Sitting in the colonial-style auditorium at the Singapore Art Museum and immersing myself in the insiders’ speeches on contemporary Vietnamese art, both in English and Vietnamese, at one point I almost forgot where I was...
But it was the common concern of art and humanity that helped me to adjust myself from this moment of disorientation to a sentiment of inter-regional empathy.
I was attending a three-day symposium held from 16 to 18 May by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and sponsored by Credit Suisse. Under the umbrella title 'Post-Doi Moi: Vietnamese Art After 1990', and held as part of the Vietnam Festival in celebration of 35 years of diplomatic ties between Singapore and Vietnam, the symposium brought up various phenomena of modernism and postmodernism in Vietnamese art, as well as identified the characteristics of contemporary Vietnamese art after the implementation of Doi Moi (Renovation) policies in 1986.
Though missing the earlier sessions because of a clash with AAA art talks and museum conference at ARTHK08 here in Hong Kong, I was lucky to catch the evening flight to Singapore on 17 May for the final session of the symposium the following day, when the discussion moved on from modern Vietnamese art during the early 20th century to contemporary Vietnamese art after 1990, and closer indeed to our archival scope.
Both the SAM host and guest speakers said to me that it was a rare opportunity for people from various regions and aspects but of similar interests to speak on such a ‘regional’ subject as modern and contemporary art in Vietnam. Participating speakers for the final session included Boitran Huynh-Beattie (Australia), who raised the dilemma of Saigonese aesthetics between modernity and tradition; Phan Cam Thuong (Vietnam), who shared his observations on Generation X artists of Vietnam from his position of being a teacher since 1984; Patricia Levasseur (France), who analyzed the transformation of abstraction in Vietnamese paintings from passive appropriation in the early 20th century to proactive innovation during the post-Doi Moi period; Nguyen Nhu Huy (Vietnam), who introduced his recent projects of public art; Dr Annette Van den Bosch (Australia), who acknowledged three contemporary Vietnamese painters for creating new aesthetic directions; Dr Ann Proctor (Australia), who expounded her views on the emergence of installation art in Vietnam; and finally Professor Nora Taylor (USA), whose presentation started with the rise of performance art in Vietnam and ended with questions about audience reception. Such an inter-regional panel also assembled professionals from Singapore including T.K. Sabapathy, Joyce Fan and Jan Mrazek from SAM, who took up the role as both the host and the moderator.
The inter-regional participation and influence in modern and contemporary Vietnamese art is nothing novel. Instead, it is almost essential in understanding of Vietnamese art of the modern era, from the French colonial establishment of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi in 1924, to the contemporary era when inter-regional collaborations between Vietnam and countries such as the U.S., Australia and Korea are more and more frequent. During the symposium, speakers including Dr Annette Van Den Bosch, Dr Ann Proctor and Phan Cam Thuong traced the origin and development of modernism and postmodernism in Vietnamese art, where not only western trends but also Asian traditions compose the major influences. For instance, Dr Proctor viewed the emergence of installation art in Vietnam as having its roots in both the Euro-American trends of Conceptualism and Minimalism, as well as in Asian traditions of festivals/rituals and Japanese Gutai art. Phan Cam Thuong, a teacher at the Hanoi College of Fine Arts for 24 years, identified the influences of Taiwanese lifestyle, American hip-hop, and South Korean culture on the new generation of Vietnamese artists. For Phan, western styles offer a way in for Vietnamese artists while the cultures and traditions of the East offer an exit to new aesthetics.
Other speakers such as Patricia Levasseur and Professor Nora Taylor see Vietnamese artists as proactive innovators rather than passive recipients. Levasseur, co-curator of the exhibition at SAM under the same title of ‘Post-Doi Moi: Vietnamese Art After 1990’, examined the transformation of abstraction by Vietnamese painters. After several periods of domination and experimentation of western trends, in the mid-1960s Vietnamese painters began to undertake progressive innovations on western abstraction, and later also on abstraction traditions from China. When questioning whether performance art in Vietnam originated from the West, Professor Taylor pointed out the interesting fact that performance art in the United States during the ’60s was largely about the Vietnam War.
