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Nurturing New Art in Vietnam

Installation shot of Galerie Quynh on De Tham st. All photographs by the author.
Installation view, ‘Christine Nguyen: The Cosmos and the Sea’ at Galerie Quynh on De Tham Street (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

HO CHI MINH CITY — Galerie Quynh’s current exhibition, The Cosmos and the Sea, features new work by Los Angeles–based artist Christine Nguyen. Her large drawings and photographs provoke a vibrant imagined landscape of geometric forms and ephemeral figures. The experience recalls being a child and discovering floaters — wondering if you’re seeing both the real world and the imagined overlapped, or the microscopic world transposed atop our own.

Using cyanotypes, multiple negatives, drawing, paint, stencils, and spray paint, Nguyen layers many mediums and effects with the skill of an advertiser with Photoshop — however, as best I could tell, everything here was done manually. When I first entered the space, I mistook the complex forms as inharmonious, but after a second visit they resolved nicely. These are psychedelic tapestries from a fantastical science fiction planet.

Detail of "Where the Sea and the Cosmos Meet," (2014)
Christine Nguyen, “Where the Sea and the Cosmos Meet” (detail) (2014)

Started in December 2003, Galerie Quynh is one of the leading contemporary art spaces in Ho Chi Minh City, and certainly one of the largest. The gallery already had two exhibition spaces when, in May of this year, it launched the nonprofit Sao La, located just behind the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. Sao La’s mission is to promote and nurture contemporary art in Vietnam.

Installation shot of Galerie Quynh on Dong Khoi st.
Installation view, ‘Christine Nguyen: The Cosmos and the Sea’ at Galerie Quynh on Dong Khoi Street (click to enlarge)

Nguyen’s art dazzled me, but as a lover of community-focused arts initiatives, I found Sao La the most exciting aspect of Galerie Quynh’s work. I sat down twice to speak with artist and Sao La Program Manger Tung Mai about his passion for contemporary art and the nonprofit’s mission.

Tung’s first time out of the country was in 2008, to visit the Singapore Biennale. Accompanied by his mentor Richard Streitmatter-Tran, an artist and founder of the experimental arts and research space Dia/Projects in Ho Chi Minh City, Tung was so impressed by what he saw that he decided to dedicate his life to contemporary art. He’s since exhibited his own work at the Singapore Art Museum.

Christine Nguyen, "Fractal," (2013)
Christine Nguyen, “Fractal” (2013)

“I really love the nonprofit side, because I prefer the idea of supporting each other,” Tung said about Sao La. “Galleries have to sell to survive, so they must be commercial.” Sao La, on the other hand, can focus more on celebrating and help young artists and arts groups in Vietnam. The space serves as both as a gallery and as an informal meeting ground to share and discuss creative projects.

The second job of Sao La is to educate the public by holding artist workshops, movie screenings, conversations, and more, all free of charge. “One of the main problems is a lack of art education,” Tung explained. “If the general public doesn’t understand contemporary art, why would they appreciate the works and support the art scene?”

Christine Nguyen, "The Light Around Dark Matter," (2014)
Christine Nguyen, “The Light Around Dark Matter” (2014)

Galerie Quynh and Sao La are an important part of an exciting movement working to grow Vietnam’s contemporary arts scene, in a way that’s both culturally acceptable and commercially viable. As Tung said, “The art scene here is still very small, so we all have to stick together.”

Christine Nguyen: The Cosmos and the Sea continues at Galerie Quynh (65 De Tham Street and Level 2, 151/3 Dong Khoi Street, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) through January 10.

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