eggs’ was projected at the Goethe Institute in 2001. Ten years later, in Galerie Quynh, which represents him since he moved to Saigon, Cam hung his favourite show to date.  Ideal Fall, 2011, was a big challenge for him and the gallery. Preparation took nearly 3 years of labour. The work included activities such as throwing sculptures off rooftops and shredding worker’s uniforms to make a hanging upside down monument.

Drawings of bandaged heads, fat cats, dead birds and evil sheep could mislead you into thinking that Stephen King has taken up art. Sandrine Llouquet’s works are disquieting renderings of human turmoil, with characters from childhood nightmares. Surprisingly captivating, though, because of the freshness of the line and watercolour strokes. Sandrine has worked with Galerie Quynh since moving to Vietnam in 2005. She has been very active with collaborative projects that have shaken up HCMC’s sleepy art world. She occasionally works as a VJ.

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Galerie Quynh has two spaces: 65 De Tham, and the third floor of 151/3 Dong Khoi,
both in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

 

Text and photos 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.

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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.

The internet is 25 years old

Although we think of the internet as the biggest repository of knowledge, it is barely a young adult.

I remember exploring this strange net with my brother, on an underscore-flashing screen. I guess it was MS DOS, although I seem to remember it was white, so perhaps it was something else. Did Netscape have a search function? I can’t even remember what the computer looked like. Was it a rainbow-striped Sinclair? The details have faded. I don’t even know how old we were.

We were excited about what we’d heard about this web that was world wide. We were ready to discover all sorts of things on it. My first Internet search was for a woman artist. I wanted to know more about Georgia O’Keefee. She seemed like an interesting person. (Thinking about it now, maybe my interest in found bones came from her paintings). My first Internet search yielded zero results. Was that zero an indication of how little interest there was in art or in women artists?

I just tried the same search again now. I got over 4 and a half million results in nanoseconds. The World Wide Web is still growing up. We know it’s prodigious at storing knowledge. Let’s make it also grow wiser and more inclusive, and fill it with the stuff that matters.

From here, a humble thank you to the developers, the geeks and the net artists that have made it a good place to know.

24 hours to reflect on gender

I glazed this ceramic plate last millennium. It’s called Oppressed Woman.
Not all is bad for women on this planet, but it takes very little research to see that there is much gender inequality hindering humanity. Much of that inequality is invisible to many people who have not yet challenged how much of their own attitudes and values comes from gender biased ideologies. Whichever way you celebrate women, I hope that it brings you to a better place.

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The Ghost of Cho Van Thanh

After nearly 3 years, I finished this layered drawing. It didn’t take 2 years of work, but perhaps I needed that time to reflect on my disappointment at what I perceived to be the destruction of a cultural icon. In 2011 I witnessed the demolition of the market in Saigon known as Cho Van Thánh. I’d grown fond of the rusty old letters on what appeared to be a greyish modernist building.

In fact, the large, covered market was built in 1994, during the Doi Moi period, when Vietnam was implementing the economic reforms that would reshape its route to progress. The geometrical details that reminded me of 1960s architecture took on a poignant meaning. After the war, the country had been so isolated from the rest of the world that the designs it produced had not evolved for a whole generation, they were frozen in time.*

Diggers have become an interesting artistic subject matter for me. A Vietnamese friend told me that some people refer to them as ghosts, and that when passing in front diggers, many Vietnamese will remain silent omeprazole 20 mg. Diggers are scary. In this rapidly developing land, they can destroy ancestor’s graves, and there was a time when the Vietnamese government wouldn’t allow the relocation of graves. Ancestor worship, a popular belief system throughout the country, requires visits to ancestors tombs, to pay respect.

This subdued image pays respect to the defunct market, symbol of a faded era that has been left behind, much to the relief of many in Vietnam, who are instead embracing the introduction of a market economy.

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Cristina Nualart. The Ghost of Cho Van Thanh. 2011-2014.

Pencil, watercolour, acrylic, house paint and gold leaf on Saunders Waterford paper, 76 x 56 cm.

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* A similar thing had occurred in Spain after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). According to Antigüedad del Castillo-Olivares (2011), Spain was left out of international developments in architecture for over 10 years, and it was only when the country’s economy started to improve, from well into the 1950s, that architecture returned to a ‘normal’ stage of progress.

Antigüedad del Castillo-Olivares, María Dolores, 2011, ‘La Arquitectura después de la Segunda Guerra Mundial’, En: Mª Dolores Antigüedad del Castillo-Olivares, Víctor Nieto Alcaide, Amparo Serrano de Haro Soriano. El arte del siglo XX : metamorfosis del arte, Madrid: Editorial Universitaria Ramón Areces, 165-205.

