Vietnamese contemporary art remains either less known or poorly represented, yet despite this occupies a central space in the Asian art scene. Certainly, China has dominated the sphere over recent years with breathtaking and audacious creations which inflamed the art market and gave a new social status to the artist, whom often became the "successman" of this society of exponential growth. Indian art is also in vogue, equally well situated in the art index of auction sales. Regardless, all of this largely refers to monetary value and speculation and acts in detriment to artistic value and to a certain extent, aesthetic measure.
Vietnam, like the Philippines, Indonesia or Cambodia, is more discreet, less arrogant with its' art, and nonetheless the country experiences contemporary creation of quality, groups of artists whom collectively interrogate their society, translate the mutations and contradictions within the forms of painting, video, installations, performances or photography. Little by little, we have come to equally witness a questioning upon the place of the individual and personal identity, while for a long time, Vietnamese painting remained the reflection of a national identity within the machinations of communist propaganda or even, of a fabricated cultural identity in response to the demands of an exotification belonging to certain occidental investors imprisoned by clichés and fantasism of the country.
In 1924, the School of Fine Art of Indochina was founded beneath the impetus of French professors whom were sent to the colonial regions. Victor Tardieu, whom arrived in 1920, to Hanoi, established the Academy, which extended to both Cambodia and Laos, hence reuniting the appellation of Indochina with Vietnam. There, oil painting and lacquer were taught in balance with an attention towards the fusion of both cultures despite the context of colonisation, the chief motives remained towards the diffusion of the French cultural import.
With this institution, the first columns of Vietnamese modern art were erected, and alongside, the Occidental concept of an artist of that time, since until then in Vietnam the literati and poets had risen to the highest tier in creative and artistic discourse. We may observe that a vital Occidental influence was given, while being nevertheless mixed with subjects and traditions of Vietnamese origin. Following this period of a near romantic manner, a patriotic style was prescribed from 1948, with the conflict between Vietnam and France, the establishment of the Communist regime, and hence, later, since the War with the USA. As with numerous communist countries, an association for the Fine Arts was created in 1957, which came to control the production of works as well.
Until yet today, a censure bureau is in effect in Vietnam, and countless artworks may not be openly exhibited. This liberty or inception of liberty saw the light of day in 1986 with the Doi Moi. This period of economic and political revision had a direct impact upon art and culture, since an opening was envisioned and artists felt less restricted to obey the canons of socialist realism. They became animated by a profound desire for change in the expression, forms and subjects of their works.
Truong Tan, as professor of the Fine Arts of Hanoi marked the scene by way of his ‘happenings’ and performances, and with a work wherein he exclaimed his homosexuality and the ravages of AIDS with great clarity. Students followed in his steps, amidst them, the ‘Hanoi Triad’, as a qualification born of Occidental criticism.
Regardless of further refutation of title or proclamation, this statement clearly belongs to the first generation that disenfranchised itself from propaganda and offered a personal means of expression. Nguyen Minh Thanh takes an innovative approach in painting self-portraits; Nguyen Van Cuong depicts a society in full mutation, wherein corruption coincides with the thirst of westernisation. With a playlet close to either cartoon or graphism, he denounces the reign of the dollar and power of cash by way of emblematic figures such as Benjamin Franklin Roosevelt. Today, the artist has abandoned all artistic language that engages with this manner of denunciation, towards the depiction of a world which is at once more decorative and less pertinent.
Truong Tan is himself equally more moderate and discreet. By cause of censure and the absence of sustenance from their nation and the international scene, we may ask whether or not a part of these artists suffered disillusion due to a lack of recognition or of an exaggerated success imparted by their neighbours, rather than a sheer investment in their artistic talent and art.
Nonetheless, this has not blocked others from a continuous creation and interrogation of Vietnam, and the platform of ‘A Snapshot of Contemporary Vietnamese Art’ rests as a revelation of this creative discourse. The seven artists invited for this exhibition each present personal work, often incisive in subject matter, and which call into question their nation and how to further integrate with this society.
We may observe that this is often the case within the contexts of economic and political fragility, being beyond whatever singular reference to war or situational transition. Nguyen Minh Phuoc, with his Unhappy Dragon, makes reference at once to both mythological elements as well as the Vietnam of today. His aerial series is composed of 16 plexiglass disks that float in air as a recomposition of the animal and possibly the dragon’s dance: upon each of which a Vietnamese face is imprinted. Surrounding each work, hundreds of cuttings from Vietnamese newspapers that symbolise the daily existence of a population.