The story of contemporary art in Vietnam is not mere celebration of progression, as such. Phan views the contemporary as the age of skepticism and disjunction, in which the concerns of young artists are no longer about recovery from the war, the subsidy system, traditional culture, and modernism, like in ‘the good old days’, but about how to be recognized for one’s talent by causing a shock, focusing on environmental issues, free sex and unemployment. As an educator who has witnessed the rise of the new generation, he defines young artists as artists who are born after 1978 up to 1990s, having no memory of the war and no interest in politics, philosophy/religion and modernism, but rather in the ambiguity of everyday life. These Generation X artists wish to become international rather than just regional artists and seldom limit themselves solely to art.
One can easily come across various dichotomies in many literary reviews and interpretations of contemporary art development in Vietnam. The generational disjunction may include the dichotomy between past/old and present/new, which might also lead us to the differentiation between pre-Doi Moi and post-Doi Moi. Dichotomy also falls between the North and the South; i.e., the Hanoi-centred North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh-centred South Vietnam. Such geographical dichotomy is largely due to the political division of the two regions since the exit of the French in the 1954, the Vietnam War (1956–75) and, later on, the Reunification Period (1976–86). When examining the transformation of abstraction in painting undertaken by both the old and young generations, Levasseur also pinpointed the distinctive transmission of abstraction to the North and to the South. One may argue if such geographic division still exists. What is commonly perceived now is that while the influence of western modernism is still strong in the North, the South is more interested in contemporary criticisms and cultural issues. As an outsider being better informed about what is happening in the South, I raised my query about the North and the South during a lunch-time chat with Richard Streitmatter-Tran, a participating speaker and an artist based in Ho Chi Minh City. Richard said that where the South once lacked information and interconnection, they are now more eager to send out information and to build up better connections with individuals and institutions than in the past.
After all, dichotomies might lead to simple generalizations, although they might also be intriguing approaches to understanding Vietnamese art. Instead of simplified dichotomies or mere dilemma, several speakers stressed the significance of studying not only Hanoi (the North) and Ho Chi Minh City (the South), but also the city of Hue in Central Vietnam, which also deserves attention as an important centre for the arts, situated as it is, at the crossroads of North and South artistic influences, as Levasseur put it. Meanwhile, as asserted by one of the participating artists during the Q & A session, there may be distinction between the past and the present but art in Vietnam not only flourished after Doi Moi, but also before.
It was good to see the symposium go beyond common dichotomies. As Nguyen Nhu Huy put it in our email discussion later on, the symposium offered an opportunity 'to present (and to have responses from all of the participants) what artists in the South are working on … not only to express themselves in a new manner, more engaged with social and cultural issues, but also to try to go beyond the dilemma that seems still in controlling many thinkers who work on Vietnamese art; that is, the dilemma of an endless war between new and old, conservativism and avant-garde, modernity and tradition.'
Several questions are left for both speakers and audience to think about. When some speakers shared the same question as to why the symposium was not held in Vietnam, moderator T.K. Sabapathy ended the final session with another question about how to connect the nation with the region, or the neighbours in Southeast Asia. What is also haunting to me is the actual meaning of discussion in a symposium setting attached to an exhibition. Taking the same title as the exhibition, the symposium somehow supplemented the exhibition, in which one could only find rather direct generalization and pictorial categorizations of contemporary Vietnamese art. Divided into four categories — 'Reminiscence', 'Transformation', 'Land’ and ‘Individuality' — the exhibits were artworks of different media dating from the 1990s to the present, by artists of three generations ranging from those born in the early 20th century, like Tran Luu Hau, to young emerging artists like Pham Huy Thong. The exhibition will continue until the end of September 2008. Other upcoming public programs include the 10-day Ket Noi (meaning, 'to connect') performance art workshop with 13 artists from Vietnam and Singapore, including Lee Wen, Jason Lim, Tran Luong and Nguyen Quay Huy, and the 3-day Ket Noi Performance Art Festival, both taking place in early June.
- Sun, 1 Jun 2008