Spirit of Friendship at the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre with Nhà Sàn Collective’s installation “82 131 39” (2017) on the left and Trương Công Tùng’s, “Blind Map,” (2013), on the right, hanging

In galleries, we expect objects. After all the artist’s hard labor of education, research, and the construction is over, we largely focus on the finished product, proudly displayed in a white cubeSpirit of Friendship, at the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, in Ho Chi Minh City, inverts this tendency, with a curatorial focus instead on the very relationships, the friendships that make the national art scene.

Perhaps the quintessential installation of Spirit of Friendship is Nhà Sàn Collective‘s installation “82 131 39,” (2017). It is a replica of Me Luong’s kitchen table (the title are the table’s dimensions) where Nhà Sàn would regularly meet and discuss art, but most obviously as a welcoming place to cook, share, and eat, together. Spirit of Friendship proposes that, while members of Nhà Sàn Collective and Studio have produced great artworks, it’s their friendships that nourished, developed, and continue to sustain their practices to this day. The friendships, the informal relationships behind the artworks, are not superfluous side notes to the end objects, but of fundamental importance to their very existence.

Along the back wall of the exhibition there is a major timeline of artist groups, alongside social-political events in Vietnam for context.

In Vietnam, there are only a few forms art can take to be supported financially or institutionally, or to be granted display by government censors. A realistic, or social-realist, woman wearing an elegant, usually white, Áo dài — a traditional Vietnamese dress — is acceptable and common. It’s even better if that woman is demure and the painting is nicely accented by something red, not so subtly alluding to communist support. Or perhaps a lacquerware, showing a bucolic scene with noble peasants, living within the rhythms of Vietnam’s sublime countryside. These are easy to find, they are supportive to the government’s agenda, and — crucially — they sell.

Spirit of Friendship, curated by Zoe Butt, Bill Nguyễn and Lê Thiên Bảo, looks at experimental practices that have emerged in Vietnam since 1975 that do not fall into those safe, salable categories. More specifically, the show is about the social context from which they came, and how they emerged at all. As abundant as the accepted tropes of Vietnamese art are, their opposites — conceptually rigorous, creative, free, experimental works — do exist in Vietnam, although they are much harder to find. Wihout the systems of support that Western artists rely upon to establish their practices —  grants, residencies, quality art schools, a complex gallery system, various kinds of museums, and an arts press — art education, and the visibility of artists, become much more informal and precarious affairs. Spirit of Friendship, proposes that, absent those systems of support, it was through artist friendships, and artist groups, that such practices could emerge and grow.  

Detail of Nhà Sàn Collective’s installation, “82 131 39” (2017).

The exhibition is comprised of four segments, each impressively researched and contextualized. Entering, we are first drawn to two installations, the previously mentioned Nhà Sàn Collective installation, as well as “Blind Map,” (2013), by Trương Công Tùng, who was supported by Sàn Art’s first Lab session. Both are part of the central section of the exhibition, which features artist groups significant to the development of experimental practices in Vietnam. The two installations are the most visually powerful works on view, anchoring the entire show. With examples of artist groups creatively dealing with space, and videos of Vietnamese artists, they illuminate how these friendships resulted in exciting new art forms.

Nhà Sàn Collective, which began in Hanoi as Nhà Sàn Studio in 1998, was the first, and longest running, experimental non-profit art space in Vietnam. Following Nhà Sàn Studio’s closure in 2011, Nhà Sàn Collective emerged in 2013, as a new artist generation, inspired and supported by the former Nhà Sàn Studio, sought to continue that same creativity and free expression it had nurtured. Both Nhà Sàns have an invaluable place in the history of fostering contemporary practices in Vietnam, especially in the North. The members decided that it was the kitchen, represented in a collectively authored recipe book, that best illustrated the nature of their practice.

Various paintings by the Group of Ten.

Zoe Butt, one of the exhibition’s curators who is also the Artistic Director of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, told me that, “Government lack of care and understanding of experimental art practice (resulting in censorship) is so great in Vietnam that, coupled with the lack of supportive cultural infrastructure, artists must take significant risks to continue their art.” Personal relationships are what sustain those risks, that compensate for the lack of support, over time. Butt argues that, in Vietnam, friendships are the most valuable form of support that experimental artists have to rely on.

While the enjoyable and rare photographic documentation showing artist parties and friendships over the years, it remains inferential evidence for the exhibition’s thesis. It is through the extensive research that the tight layers of critical discourse amongst friends come to the fore. This behind-the-scenes support is nicely represented in letter exchanged among various artist groups, notably Salon Natasha and the Group of Ten. In the absence of dynamic art publications and public discourse on contemporary practices, these letter exchanges privately pushed artistic practices and methods when no institution publicly would (or legally could).

Salon Natasha’s mail art project, Crosscurrents, which was an exchange between Salon Natasha and Australian artists, represents perhaps the first international artist exchange independently initiated in Vietnam. Similarly, with the Group of Ten, we find the private, subtle, and largely hidden exchanges between artist friends between the North and South, helping push a unified national discourse years before it was publicly acceptable. This kind of research connecting practices and groups together is a goldmine for future art historical research, and will be the Spirit of Friendship’s true legacy.  

Various paintings hung together with a vitrine of mail art, all by members of Salon Natasha.

Luckily, this research will live on and grow at spiritoffriendship.org, which launched October 24th. The site will feature all and more of the content of the exhibition, as well as kick off an ongoing research platform continuing to support and document such research. For example, the next stage will involve a retrospective on the Gang of Five, one of the most influential early experimental artist groups in Vietnam, curated by Le Thuan Uyen. In a region where good, accessible, and English-language archives on contemporary art are hard to come by, this is groundbreaking.

These collective histories, and the power of these friendships, exist, but remain poorly documented or researched. Here, they are scattered across exhibition catalogues, private discussions, rumors, blogs, and largely in Vietnamese. Spirit of Friendship has done the phenomenal labor of culling them together into a clear, and accessible exhibition about all the relationships behind experimental art practices in Vietnam. For that, it is  an astounding achievement.  

Spirit of Friendship continues through November 26 at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, at 15 Nguyen U Di, Thao Dien Ward, D.2, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...