It’s been a few months since I moved back home to Los Angeles after living in Việt Nam for about a year, and I can’t seem to shake off my jetlag. Or more precisely, homesickness: the yearning for the family food stalls selling bánh cuốn, phớ gà; my early evening strolls amid Hà Nội’s colonial facades and sun-dappled lakes filled with grandmothers power-walking and teenagers playing badminton; the roar and hum of motorcycle traffic framed by Sài Gòn’s gleaming high rises. Most of all, I miss the art scene, the regular routine of visiting with friends and visiting galleries, the close-knit community of artists in Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City (referred to as Sài Gòn by locals).
This article attempts to highlight some of the spaces and faces which makes up the contemporary art scene in Việt Nam; the list isn’t meant to be comprehensive. First let me provide a brief socio-political backdrop in which to situate Việt Nam’s cultural activity . I will then sketch the contemporary art scene in Hà Nội and Sài Gòn and, finally, I will introduce Sài Gòn’s newest alternative art space, Sàn Art, by focusing on an exhibition entitled ‘Diary of a Traveling City’.
Past Present, Future Tense
Việt Nam’s rapid economic growth — spurred by the socialist government’s 1986 open door đổi mới policy — has resulted in tremendous socio-economic and cultural changes. In the three decades since the gradual movement from communism to a socialist-capitalist political economy, Việt Nam has embraced globalization: advertisements are everywhere; the presence of foreign investors can be seen in the changing infrastructure of urban and rural areas, and constant construction in major urban areas is very much in evidence. Despite the current inflation, Việt Nam has been one of the fastest growing economies in Asia . Its entry into the World Trade Organization promises that future trade expansion will continue . The increased international flows of tourism, commerce and culture in Việt Nam have profoundly affected the development and proliferation of contemporary art .
Art historian Nora Taylor notes that Vietnamese artists began to cater to foreigners in the late 1980s (coinciding with đổi mới) by producing Fauvist interpretations of serene landscapes, occasionally populated by women in aò dái (traditional flowing dresses). These lush palette knife paintings still dominate commercial galleries in Sài Gòn, Huế and Hà Nội. Nonetheless, Socialist Realism and silk and lacquer paintings remain the dominant genres officially recognized by the state and featured in the national museums. There is relatively little government support for conceptual contemporary art. Nonetheless, a good indicator of potential change is the bi-annual Festival Huế, which showcases artists and performances (visual art, music, theatre, performance art, traditional arts and so on) from twenty-seven countries. This year’s festival theme is telling of the impact of economic development: ‘Cultural Heritage with Integration and Development’. Currently, all cultural productions and events must be screened and approved by government cultural committees.
There is no university-level conceptual art education or training in Việt Nam. Only formal lessons on composition, colour, and rendering from models exist, based on the curriculum established by the French colonial art system. Local Vietnamese artists’ knowledge about art theory, international art history, and experimental practice is gleaned from their own research, residencies or study abroad, and a mostly informal network of salons and workshops.
The Art Part
Hà Nội is the cultural and political capital of Vietnam; it is a medium-sized garden city with a large scenic central lake, which serves as a focal point for denizens. In the mornings and evenings, locals and tourists can be seen strolling, flirting or exercising on its perimeters.
Most official organizations are located in Hà Nội. Foreign cultural institutions such as L’Espace (French cultural institute) , Goethe Institut , and the British Cultural Council  have a range of cultural programing, including a regular showcase of Vietnamese contemporary visual art. Socially and critically engaged work are often shown and supported by these institutions. For artists, affiliation with an international organization often gives them some degree of artistic freedom .
Although no longer active, Salon Natasha, hosted by artist Vu Dân Tân and his partner, scholar and curator Natasha (Natalia) Kraevskaia in their studio/home, was the first private independent art space (opened in 1990) to promote artistic experimentation . Now, alternate spaces such as Ryllega Gallery  (supported by the Đong Sơn Today Foundation , which also hosts talks and provides free English lessons to artists), Nhà Sàn Đuc (an artist’s ‘house on stilts’ which has served as a performance and exhibition space and a local artists’ hangout), Đào Anh Khánh’s performance extravaganzas , and workshops organized by local artist and organizer Trần Lương, among others, are part of a rich artists’ network. Commercial galleries such as Art Vietnam Gallery , Suffusive Gallery , Studio Thơ , and Maison des Artes  add to the breadth of work shown. The recently built Việt Art Centre , affiliated with the Hà Nội Fine Arts University, has hosted exhibitions and events for contemporary Vietnamese and international artists, designers, musicians and architects. The University has also added video courses to supplement its retinue of academic art lessons.
