HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — The newest and allegedly largest contemporary art space in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), The Factory, launched with a bevy of robots and holograms in its inaugural exhibition, TechNoPhobe. Highlighting six HCMC-based contemporary artists and featuring several large installations, sculptures, and interactive works all incorporating new media, this exhibition would feel at home in any global arts city, from NYC to Beijing. It offers a rare peek at the new and future forms and media gaining traction in HCMC’s arts scene.
Coming into the large, sleek space, visitors are confronted by “License 2 Draw” (2014) by Ưu Đàm Trần Nguyễn. The work, like many others throughout the exhibition, is an interactive new-media installation, only this one is app-based, relinquishing some of its aesthetic control to the networked audience. Vietnam is the third most connected Southeast Asian country, with 43.9% internet penetration, and among the city’s more well-to-do youth, smart phones have been the norm for some time. I watched several viewers quickly download the app and, with big smiles, begin controlling the drawing robot.
While the installation of the piece was well crafted, and controlling the robot car to paint was undeniably fun, the idea itself felt a bit overdone. Ever since Nicholas Negroponte’s “Seek” (1970), robots and their crowdsourced human counterparts have been creating collective forms. “Blurring the boundary between audience and artist” in such a manner is a well-worn trope.
“The Quantic Family” (2016) by Truc-Anh is a visually enticing installation comprising two parts; three 3D-printed masks and a wallpapered backdrop, all in high-contrast black and white. The two walls are covered with images of faces and masks from all over the globe, cut up and mixed together to make strange new near-faces. The 3D-printed masks render several of the faces from the wall in physical form.
The piece suggests the intermingling of cultures through globalization (especially via digital technologies) — such as throwing in the Terminator with the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet. But globalization and digital technologies are never as uniformly and horizontally distributed as this installation might suggest. The idea that with the internet all cultures can now connect and share together equally is an old and debunked techno-utopian dream.
The piece I enjoyed most viscerally was Cao Hoàng Long’s “The Infinite in the Finite” (2016), which is comprised of a faux well with thin bands of white-blue light projected onto the water inside that change radiuses and frequency as the work interacts with the viewer. The piece is simple but has a strong impact. Another visitor and I silently stared at the shimmering water for a long time, as countless people have done out in the world since time immemorial. This piece was strong enough to transcend the technologies used and speak to the deeper human condition — something new-media works aspire to but rarely achieve.
However, the piece that left the strongest impression on me was “Hầu Đồng Song” (2016) by Ngọc Nâu and Crazy Monkey (Lê Thanh Tùng). This work is a projected hologram of Ngọc dancing while wearing the traditional Vietnamese clothes of the Goddess of Mountains and Forest. The artist’s dancing is fun and modern, abstracted slightly through the Kinect 3D-scanned image, and the accompanying song is traditional, part of a Vietnamese custom for communicating with the deceased or asking the spirits for assistance. This playfully jarring juxtaposition felt smartly representative of contemporary Vietnam. Throughout HCMC, an undeniably modern city fighting its way to global status, there are still many unique intersections of traditional beliefs, communism, and a socialist-oriented market economy post–Đổi Mới. Ngọc’s installation plays cleverly within these surreal and generative intersections.
Due to ongoing negotiations with the local Cultural Police, a sound installation by Thierry Bernard-Gotteland, a French-born, HCMC-based artist, is currently absent from the exhibition. The Factory is negotiating the work’s return.
The Factory encompases a bar, a coworking space, workshops, and a library, and will soon feature an organic restaurant as well. In this regard, the space, like its inaugural show, represents a rapidly changing and increasingly global Ho Chi Minh City. The question for the future of both the Factory and the artists based there is: Can they compete at an international level while retaining the uniquely Vietnamese quality of HCMC?