Thanh and Hai Le in the New Space Foundation office

Thanh and Hai Le in the New Space Foundation office (All photos © Susan Silas, 2012)

Last month I went to Vietnam, a place I have wanted to visit since the day the Vietnam War ended in 1975. For three weeks I traveled from the mountains in the North to the Mekong Delta in the South, but the last week was spent in residence at the New Space Arts Foundation in Hue, founded by Le Ngoc Thanh and Le Duc Hai. Thanh and Hai are at the center of the contemporary art scene in Hue, the Imperial City, located on the coast midway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. They have a frenetic and positive energy, and everyone in Hue seems to know who they are. They have relationships with established artists in Hue, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as with young students and artists who have just completed their studies. I learned about them from the artist Morgan O’Hara and contacted them. They invited me to stay at the residency and to give a talk at their foundation.

Hai and Thanh are identical twins. They work together every day and live side by side in nearly identical houses they designed and built near their gallery and art foundation spaces. In the beginning, I had a little trouble telling them apart, so for the first few days my strategy lay in their arms. I would glance at a forearm: if I saw stripes, it was Hai; if I saw a crocodile with red spots, it was Thanh. But soon enough I found it easy to tell them apart.

While Hurricane Sandy battered New York, I was living at the New Space Arts Foundation residency. My room consisted of a mattress on the floor, a mosquito net, a lamp, and an army of tiny ants. The monsoon rains are nearly over by this time of year, but the crescendo of water pounding the roof at night and the tiny droplets of water that traversed the room sideways because of the gaps between the top of the walls and the roof were evidence that the rainy season was not yet done with Hue.

Dinner at New Space Foundation Residency

The city is bisected by the Perfume River. In 1964, the man to whom I am now married spent his time on one side of the river — the side where the New Space Arts Foundation and New Space Gallery are today — while the Viet Minh spent their time on the other, where the Citadel and the New Space residency are located. The marine barracks where he lived is now a hospital, just a short walk from the Foundation and from the Ho Chi Minh museum (evidently every city in Vietnam boasts one).

When you pass through the gate of the property that houses the residency, you find yourself inside an inviting courtyard. To the right are a pond replete with orange carp and a small outbuilding. Before you is an outdoor kitchen with a long, narrow table where frequent dinner parties are held, prodded along by communal cooking and the efforts of Hai and Thanh to bring together local and resident artists at one table.

During my time there, I shot portraits of the artists in residence with me. They were Blu Simon Wasem, a sound artist and professionally trained chef from Brazil:

Sound artist Blu Simon Wasem

The painter Anh Hoang, from Quang Tri:

Painter Anh Hoang

And the sculptor Géraldine Anton, whose family divides their time between France and Germany:

Sculptor Géraldine Anton

The adorable painter Le Kinh Tai arrived from Ho Chi Minh City just before I departed. I was also taken on a tour of younger artists’ studios by An Nguyen, who works for Thanh and Hai at the residency. Perhaps because An is a young male artist and we visited artists who were also his friends, all of the visits were with young men. It was interesting to see that most of the work involved a fairly high level of what we might think of as traditional skills, especially with regard to painting. And this included training in both “Western” oil painting and traditional Vietnamese lacquer painting. The conversation around “de-skilling” was not much in evidence in Hue.

Hai and Thanh are big and passionate talkers. They speak very quickly both in Vietnamese (so I’m told) and in English, and they often finish each other’s sentences. A few days into my stay I realized I should capitalize on all that talk, and I suggested that we sit down to do an interview together about the art scene in Hue and in Vietnam.

Susan Silas: Tell me about the New Space Gallery and Arts Foundation and how they came to be.

Le Duc Hai: We finished school in 2000 and became artists.

Le Ngoc Thanh:  And we have a gallery that was started about 12 years ago. We made the gallery to sell my artwork, but we also did openings for contemporary artists that came from Hanoi or Saigon, or sometimes foreigners. Four years ago, we started an art foundation. We have two places — one place for artists to stay, and one place to show the artwork and do artist workshops and talks.