I had found the address of the Sài Gòn home where I was born from my uncle, Cậu Út. My mother had described it as airy, marble tiled; I haven’t been there in thirty years. Late one damp night I went with a friend to find it. My first home is now a narrow storefront bridal shop; the upper floors used as a residence, as many family-owned businesses are. Closed up for the night, it was nothing like I had imagined — a nondescript place I felt no connection with. I was about to knock and ask to look around, ask about the current residents out of curiosity, but realized that it was a rather odd request from a stranger. After quickly strolling around the block, we drove away on surprisingly empty rain-slicked streets.
Although somewhat disappointed in my childhood home, I then felt somewhat more at home in Sài Gòn than Hà Nội. Perhaps Sài Gòn felt more cosmopolitan. Several Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese) stated they felt more comfortable living there than Hà Nội, which was deemed too small and where there were also fewer opportunities to find employment. Others have defended Hà Nội’s charm, scenery, and its vibrant cultural scene. The intersections of the personal and political may account for these preferences. There’s no place like home .
As the contemporary art scene emerged in Hà Nội in the late 1980s, in Sài Gòn there was not much activity. However, if Hà Nội is known as the cultural and political capital of Việt Nam, Sài Gòn is its economic centre. Within the past few years, art activity has been stirring in Sài Gòn. Galleries such as Galerie Quynh , Himiko Visual Café , and alternate spaces such as Sàn Art, an informal salon hosted by artist Nguyễn Nhu Huy , among others, provide a diverse array of art exhibitions and programs. Art and music events are also organized by wonderful district, spearheaded by artists Bertrand Peret and Sandrine Llouquet, a dynamic husband and wife team. In the past, a little blah blah, an ‘artist run initiative’, organized artist talks, residencies, and exhibitions; now they have changed their programing to focus on a single large project per year with related events . Foreign cultural institutions such as IDECAF (French cultural center)  and British Council occasionally do cultural events (including a film series at IDECAF and concerts through British Council). In October 2008, the French consulate teamed up with Sàn Art, Galerie Quynh and the Fine Arts Museum to present ‘le mois de l’image’ — a series of exhibitions and performances highlighting the work of over twenty Vietnamese and French artists, DJs and VJs . In the following section, I’d like focus on Sàn Art, a Sài Gòn-based independent art space, to give a flavour of some the contemporary artwork that is being shown and produced in Việt Nam .
Sàn Art is a non-profit gallery space and reading room that exhibits local and international artists, with a focus on local talent. They also encourage exchange through residencies and lectures for overseas artists and curators. ‘This is pioneering work in Việt Nam’, a gallery attendee noted of the space and its activities.
Dedicated Sàn Art organizers-volunteers include visual artists Tiffany Chung, Hà Thúc Phu Nam, Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn and poet/scholar Chương-Đài Võ, and artist, founder and director Đỉnh Q. Lê. The organizers take leads on projects. For instance, Nguyễn curated a group exhibition featuring local graffiti artists entitled ‘The Fragile Frontier’; Chung co-organized a recent fundraiser; Hà often takes care of installation and documentation; Võ is aiming to coordinate literary readings in the future.
Võ states that one of Sàn Art’s goals is to ‘cultivate an audience. We want to engage the community, particularly locals about contemporary art and critical issues.’ Lê notes that the local Vietnamese community is ‘curious about contemporary art’, and that they are open and interested in finding out about local and international movements. For the public, installation, performance and conceptual art are new concepts. Community response has been positive: local and national press has covered its events, a diverse mix of artists, locals and expats crowd the monthly openings. Even government censors have been supportive of work that has potentially political content.
In January 2008, Beijing-based curator Zoe Butt came to Sài Gòn for a curatorial residency sponsored by Sàn Art. The resulting exhibition, ‘Diary of a Traveling City’, featured four local artists. The theme of Sài Gòn as a mutable metropolis, a city of memory and modernity is addressed by the artists through installation, photography and video .
In Nguyễn Đức Tú’s intimate video installation Sài Gòn Smells I and II, banal, mundane details rendered in black and white — a slowly dripping tap, a drain and its scents — is juxtaposed with a colourful, dizzying urban mélange of exterior and interior pans of various buildings, and endless motorbikes on congested streets ... Claustrophobia and comfort is blurred; the city’s inhabitants are stuck in limbo.