We Are Asia – Art Stage Singapore 2014

This article was cross-posted on the Hanoi Grapevine.

<span style="line-height: 1 read here.5em;”>marinabaysandssilouhette_cnualart‘We Are Asia’ was the title of the 4th edition of Art Stage. Of the many art fairs mushrooming all over Asia, Art Stage Singapore has probably chosen the most glamorous venue: Marina Bay Sands. Yet the 4th edition of this fair tried to counteract the elitism that the artworld sometimes lounges in.

Art Stage attempted to bridge the gap between high-brow collectors and the general public. For a commercial art fair, it offered more tours than many museums. Art stage organisers planned a strong educational programme to attract a middle class audience that might otherwise shy away from all the glitz and price tags with lots of zeros.

Many of the scheduled tours focused on the regional platforms, as they termed 8 mini-exhibitions on Southeast Asia, India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia and Central Asia. Commissioned to specialist curators, the platforms were a commercial venture (all the works were for sale) but with a clear aim to highlight regional characteristics of the art from each area.

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The platforms served also as a welcome respite from the aisles of eye-catching but barren works that populate art fairs: quirky sculptures, embroidered canvases, Manga style figures, gloss and glitter. Below is a selection of the more intellectually captivating artworks from these platforms.

From China, artist Qiu Zhijie presents a multi-artist project on fantasy sculptures, and this ink drawing:  The Politics of Laughing (detail), 2013, 145 x 220 cm. Take a moment to read some locations and wonder at the real places you would give each name to.
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Korean photographer Seung-Woo Back has done an analogue remix in Utopia, a wall-to-wall photograph framed in strips. Each strip was developed in a different country, which explains the colour variations. The cityscape of monolithic, sterile buildings is of North Korea. The cold colours and lack of people add a fearsome tint to the massive skyscrapers.
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The Australian Platform was the weakest, with inconsistent topics, quality and approaches. The only remarkable piece was this video installation called Syria. This timely piece by Lebanese-Australian Khaled Sabsabi is a remix of Damascus footage cut to move in neverending islamic patterns.
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From the Philippines, Mark Justiniani recreates traditional wooden boats, inventing a low-tech way to create optical illusions of baffling perspective and depth.
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Singaporean artist Donna Ong uses hand cut pictures from old books in her commissioned furniture lightboxes titled And We Were Like Those Who Dream. Patient handcrafting gives the objects a magical appearance that is really heart warming. The pieces work as little treasure troves, like Orhan Pamuk’s memorabilia in the Museum of Innocence.
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Taiwanese artist Tu Wei-Cheng supports in vintage furniture his optical illusions. The Emperor’s Chest is the story of how forgotten Victorian toys and other antique devices become alive again in cabinets and dressing tables. Like in The Nutcracker, once the toys are alive, they become real. The people are contemporary dancers in a multilayered cityscape, a theatre of the absurd. artstage2014_cnualart_tuweicheng

FX Harsono, from Indonesia, authored one of the most powerful artworks in the whole fair. He also uses furniture, but combines multiple message channels in the installation: from the artist’s own poetry, to LED light displays, to book covers. The Raining Bed splashes political commentary in a direct, clever and visually evocative way. The books asleep on the bed have titles like ‘The Smug General’, ‘The Rise and fall of the Great Powers’, or ‘The History of Malaysia’. The poem scrolling on the wall can be read in Indonesian and English. It says ‘In my sleep I entangled the past, at the tip of the pen history is predicted, at the tip of the gun history is deceived, at the end of the fountain history washed away.’
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Another exciting piece uses old books from the artist’s personal childhood library. Crammed with nostalgia, Haslin Ismail’s Book Land is an imaginative jungle of landscapes, adventurous people and mysterious territories waiting for a reader to discover them. The artwork appears to be a carved and folded homage to the pleasure of literature. The Malay artist, however, confesses that he hates reading, but is in awe of the power of books to fill the mind with stories and knowledge. By making books more tactile and sculptural, he controls the worry experienced by reticent readers.
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Soe Naing, from Myanmar, locked himself in a large glass box, inside which he hung daily sketches. In reference to the censorship that has vetoed so much art in his country, the viewer can barely see the sketches, as the glass is painted black. The artist, from the inside, scratches away at the black paint, from which squinting onlookers try to see the drawings. The piece is called Intermission on Stage, and it does what it says.
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The Southeast Asian platform was the largest and richest, not surprisingly since the hosting country is at the heart of the vivacious region. What was surprising was the lack of Vietnamese artists. It would be very difficult to curate a representative show that included every country, and token presences would be detrimental, but one has to wonder why no Vietnamese artist made it to the final selection.

