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HANOI — On a recent visit, I asked everyone I met who was remotely involved in Hanoi’s contemporary art scene what the must-see experimental spaces were. Nhà Sàn Collective topped almost every list. Located in the Old Quarter near my hotel, I visited three times.
Tucked away on the second floor of a building and located next to Art Vietnam Gallery (also recommended), Nhà Sàn Collective is a small experimental space founded and run by local Vietnamese artists and curators. The gallery and current exhibition would feel right at home in Bushwick or Oakland — that is, not quite polished or professional enough to be welcome in Chelsea, Manhattan, or on Kearny Street in San Francisco, but high-quality and exciting work. My favorite kind.
The current solo show, titled Latcarf | Fractal, features an elegant and ephemeral series of pencil drawings by the artist Triệu Minh Hải. The drawings are hung touching, side by side in a nearly continuous work that floats off the gallery’s walls. There’s also a video in which the artist explains the inspiration and background of his work.
Triệu spent three years researching and experimenting with fractals to make this body of work. With a background in engineering but training at Vietnam’s University of Fine Arts too, Triệu struggled to strike a balance between the rigid — albeit beautiful — mathematics of fractals and the more fluid and interpretive qualities of art. Latcarf | Fractal is the result of that tension.
The work is comprised of obsessive pencil strokes, which through slight variations in contour, length, and direction create mesmerizing gray forms. The drawings pull you in as your eyes constantly spot new patterns and associations, like a child watching the clouds. The only distraction comes with occasionally awkward transitions from one panel to the next. The work recalls Tara Donovan’s untitled ballpoint pen drawings from the early 2000s, but less generative and grand in scale. It feels as though Triệu very much maintained control of the forms in his drawings; I remain undecided as to whether this is a flaw or not.
Wanting to learn more about the space and the group, I sat down with Lê Thuận Uyên, Nhà Sàn Collective’s general manager since April. A fourth-generation Hanoier, Lê recently returned to Vietnam after receiving her MA in Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College London. She is clearly passionate about Hanoi’s art scene.
“Artists here don’t have the support they need, and I wanted to help fill that gap,” Lê explained, speaking with a British accent. As one of the most famous locally run arts spaces in Hanoi, Nhà Sàn Collective was perfect for her.
Artists Nguyen Manh Duc and Tran Luong founded the organization in 1998 as Nhà Sàn Studio; it was soon heralded as Hanoi’s first experimental art space. The studio was located in Nguyen’s home, a traditional Muong house on stilts, and served as a hub and breeding ground for Hanoi contemporary art for many years.
In 2010 Nhà Sàn Studio was forced to shut down by officials who were unhappy with its programs. But a few years later a new generation of artists slyly revived it by changing the name to Nhà Sàn Collective, a means of circumventing government pressure as well as continuing the spirit and mission of the original space. Nguyễn Quốc Thành, Nguyễn Phương Linh, and Nguyễn Anh Tuấn Mami launched this second incarnation in 2013, with the original founders acting as advisors.
Their new name also represents the devaluing of the physical space, celebrating instead the people, ideas, and spirit behind Nhà Sàn. “I wanted to help maintain Nhà Sàn Collective as a hub for art that is open for all and where everyone feels they belong,” Lê said. “Hanoi needs that kind of community to strengthen the arts scene.”