Ngô Đình Trúc’s emotionally and politically charged series of medium-sized black-and-white reappropriated photographs entitled Idle Talk 1-10 are hung in a straight row in the gallery. The artist re-presents nostalgic cultural or traumatic historical images (for example, a tank crashing the gates of Independence Palace; the artist’s mother in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, her figure echoing a statue of the Virgin Mary; ‘nhạc vàng’, anti-war singer Khánh Ly ; Eddie Adams’ infamous image of a North Vietnamese soldier being shot by South Vietnamese General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan). Text describing the artist’s personal associations borders the evocative images. These musings also question representation: nostalgia and horror are palimpsest layers writ large upon personal and public memories .
In Siu Quý’s sprawling room-sized installation Urban, Sài Gòn is reconfigured as a jumbled stack of white cardboard boxes hand-lettered with black marker in English and Vietnamese: ‘hotel’, ‘internet’, ‘room for rent’, and so on. Red string wraps around boxes, connecting them. Quy’s globalized Sài Gòn is chaotic, recyclable, ephemeral — a semiotic jungle. The empty cardboard boxes reveal Sài Gòn as an empty container of endless packaged dreams.
Ngô Văn Lưc neatly installed A Story of Shoes: several hundred small photographs form an amorphous grid across two adjacent walls. An intimate, lonely cityscape of sidewalks, construction sites and looming high-rises emerges. Within each close-cropped image, the same pair of tattered leather shoes appears, either casually strewn or deliberately placed. It’s as if Benjamin’s flâneur, the iconic stroller-voyeur of urban modernity, displaced and disoriented, has lost his bearings and his shoes .
These artists wrestle with public and private realms, trauma and modernity, individual and cultural memories. Psychic and physical transition is also indicative of Sài Gòn itself, a chameleon. Rapid change can be seen not only in centres such as Sài Gòn, Hà Nội and Huế, but throughout the countryside. This shift is reflected in the changing identities of artists, cultural institutions, and the general public. Việt Nam ’s artists and organizers open up sites of reflection and engagement, ways to negotiate brave new worlds, ways to be at home in the world.
All ‘Diaries of a Traveling City’ and Sàn Art images courtesy of Zoe Butt and Hà Thúc Phu Nam.
1.In May 2008, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Việt Nam and Singapore, two exhibitions were launched in Singapore: ‘Post Đổi-Mới: Contemporary Vietnamese Art After 1990s’, at the Singapore Art Museum (http://www.singart.com) and ‘Việt Nam!: From Myth to Modernity’ at the Art and Civilizations Museum (http://www.acm.org.sg). Related programing included an international symposium on the development of Vietnamese contemporary art.
2. For more on the development of the Vietnamese economy over the last several years, see the following articles: Keith Bradsher, ‘Vietnam’s Roaring Economy is Set for World Stage’, New York Times, ‘World Business’, 25 October 2006; Clay Chandler and Sheridan Prasso, ‘Vietnam VROOM: Asia’s Second-Fastest Economy Takes the Global Stage’, Fortune Magazine, 21 November 2006; Michael C. Mohnihan, ‘The Ho Chi Minh City Statement’, Reason Magazine, 26 February 2008; Martha Ann Overland, ‘Vietnam’s Troubled Economy’, Time Magazine, 9 June 2008.
3. ‘General Council approves Việt Nam ’s membership’, 7 November 2006, Press Release, World Trade Organization,http://www.wto.org/english/news_e/pres06_e/pr455_e.htm; ‘Việt Nam Joins WTO,’ World Trade Organization, 11 January 2007,www.wto.org/english/news_e/news07_e/acc_vietnam_11jan07_e.htm
4. For more on globalization and its impact on contemporary art, please refer to Charlotte Bydler, The Global ArtWorld Inc.: On the Globalization of Contemporary Art, Uppsala University, Uppsala, 2004.
5. Art historian Nora Taylor has written extensively on contemporary art in Việt Nam: Nora Annesley Taylor, Painters in Hanoi, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2004; Nora A. Taylor, ‘Whose Art Are We Studying? Writing Vietnamese Art History From Colonialism to the Present,’ from Studies in Southeast Asian Art: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. O’ Connor, Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 2000.