However, Cuc gallery from Hanoi was the first Vietnamese gallery to participate in Art Stage. The booth featured abstracts by Nguyen Trung and Duong Thuy Lieu and figure paintings by Do Hoang Tuong and Ly Tran Quynh Giang.

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Another Vietnamese artist, Nguyen The Dung, is represented by Hong Kong based AP gallery.
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Mylyn Nguyen is an Australian artist of Vietnamese heritage. She filled the Brenda May gallery booth with environmental concerns, buzzing around in an installation of minute paper bees, some with micro houses on their backs.
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Photography had a strong presence across many of the booths in Art Stage. Photographs with manipulated, collaged or threaded interventions are testament of the medium’s evolution in the Fine Art sphere, and amongst art buyers in Asia.

In all, the fair was a successful event for the participants, and a welcome art experience for the general public. It was not packed with striking new discoveries, but it offered sufficient new ideas to keep regular art fair goers on their toes. And the mission to engage a wider audience with thematic tours is something more in the art establishment should consider doing.

 

 

Vietnam’s 2013 art scene ends with a bang: Tiffany Chung

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, January 2014, p.16.

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In Vietnam, it is rare to see exhibitions of the most prominent Vietnamese artists. The stars of the country’s artworld are in high demand in art fairs, biennials and museums of other parts of the globe. In her career spanning little over a decade, Tiffany has, on average, exhibited 1 solo show and 2 groups shows every year, and participated in 1 biennial or triennial every 2 years. Her art has travelled from cities across the US, to Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East.

The last time Tiffany’s paintings and sculptures were shown in Vietnam was 5 years ago, at Galerie Quynh, HCMC, where her new show An Archeology Project for Future Remembrance can be seen until 10 January 2014.

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This exhibition is possibly the first in Vietnam that shows the type of interdisciplinary research that is making waves in intellectual circles. At some point in the second half of the 20th century, the modernist admiration for the instinctual genius of the artist gave way to a trend for intelligent artworks that demonstrated the artist’s ability to articulate theories and illustrate concepts. Saigon resident Tiffany Chung’s brainpower seems to be switched onto hyperactive all the time.

Tiffany speaks with energy and sharp insight. Her research is a solid back up for her unapologetic opinions. For a long time, she has been a good friend of Erik Harms, assistant professor of Anthropoly at Yale. In the Dong Khoi space, the collaboration between the artist and the anthropologist is presented linearly. Excerpts from Erik Harms next book are glossy art objects. Selected passages of colonialist propaganda and historical descriptions of Saigon are also readable art. But the research is not just text, it is drawn into the maps and crafted into the sculptures.

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The drawings on vellum paper, velvety and translucent, are based on historical maps or futuristic maps projecting urban plans of areas yet to be built. The gleeful layers of the drawing, minute doodley patterns in pretty colours, deceive us into thinking they are imaginative fabrications. Their hidden research tells other stories. The maps – a trademark of her art practice – critique the political decisions that shape borders, lead to wars, construct artificial communities or displace people. The six map drawings in this show are specifically about areas in South Vietnam, mostly referencing the forced evictions of people who lived on land the government wants to turn into a fancy financial district. The 3 channel video art also comments on that issue.

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 The gem of the exhibition is the hanging installation Stored in a jar: monsoon, drowning fish, color of water, and the floating world. The piece was commissioned by the Singapore Biennale in 2011. On glass puddles, dozens of miniature houses, houseboats and boats are aligned with neat gardens reminiscent of a middle-class American suburb.

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Detailed architectural models are inspired by traditional Asian design and materials. Rather than glorifying colonial architecture, Tiffany’s art admires older vernacular architecture. Not for sentimental reasons, however. The design of her mini housing project is informed by in depth research, adapting ideas from all over the region, from Japan to Thailand as well as Vietnam, and crafting the models with cutting-edge technology. The modern and the traditional coexist.

The overall magical appearance of this calming and poised artwork is a plan for a portable model of sustainable urbanism. Wooden houses, some on stilts, have solar panels and rainwater collectors. One of Tiffany’s pet topics is climate change. The evidence, she illustrates, is that the Mekong region will be in knee-deep trouble in coming decades. Floods will increase their devastating capacity, so we should prepare for it. Perhaps creating floating communities.

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Artist Himiko Nguyen comes back from the dark.

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, December 2013, pp. 98-99.

