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In Vietnam, Contemplating the Future of Contemporary Art

Nguyen Van Doan, "Meditation", 1998, Courtesy Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum
Nguyen Van Doan, “Meditation” (1998) (courtesy Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum)

The 1986 policy of Doi Moi or “new change” injected reforms into Vietnam similar to Perestroika in the former Soviet Union. Formerly banned articles on Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, and Salvador Dali were suddenly allowed in the Artist Association-backed Fine Art Magazine, and the nude figure was re-introduced. Art, which had been in service of the collective, grew more individualistic, and Socialist Realism more expressionistic. Western influences, tourists, and foreigners flocked in. There was a flurry of sales, and some artists grew wealthy.

Curatorial and critical practices steeped in art theory did not exist due to the lack of a critical art educational system. Local art collecting patrons were scarce. But in the 1990s, due to the return of both Vietnamese exiles and the influx of adventurous ex-patriots, this began to change. The first private gallery Salon Natasha, owned by Russian-born Natalia Kraevskaia who was married to Vietnamese artist Vu Dan Tan, opened in Hanoi in 1990. That same year Asia Link of Australia created an artist-in-residence program, also in Hanoi. In 1991 Plum Blossoms Gallery in Hong Kong showed 15 contemporary Vietnamese in the exhibit “Uncorked Soul”. And by 1994 the Vietnamese art scene had so expanded that American Suzanne Lecht moved to Hanoi where she organized numerous exhibitions, opening Art Vietnam Gallery in 2001. In 1996 the Ford Foundation became involved in fostering an art scene helping to create a Contemporary Arts Center in Hanoi, and, in 1997, Quynh Pham, an exiled Vietnamese curator who had worked with the Smithsonian’s Institute’s Sackler Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, returned home to Vietnam, founding Gallery Quynh in 2003 and the independent arts space Sao La in 2014.  

Jun Nguyen Hatsushiba, "The Master and The Slave" 2013, courtesy Mizuma Gallery and the artist
Jun Nguyen Hatsushiba, “Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex – For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards” (2001) (courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Mizuma Gallery, and the artist)

Video art was introduced to the country by Japanese Vietnamese artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, who had his first Vietnamese exhibition Dream 29 in Hanoi in 1997, and in 1998 showed at the Blue Space Contemporary Arts Center in Ho Chi Minh City, exhibiting haunting works focused on issues of repressed memories and loss.

Around this time, installation art became particularly interesting to Vietnamese artists, incorporating materials of worship from their own culture such as ritual papers, incense, money, and images of local gods and goddesses. Performance art entered Vietnam in 2001 when the artist Tran Long performed “On the Banks of the Red River.” He went to an area of the Hanoi where illegal immigrants lived, and sang and played music with local children inside mosquito net tents. Another artist, Dao Anh Khanh, created “Arrival of Spring” in 2003, a sexually provocative work where he dressed like an indigenous man in a loincloth with body paint and danced, chanted, and wildly emoted surrounded by 3,000 candles, flowers, and scarecrows.

Dao Anh Khanh at Electronic Music Festival, Hanoi, 2013, Photo courtesy VNExpres
Dao Anh Khanh at Electronic Music Festival, Hanoi (2013) (photo courtesy VNExpress)

As the gallery scene stabilized, a nascent community of young Vietnamese educated abroad felt compelled to immigrate back to a country they barely remembered to develop new structures and institutions. Richard Streitmatter-Tran, who was raised in the United States, returned from Boston to Vietnam in 2003, establishing the non-profit Dia/Projects in 2010, whose mission is to work with urban and social issues by setting up a networking platform with other arts-related initiatives. San Art, yet another alternative space, opened in 2007, founded by Dinh Q Le, Tiffany Chung, and Propeller Group members Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Phu Nam Thuc Ha. San Art, currently directed by curator Zoe Buttjust moved to a new location. With a grant from the Prince Claus Fund, San Art is hosting a special series of workshops and lectures called “Conscious Realities” a “three year initiative to stimulate creative activity and the development of artistic practice based on research.”

Richard Streitmatter-Tran at DIA/Projects in Ho Chi Minh City, 2015 photo by Ellen Pearlman
Richard Streitmatter-Tran at DIA/Projects in Ho Chi Minh City holding one of his translucent rice flour skulls (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A large swath of the Vietnamese population is under 30, web savvy, and hungry to interact with global culture. 3A Station art venue, a recent addition to the arts scene, is comprised of a number of indoor speciality shops, galleries, meeting rooms, and outdoor activities. Started by Tuyet Mai, the owner of Mai’s Gallery, 3A is not as high concept as other Vietnamese galleries, but embraces the restless energies and tastes of the local youth culture, devoting an entire back alley to graffiti art, used for endless selfies. The day I visited, 3A was hosting the Vietnam Creative Festival, a sponsored event with live musical performances, craft, art booths, and standing room only lectures on topics like personal branding, the creative entrepreneur, and how to market and promote your art.

Mai's Gallery, Ho Chi Minh City, photo by Ellen Pearlman
Mai’s Gallery, Ho Chi Minh City, (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
3A graffiti art alley with Vietnamese hipsters, photo by Ellen Pearlman
3A graffiti art alley (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
VietnamSong
Vietnam Creative Festival 2014, with pop group performing Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Vietnam’s youth have grown up in the shadow of the revolution, and have not experienced the struggle first hand. They embrace change and like most young people around the world they want to go out, party with their friends, and have fun.

Vietnamese girls just wanna have fun! Photo by Ellen Pearlman
Vietnamese girls at Vietnam Creative Festival 2014 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Yet despite the overwhelming enthusiasm and need of Vietnamese youth to engage with their global counterparts, the educational, political, and cultural structures of their institutions are mired in inflexible bureaucratic processes and oversight originating from the country’s tumultuous history. The art museums are underfunded and under attended. The bureaucratic processes to get permission to mount exhibitions are convoluted and onerous, involving multiple agencies where the understanding of contemporary art is almost non-existent. As Vietnam moves warp speed into the information age, these tensions are increasing, setting up a generational friction of values for the country’s young artists to mine.

This is the third, and final, installment of a series of articles on Vietnamese art. 

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