Interview with Nguyen Huy An

AAA's Enoch Cheng: When and why did you decide to become an artist? You had formal traditional art training, such as life drawing, ceramics and painting in school. How did you shift to other forms such as installation and performance?

Nguyen Huy An (NHA): I learnt to paint prior to 2004, and have always thought of myself as a painter. I became a student of Hanoi Art College in 2004. During that time, I contemplated the status of Vietnamese art and how I could discover the world of contemporary art; I asked myself many questions about local art. During that time there were also some art events in Vietnam such as ‘Blue-Red-Yellow’ curated by Tran Luong, and the Vietnam Performance Art Lim Dim Festival … They made me think about how I might like to work with installation and performance. Although my main focus was still painting, I started to experiment with installation work, and the idea of space and material gradually attracted me. I felt that my internal sense could be revealed through installation.

AAA: You like to collect found objects and every day objects (e.g. bananas, hair) to make your installations. Can you tell us why and give us some examples?

NHA: I like simple materials. Most of them are dark in colour, such as black thread, coal, peat, black hair. These materials are very close to me; they are like a secret, a mystery. Some materials, such as black hair and black thread, remind me of my childhood and often relate to crafts from my home region (for example toc roi craft, in which crafters collect hair from combs and hair that has been cut).

An example of this kind of work can be seen in Thuan Chau Dress when I collected a black skirt, the typical fashion of the Vietnam mountain women, and cut it into some powder like pieces. Then I placed them on an old wooden box I collected. These materials imply time and memory.

AAA: Some of your works are formed in very simple shapes, sometimes in a ball, sometimes pyramidal. What interests you about shapes?

NHA: I like simple shapes, existing alone in large spaces. These shapes are closed and dark, giving a sense of privacy and inward feelings. In some of my paintings, I paint ponds – I was inspired by Vietnamese folk art and Buddhist culture – here, mass and shape are in balance: the pond is a body suspended in space.


One of my installations, Hair on the Table, is a heavy, round mass on a small table with thin, long legs; because the table is slender and delicate, the volume of hair stands out as mysterious. In the performance work The Roads, there is a mysterious black pyramid standing alone between the two walls at the edges.

AAA: I know you have been to a few places to participate in performance art events (Singapore and Japan). How would you compare working in Vietnam with the experiences you have had elsewhere?

NHA: My trips are usually very short, the longest being three weeks. It’s difficult to understand clearly about the people and art of a place in such a short time. However, I do find artists in Vietnam to be very different to those elsewhere; foreign artists are very confident and professional, possibly as a result of having been trained as artists at university; Vietnamese artist aren’t. Also, I have found it difficult to explain the concept of my works, especially in other languages in other countries. 

AAA: You are also teaching in school now. Do you see any difference between yours and the younger generations?

NHA: Maybe you are mistaken. I am only a teacher of primary pupils from six to ten years old; their works are very spontaneous and pure, like me when I was that age. However, there is a big difference between the younger generation and my generation in Vietnam. The young generation adapts to the world very quickly because they are exposed to the expansive environment, while my generation is the opposite; it was not as easy to participate.

AAA: As an artist, what is the difference between Hanoi and HCMC? Why do you choose to stay in Hanoi?

NHA: I was born in a suburb of Hanoi, and still live there. Life in Hanoi is more difficult than Ho Chi Minh City because it is not the economic centre, but it has over 1000 years of history and culture. There remain old customs from the feudal time, and some features from the period of socialist construction; many people have very old fashioned points of view and don’t necessary value the kind of work I do, they think it’s meaningless which makes it hard for me to earn money.

Ho Chi Minh City is a much younger city than Hanoi. The life there is busy and fast, and it is easier to earn money. But I like the life in Hanoi, because it’s quiet and provides me with more inspiration for my art.

AAA: Do you think there is enough support for contemporary art in Vietnam, and what changes would you like to see in the Hanoi art scene?

NHA: In Vietnam there is now much more information about the world of art than was previously available. However, Vietnamese artists mainly make commercial paintings because of market demand, and there are fewer contemporary non-commercial artists. There is only one source of funding for art, which is supported by the Danish embassy, but it is very difficult for inexperienced artists to get support. However I think that financial issues are a common problem for artists all over the world.

I would like to see more confidence in Vietnamese artists, to give Vietnamese art a better chance.

AAA: Can you tell us about your city project where you measure the old streets? What is your next project?

NHA: For The Roads, I used thread to measure the length of each street in an old district of Hanoi. This resulted in a handful of thread for each pathway. In total I measured sixty small streets, and obtained sixty small handfuls of thread. I like the small size of the threads; it’s interesting to be able to hold a whole street in your palm. I put the handfuls of thread in hidden spaces, for example in small wooden boxes, or the corner of a wall. I measured the street silently; it was simple and I got a secret handful of thread, which is important to me.
My new project is called Boc-Boac/In the Night Field. I use small black pouches to contain a mysterious object – a loudspeaker. They are meant to arouse people’s curiosity. This mysterious feeling alludes to the secretive character of the night, which is why the work is called 'boc'. 'Boc' in Vietnamese is phonetic, similar to 'boac' or 'booc', which sounds like 'the field in the night' in Vietnamese.


Mon, 1 Mar 2010

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