6. L’Espace, British Council, and Goethe Institut all provide language instruction, and have archival holdings. For more information on L’Espace:http://www.ambafrance-vn.org/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=265
7. For more information on Goethe Institut:http://www.goethe.de/ins/vn/han/enindex.htm
8. British Council Vietnam:http://www.britishcouncil.org/vietnam. The British Council also supports Hanoi Grapevine, a website and group e-mail list which features ongoing updates on cultural events in Hanoi and Sai Gon:www.hanoigrapevine.com
9. Describing the avant-garde art scene, critic and painter Joe Fyfe notes: ‘The Vietnamese government has not been friendly to this work and the artists have felt more comfortable with the extra ring of protection that an international organization provides.’ Joe Fyfe, ‘Report from Hanoi, Rienke Enghardt and Tran Trung Tin at Art Vietnam, Hanoi’, artcritical.com, November 2006,http://www.artcritical.com/fyfe/JFHanoi.htm
10. For more on the development of contemporary art in Việt Nam please refer to Natalia Kraevskaia,Từ Hoài Cổ Hướng Sang Miền Đất Mới (From Nostalgia Towards Exploration), Kim Đông Publishing House, Hanoi, 2005) and Nguyễn Nhu Huy, ‘Asian Art Report’, Arthub magazine:http://www.nhuhuy.com/htmls/weblogs_detail_en.php?logid=228&f=1&mon=11&ye=2006, 3 December 2006.
11. Ryllega Gallery:http://www.ryllegahanoi.com
12. Đông Sơn Today Foundation: http://dongsontoday.org
13. Đào Anh Khánh’s website: http://www.daoanhkhanh.com
14. Art Vietnam is one of the most prominent commercial spaces in Ha Noi, is run by director Suzanne Lecht — a Texan who has lived in Việt Nam for over fifteen years. Website: http://www.artvietnamgallery.com . Interview with Suzanne Lecht, 3 May 2006.
15. Suffusive Gallery: http://www.suffusiveart.com
16. Studio Thơ: http://www.studiotho.com
17. Maison des Arts: http://maisondesartshanoi.com
18. Việt Art Centre: www.vietartcentre.vn
19. Several diasporic Vietnamese artists call Viet Nam home, including Tiffany Chung, Hà Thúc Phu Nam, Đỉnh Q. Lê, Jun Nguyễn-Hatsushiba, Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, Phi Phi Oanh Nguyễn (phiphiblackbox.com), Rich Streitmetter-Tran (diacritic.org), and among others.
20. Galerie Quynh: www.galeriequynh.com
21. Himiko Visual Café: http://www.himikokoro.com
22. Nguyễn Nhu Huy’s website: http://www.nhuhuy.com
23. Sue Hadju and Motoko Uda have run a little blah blah over the past few years: http://albbsaigon.blogspot.com
24. IDECAF is also known as The Institute of Cultural Exchange with France. The site has an exhibition space, library and screening room.
25. ‘le mois de l’image’: http://www.lemoisdelimage.net/2008/index.php?l1=en
26. Sàn Art: www.san-art.org
27. Special thanks to Zoe Butt for her notes and images of the ‘Diary of a Traveling City’ exhibition, as well as the organizers of Sàn Art: Đỉnh Q. Lê, Tiffany Chung, Hà Thúc Phu Nam, Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, and Chương-Đài Võ.
28. ‘Nhạc Vàng’, or yellow or golden music, are often love songs with slow tempos written in Southern Việt Nam before 1975. This music was banned in Việt Nam by the government for containing potentially subversive content.
29. For more on memory, nostalgia, trauma and representation refer to Tài Hồ Huệ-Tâm (ed.), The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, California University Press, Berkeley, 2001.
30. Nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as ‘a botanist of the sidewalk’, a figure that was crucial in understanding modern life on the street, a detached observer. Marxist Walter Benjamin expanded this idea, noting that the bourgeois gentleman-stroller/intellectual was coolly critical of capitalist spectacle: ‘the flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. In this he shares the situation of the commodity’ (1938). Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in The Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn, Verso, London, 1983. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belnak Press, Cambridge, 2002. Other academics have problematized the figure of the flâneur for its masculinist (as well as Eurocentric) assumptions, including scholars Nancy Troy, Janet Wolff, among others.
Việt Lê bio
Việt Lê is an artist, creative writer, and independent curator. He received his MFA at the University of California, Irvine, where he has also taught studio art and visual culture courses, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California; his research focuses on trauma, representation, desire, contemporary art, and HIV/AIDS in Southeast Asia.
- Sat, 1 Nov 2008