New Space Arts Foundation

LDH: In our residency we have a lacquer studio, an art studio, and a new media studio for film and for photography. It’s also a place for people to meet and create workshops for a week or a month. An artist can live there from one to six months. From 2008 until now we’ve had about 65 events, and next year we will have a big project for video art for Hue, Hanoi, and Saigon. We will be inviting curators from Hanoi and Saigon.

SS: You said you usually exhibit work that was made during the residency period. Will the video works be made here?

LDH: First, the artists we invite, video artists, already have a work, and they will bring that work — that’s one part. And they will stay here for a week or 10 days, and they will start a new video work in Hue, and the artists will work as a group and make a new artwork in the workshop.

SS: And will you have a screening when they have finished?

LDH: Yes, sure, like a small festival. We will have different times to show all the artworks. This is the first time for a big event like this.

SS: Will it be unusual to have a video festival in Hue? Will it be something new for the audience here?

LNT: There have been a few performances and videos shown, but I think this is quite new in Vietnam and for Hue, too.

SS: How did the two of you become connected with European artists? Was it through your programming?

LNT: Our foundation is open: we have the website, and artists from all over the world can apply. We don’t feel that it should be just for famous artists. Artists apply, and my brother and I and a few others, we choose which artists will come. This foundation is a family foundation and it is a nonprofit, so we are not concerned with selling artwork here.

LDH: We are not selling work here but maybe in the future. For the past four years we have worked as a nonprofit, and we hope to share contemporary art with the people who live in Hue.

SS: What is the relationship of the foundation to the gallery?

LDH: The gallery is for my family. All of the money to run this foundation comes from the profits of the gallery.

LNT: The paintings I sell bring money to the foundation.

SS: That’s an interesting model. The commercial gallery is supporting the work of the foundation.

LDH:  This is the first place in Vietnam to create a space for artists: a place to work, to live, to cook.

SS: How many artists are in residence at one time?

LDH: We can have up to six artists, but normally we have one or two. In addition, we have one studio at the center, so an artist can also work here.

LNT: Our idea when we founded this was to have an artist or some students from Hue here, so that these artists can work together with whoever came from outside.

SS: Do the artists that meet here stay in touch with one another?

LNT: Yes.

LDH: Plus the artists are on our website, so they can make connections with each other even if they are not here at the same time.

SS: When you began, were you thinking you would have an international reach, or did you think of this as a local program?

LNT: One reason we created the foundation was that when we were very young, we went to many countries, and many people helped us. Four years ago, when we had a little bit of money, we thought about creating a foundation in Hue. It’s important for Hue, too, for the people of Hue. There is a big university here, and a lot of artists live in Hue. And many people love art. I want artists from all over the world to come to Vietnam, to apply and to work here together. We didn’t make this only for Vietnamese or only for foreigners.

SS: I found out about the foundation quite by accident, through the artist Morgan O’Hara, who had been here.

LDH: My country is not a really big country — it’s a normal country, so I’m sure artists in America must be afraid or they don’t know too much about it. They may see the website, but they don’t know. But if you go back, talk with your friends, then they know it is okay and maybe they will apply.

SS: Are most of the artists that come here from Europe?

LDH: Many countries. We have artists from Brazil, from America, from Germany —

LNT: From Spain, Australia, a lot of countries.

LDH: And normally from Southeast Asia, because it’s a very cheap flight for them to come to Hue.

SS: You don’t just run this foundation together; you also are working artists. Can you talk a little about some of the projects you’ve done together?

LDH: When we were younger, we painted a lot with lacquer, but we stopped painting; we became bored with painting. For the past ten years we have been working with performance and video. Last year we did a big project with two installations and one 3-channel video, and right now we are making a video and installation together. We’ve thought a lot about the war and how afterward people in my country were connected to each other.