Nguyen Quang Huy depicts women of his country with a series of paintings of a blue tone, within which is perceived a marked evolution from 2000 to 2009. Investigations of Buddhism and pop art turn towards photorealism, we sense the evolution of style, despite the recurrent theme of feminism. The video acts as a mirror to his paintings, traversing the lives of these unknown mothers, those who built Vietnam.
A mother is an important entity, as is a family, and it is with the sculpture series that Pham Ngoc Duong evokes the family unit and Confucian heritage. The compression of individuals in cubic form is proposed in the new Gold Family series, in which the artist also wishes to address the different forms that are within each of us. He also questions how a body, compressed and enclosed in confined spaces may evolve and grow... Different interpretations may be attributed to this oeuvre, notably the lack of independence and autonomy, which we equally find in the figures of Nguyen Anh Tuan. In effect, this young painter delivers a curious canvas: three avatars of a model dressed in the official military costume are themselves imprisoned within a box – a coffin ornate with flowers – hence it seems difficult to either escape or express.
Nguyen Anh Tuan offers a work that is often a mix of imagination, surrealism and truth. The vivid colours (read: garish) saturate the frame in extravagance. The artist questions society, the mark of communism, the space of thought, yet also the preoccupations of a more intimate nature, such as sexuality. Aside from his paintings, he has also created installations, such as Art Production Process (2007) and regularly practices performance.
Elsewhere, it is important to note that these numerous artists adopt diverse mediums, to experiment with several types of art, and that certain of them present here are still within the process of research.
Le Huy Hoang also effects installations in bamboo with an example being an enormous loudspeaker commonly found in villages: the work well translates questions relative to the spoken word, the manipulations of language and of the freedom of expression. It is also the souvenirs of his childhood which he describes in Red Stick 2, and further, in countless oil paintings where he evokes the tracks of communism.
As for that which concerns the sites of expression and possible creation, we must speak of Nha San, the foundation and artist residency, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary in December 2008. This unusual place, created by Mr. Duc a few kilometres outside of Hanoi, regularly offers alternative cultural events where a broad array of artists of this generation may openly create and exhibit, occasionally supported by foreign embassies or cultural centres. Very few galleries of quality, and even fewer museums of contemporary art exist in Vietnam, and we should here salute the initiatives of the superintendents of independent exhibitions, occasionally being artists themselves, for continuing to diffuse a free art.
The photographer and video artist Hoang Duong Cam belongs to these talented young visual artists, of an accomplished and mature language. Cam is preoccupied with the society of contemporary Vietnam and the overwhelming events taking place. In Falling Cloud he places the stage with great humour for a driver on two wheels, coiffured with a multitude of cotton balls, a clear reference to the new law to wear a helmet as an obligation in this nation of millions of motorcycles... Food 4 Thought 4 Food challenges the global food crisis and the dramatic inflation of food prices in Vietnam. With his photographs, he offers an urban promenade and his own relation with the environment, sliding himself into each image.
At last, Richard Streittmatter-Tran, at once artist and independent art critic, presents Dongkuk, a video which explores the ties between space and light, where in a well defined space and of very constructed lines, the neon grail emits a rhythmical music and dazzles the spectator whom is already near hypnotised by this cadence, a cadence which also evokes video games. Richard Streittmatter-Tran has based in Saigon for several years after being raised in the USA. He draws upon this Vietnam in transition and its changes in order to realise a foremost and varied conceptual oeuvre. The artist explores medias and new means of communication, the relations of the body with numerous performances and his videos such as Body Frame/Video Frame, where he questions both memory and also war. Instigator of Mogas Station, a group of artists and creators living in Saigon and whom promote contemporary art in the country, he belongs to these artists at once greatly implicated in their art and possessing an attention of diffusion and of a greater reflection, permitting Vietnam to open towards these new artistic forms.
‘A Snapshot of Contemporary Vietnamese Art’ is regardless a presentation of the works of all these artists a state of the sites of the actual creation in Vietnam and the first occasion for the public living in China to better comprehend and discover the culture of their neighbour. ‘A Snapshot of Contemporary Vietnamese Art’ bears witness to the vitality of creation in Vietnam, of the multiple languages which rest with each artist and of the diversity of creation itself, unfortunately too often reduced to banality or caricatures due to an absence of diffusion and information.
‘A Snapshot of Contemporary Vietnamese Art’ is only a small sample and holds no pretence of scanning the entirety of Vietnamese creation. This would entail numerous exhibitions!