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Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko's artwork in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

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‘What are you doing?’ asked elder sister.
‘I’m looking for hell’, answered Be Chinh, the little girl who was digging up the earth with a knife. In My Tho, her hometown in the Mekong Delta, her family called the youngest sibling Baby Nine. Hoang, her real name, found hell much later, in Saigon, but she is climbing out of it admirably well.

Last year, a friend called me with bad news. A local newspaper had reported that Hoang, popularly known as Himiko, was in a coma following a road accident. The cause of the accident varies with the source. Depending on the newspaper, the friend, or the day you ask Himiko herself, it either involved alcohol (although several of her friends report that she doesn’t drink), or someone who drove into her while she stood on a pavement, or that she lost control of a friend’s powerful motorbike that she’d borrowed.

Whatever happened, it led to grave head injuries. Surgeons cut out a piece of her cranium to minimise the damage of brain swelling. She was in a very dangerous coma for days. Weeks later, conscious again, she started a visual diary on Facebook. The unflinching photos of stitches and scars are not for the faint hearted. They are testament to the highly skilled medical team, who grafted back the part of the skull bone they had frozen.

Himiko says her life turned into a Korean film: following a dramatic accident, the protagonist breaks up with their lover, and it all ends in tears.

Storms of tears flowed. Not from pain. ‘After the accident I was always crying loudly and having tantrums, like a 5 year old child,’ she laughs. ‘People who are broken in the head come back as children.’ The thirtysomething artist chuckles, ‘I think now I’m 13.’

Himiko’s grin turns into an intense expression. She explains that researching brain injuries has helped her understand the changes caused by the accident, the recovery process, and the split from her former partner. She raves about Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk on brain science.

In less than a year, her recovery has been remarkable. ‘I didn’t die because before I had done yoga training 3 or 4 days a week,’ she says beaming. Himiko tackled her rehabilitation like a steamroller, but acknowledges the care she received. She’s particularly grateful to the free acupuncture treatment a volunteer gave her, to reduce the facial paralysis.

Concussion can affect language skills. The first time I saw Himiko after the accident she told me she wanted to practice English, because her Vietnamese had become childish. This is coming from someone who studied Russian, and who worked as a translator in Japan to save money to study art.

‘My family do not understand about art. My family is very poor, we couldn’t all study at university,’ says the ninth sibling who started making origami art for friends’ birthdays, since she could not afford to buy gifts. She put herself through university and saw her art prices rise to the top of her cohort. ‘5 years and beginning’ was Himiko’s university thesis, finished in 2005 after 5 years at art school. She’s now onto another beginning, one in which she wears hats more than she used to. But inside her head, I imagine fireworks. Her ambitions and artistic ideas must flash around at strobe speed.

Himiko continues to make art from her ‘Old Dreams’ studio in central HCMC. Any artwork she sells is funding her dreams, new or old. Excited about her next project, a further development of a photographic series titled ‘Come Out’, Himiko emails curators at luxury hotels, takes calls from galleries, and receives private collectors. ‘She is a true artist. She has given up everything for art,’ applauds one of these private collectors, who has known Himiko since the start of her art career.

Her career started only two months after graduating, when she opened the first ‘Himiko café’. It was in the living room of a shared house. ‘I thought of opening a café because Vietnamese people always go in cafes, they don’t want to go in galleries and museums. They don’t know museums,’ Himiko analyses.

Saigon was a different place in 2005. There were hardly any galleries. Himiko’s success was to find a way to show art that suited the local mindset. Her determination to have more than the one exhibition a year she might get if she relied on other art spaces sparked it off. She knew the strengths and weaknesses of local artists.  ‘If artists want to exhibit in San Art [which didn’t exist at the time] or Galerie Quynh, they need to write a proposal and this is difficult. With Himiko they got a yes. I understand them.’ Her low bureaucracy approach gave opportunities to many, and the rotating exhibitions made the café a more interesting place to go.

At first, she says, customers didn’t care about the artwork. People came because word of mouth rated hers as one of the top cafes in HCMC. Himiko makes it sound like it was easy, but organising exhibitions with young artists had its challenges. ‘Saigon artists want to be free,’ Himiko observes. ‘They cannot keep time. The exhibition is always installed one week after the deadline.’ She learnt to wait until the artwork was actually on the walls before informing the newspapers about the exhibition opening.

The grass roots, low-fi approach might suggest a somewhat provincial art style. Not Himiko’s. Far from it. Her artwork is in two important collections of Vietnamese art.

One day the authorities came to close down the alternative art space they had kept a eye on. The culprit was nude photography, too risqué for millennial Vietnam. But Himiko café was reborn a second time in a different location. It lasted some years before the same thing happened again. She opened a third, but was unable to keep it following her accident. She is now waiting for an investor to help her set up a new café. She ploughed money from her art sales in the cafes. Now Himiko owes nothing, but is back at square one.