LNT: We made these clothes. [Thanh and Hai are holding up green camouflage uniforms dating from what they call the American War and what Americans call the Vietnam War. One jacket is a Northern uniform, and one is a Southern uniform.] We want to meet together. I don’t want to see the North or the South. We worked together. We cut, and we traded pieces from one uniform to the other.

LDH: So after we worked on this, we did a performance. You can’t tell which is North and which is South.

LNT: When we had the exhibition, we had the two uniforms and one video. And we expanded the project with a series of photographs.

Thanh (seated) and Hai (standing) in the hybrid uniforms

LDH: My brother and I wore these clothes and visited many of the sites where there had been fighting. We posed in these remade uniforms for a photo. Afterward we made a book, and we hung these photos together in an exhibition.

SS: Do you think there is still tension between the North and the South?

LDH:Like in Germany, the people are now together, but there are still problems because the North and the South are different. Not just different food, but different in their thinking. But time can make things better.

SS: Geographically, Hue is nearly in the middle, but it is south of what was the DMZ so I assume this is considered South?

LDH: Yes, this is South, but my brother and I came from the North. We were born in the North, but now we are living in the South. For two years now we have been working on a project called “The Bridge.” We will have three movies — one in Vietnam, one in Korea, and one in Germany, because these three countries have been cut in two, between the Communists and non-Communists.

LNT: We have finished two films already, one in Vietnam and one in Korea. Next year we will do the part in Germany.

SS: Were you able to enter North Korea?

LDH: No. But we were able to shoot North Korea in the background.

LNT: I think from Vietnam it would be possible to get a visa to visit North Korea, but it would be impossible to shoot a video or take photographs.

SS: Do you feel here that you have the freedom to do anything you wish, or are there restrictions?

LDH: Well, you have laws. You have to follow the laws. But they don’t control what you are thinking. It means they aren’t controlling your creative work.

SS: So when you had the exhibition of works about the North and South or the starvation of the people in 1945, you didn’t have to worry about being censored or getting into trouble with the authorities?

LNT: No, but we need permission. The exhibition with the uniforms was done only in Korea and not yet in Vietnam. If we want to show this here, we have to submit a proposal and describe what it will be. Once they stamp the paper, then it’s OK.

SS: Do you have to do that for every show you have at the Foundation?

LNT & LDT: Yes, sure.

LDH: My friends say it’s the same in Singapore.

SS: If you submitted a proposal to show this work made with the uniforms of the North and South, do you think they would say yes or no?

LDH: I think they would say yes, because the ideas are clear.

SS: Have you been following what is happening in China with Ai Weiwei? Do you think the same thing could happen to an artist here?

LDH: If the artist did something like that, yes — if you speak badly of the government. We have a law. So if you go the wrong way …

SS: What does the law say, exactly?

LDH: When you are a student, you are free to create what you want but not against the government.

LNT: You can’t say, “Fuck the Communists” or something like that.

SS: So how do you judge when you are getting close to something that they wouldn’t allow? How do you know where that line is?

LDH: Time has helped to make them more open. They begin to understand what it is that artists are saying. If they understand, then it is no problem.

LNT: But if they understand and say no — then it’s no.

The roof of Dieu De National Pagoda in Hue

SS: When you have an exhibition here and you send the proposal in for approval, does it go to the government in Hanoi or to an office in Hue?

LNT: Here in Hue.

SS: So it’s a local decision?

LDH: It’s done by a committee here in Hue.

SS: And in Vietnam, is the center of the art world Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City?

LNT: It’s Hanoi, because Hanoi is the capital and there is a lot of official support for the arts. The embassies are there, and Denmark, Russia, and now Japan support the arts here.

SS: Has it been difficult for Vietnamese artists to be seen outside of Vietnam?

LNT: It’s been much easier for Vietnamese who are actually living in America. But there are some Vietnamese artists who have international careers.

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Susan Silas

Susan Silas is a visual artist and occasional writer living in Brooklyn.