It shouldn’t be a problem for her to begin again. ‘If you believe in good you get good energy,’ she says. Before the accident she got on with her life and didn’t think much about others. Now the sound of an ambulance makes her take stock. ‘Before [the accident] I didn’t care,’ she says, explaining how positive thinking gives strength, ‘but now I care.’

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Follow Himiko’s writings on http://himikocafe.blogspot.com/

   “I am a sculptor. I don’t know about Picasso and Van Gogh.
I don’t know about History painting. I make the art I like.”
Himiko

Text and photos by Cristina Nualart.

Ha-ha! A graffiti artist’s magical trip to Saigon

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, December 2013, p.16.

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How do you explain your job to people? In a recent interview, a non-starving artist based in South East Asia said he is ‘a dancing poodle for the 1%’.  Another artist, Ha-ha has a business card that says he is an ‘alien theorist’. Being an artist has its perks.

Ha-ha believes that aliens can help us achieve solar consciousness, which is a step above from planetary consciousness, which is what we would achieve if we connected with trees, fish and all living beings on earth. Connection is a word Ha-ha uses a lot, both in relation to technology, and, I infer, a metaphysical form of bonding with others. Think Avatar, but without the Smurf blue.

haha_by_cnualart4Aliens are just like us’, says this graffiti artist. On his first visit to Vietnam, Ha-ha talked extensively about collective consciousness, archetypes, alternative realities, and other uncommon phenomena. I should have asked him if he has met many aliens, but my mind was clouded with visions of Age of Aquarius predictions.  I learnt, for example, that since Disney has acquired Star Wars, future episodes of the series will become a form mind control.

The original Star Wars film, Ha-ha believes, is a veritable encyclopedia of archetypes. After seeing the film in childhood, he began to draw pictures of spaceships and of Darth Vader, whom he thought was a good character, not an evil one. Prophetic…

The nickname Ha-ha comes from another media character: a boy in The Simpsons series who bleats ‘ha-ha’ when he hits other kids.

Ha-ha’s real name, Regan Tamanui, rings of his Maori ancestry. Fed magic mushroom soup by his grandmother from the age of 5, Ha-ha decided early on that he was going to be an artist. His career started taking off in his 20s, after he moved to Australia. There he joined the first group of Stuckists that formed outside of England. The Stuckists advocated for a return to good, old fashioned painting. Ha-ha made oil paintings.

The he tried spray-paint, and things took a turn for the better. He is now ranked as one of the world’s most influential street artists. He doesn’t say ‘street art’ though, he deplores that elitist way of referring to graffiti.

His artistic trademark is to merge two separate stencil portraits, overlapping two faces. These stencil fusions began as a way to illustrate archetypes. The bond in relationships  -between couples, people and robots, people and animals-  is an archetype. The pair is more than the sum of its part. This unity, easy for all of us to understand, is a small-scale version of collective consciousness. Ha-ha hopes we will elevate and ‘connect to a higher consciousness. Hopefully it will be a love consciousness.’

haha_by_cnualart5Acetate is Ha-ha’s tool. The artist cuts the transparent film into templates for spray-painting. For some portraits, he needs to cuts over 60 sheets of acetate to get all the detail. The front of his sketchbook is tattooed with rows of numbers. They’re not numerological charts. He notes how many metres of acetate he gets through, and how many cuts he makes. It’s a trick to keep focused. Ha-ha practices art as a form of meditation.

In October 2013, Ha-ha was invited, quite spontaneously, to be the first artist in residence at Saigon Outcast. It was quick and easy to bring him over from Singapore, where he was exhibiting, to live and work in one of the shipping containers overlooking a wasteland in District 2 for a month. Ha-ha enjoyed his first visit to Vietnam, and devoted himself to creating a series of portraits of Ho Chi Minh. The works, sprayed on walls or on paper, show the figurehead of a young man, or as the unmistakable legendary president.

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‘With the internet, and the global collective consciousness, we are manifesting this god, a god that is there and has answers for us. If you want something, you can just, like, order a pizza online, and it gets delivered in 20 minutes.’

 

 Text and photos by Cristina Nualart

 

Making progress with my Saigon rubble mosaic

Today I got another 25 kilos of tile cement, and 5 or 6 more bags full of rubble from the eviction zone of what was previously the lively community of Thu Thiem, District 2, HCMC. I use the rubble to slowly build this 3 metre long mosaic on a wall in Binh Thanh district. Since it’s weekend work only, it’s going to take a few more months…

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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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