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Bùi Hoài Mai, Bùi Quang Ngọc
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
There would not be this essay. I wrote and sent my supposedly last essay to Mai Chi several days ago. But some new developments/happenings on the roundtable have forced me to continue. In this essay, I use many ideas and phrases in the last essay which Kaomi had planned to send to the roundtable, and I helped him edit with the Vietnamese language. Kaomi sent me the email yesterday, to inform me that he decided to quietly withdraw from the roundtable, and asked me to say sorry to everyone about this. To me, this is a regrettable decision but not totally incomprehensible.
Natalia, I am very surprised of your recent opinion (09.12). From Kaomi's opinion on 23.11 (please reread it), you distorted it to "Stop bringing foreign light to Vietnam!," and charged that he is "in front of all" in the reaction of, as from your imagination, "hands off from the Vietnamese roots!," "No to neo-colonialism!," and then showed off your common/general knowledge about "globalization," etc.; all these make me think that, discussing with you is a totally fruitless attempt. Without facing directly others' discussion point, without analyzing methodically, but to imagine "others" as a force with its own agenda, in order to "attack" or "counter-attack," etc. in the above manner, you have violated the elementary principles (perhaps everybody knows about) in discussion. What else I could say to you!
Dear Veronika, why did you never use reason?! Without analyzing or expounding, there is no true discussion. Insisting on one's own "feeling", all words passing back and forth are just unreasonable arguing. If you refused to use reasons, for your sentence "my answer is: NO" (2th opinion in your essay on 01.12.02), what I should say then! Do you not know that, the power and responsibility of criticism are based upon reasons. (And these are the power and responsibility which nobody can give or take away). I really cannot understand the sentence "And who is to be the critic and how many different critics will or may there be in Vietnam anyway?" Are you saying that in Vietnam there is none, or that there are not many with enough reasoning, or, in other words, with enough education, to take on the task of criticism?
I agree with Laurent's comments on the real situation of current Vietnamese art. However, your reasoning in the last part, about "coercive," "prevent" of a certain "neo-colonialism," to me, is not satisfactory. This is a one-way street. And in Vietnam, if everybody agrees upon this opinion, it will lead to the danger of arousing the mentality of "allergic to the new/foreign thing," and thus, it will encourage the act of "building up the citadel [against foreign thing]" which is dangerous on the cultural aspect. In some degree, this has been happening (Bui Hoai Mai's opinion in this roundtable is an example). This is demonstrated clearer in the essay "The market for Vietnamese paintings is constructed on Western Orientalism prejudices" by the same author in the discussion section of Talawas. I will discuss about these opinions in another time. Here I would like to say that, to fight "colonization" with the attitude of turning the back to the whole Western world, and of rejecting all the new trends of world art - not to differentiate the politics and art aspects, of going back to the so-called "national," "traditional," is in fact to lend a helping hand to the "colonists." Or to say it plainly, it is anti-progressive. We ought to remember that the successes of the first batch of Vietnamese painters are not simply because of the establishment of the Indochinese Art College in 1925 with some individuals' efforts. It is very mistaken if they (the painters' successes) are not put in the context of the "modernization/reformation," "enlightenment" movements long before that, by generations of Vietnamese scholars and intellectuals.
On this roundtable, I have many times reminded "the freeman will of a creative man." In my opinion, one of the crucial reasons which causes Vietnamese art not to be able to "take off" is that "to a person with no strong will, a compliment or a criticism could drive him/her crazy." That is the reason why I have emphasized the role of criticism. In Vietnam, until this very day, the consequences of history (including the consequences of a long period of "closed door" policy to the Western world) have not been aware, analyzed and distinguished; the self-pity mentalities of being colonial, post-colonial and post-communist has not died out. And they all make up a burden which blocks the view or twists the perspective of each Vietnamese. And of course, it causes many other consequences in reality. (Not that the neo-colonialism "prevents artists to conduct a real interrogation on Vietnamese culture roots," as Laurent wrote and Bui Hoai Mai repeated, but these self-pity mentalities does).
I am not at all surprised of the fact that many Vietnamese artists currently "worship" the tripartite Installation-Performance-Video, while they don't understand them. In my opinion, even among those artists who apply the modern art school techniques such as that of Surrealism, Expressionism, Cubism, Abstractionism, etc., most of them are not really aware of what they do entirely. The thinking and taste of Vietnamese artists, basically, are still of Pre-Modernism such as Realism, Romanticism and Symbolism (Bui Suoi Hoa's opinion is an example. This is a Realist viewing and thinking of art and of creative works, which are full of feelings/sentiments and very outdated but still widely practiced in Vietnam. Even they are "mainstreamed"). All kinds of pressure from the outside and inside, especially from inside the mind as above, have caused a break down in the thinking of quite a few artists. This causes them, "when facing the contemporary world art, to be both complacent and reserved". We could hope for a certain "break through". Individuals' efforts could produce some surprising results. But in general, most artists haven't been prepared in thinking and mentality to accept and to integrate the new achievements of world art. I will discuss more of this aspect in another time. The path to real "integration" of Vietnamese artists may still be long.
I think what Bui Hoai Mai has said is very interesting. And he is an artist for whom many of the categories that this round table has been discussing do not apply. He paints cows and village scenes but is nowhere near selling his works to tourists. I also like his suggestion concerning the need to find a "true Vietnamese contemporary voice" as opposed to some outside opinion about what constitutes "contemporary art." Laurent Colin and Duong Tuong have also reminded us that we need to question what exactly we are talking about when we say "contemporary" Vietnamese art. We must not take any of these categories for granted. We have focused extensively on the "Vietnamese" and not much on the "contemporary" issue. But I hope that this round table has effectively "changed" peoples perceptions and indeed illustrated that Vietnamese thinkers and artists are responding to contemporary concerns albeit not in the same way as artists in France or the USA have. Contemporary concerns in Vietnam are indeed different. It is easy for us (me) sitting in the USA in front of my computer to write about Vietnamese art, but it is quite another to actually be there and live it. So, I feel quite enlightened by the contributions of the audience who is speaking from an original perspective and my colleagues who have contributed inspiring thoughts.
Christine Jean, a painter from Paris who has lived and worked in Vietnam told me that she thinks Vietnamese artists are lucky. They get to work and live off their art with little constraints. They almost have it "too" easy. Artists in Europe struggle to earn a very meager salary and often have to please 100 different critics and museums and collectors. They are under constant stress. Life in Vietnam for the average Vietnamese (artist) is relatively easy. Artists hang out in cafes and have nice houses and can feed their families. Many artists in the world envy them. As can the general population. Where else in the world can a mother hope for her son to become an artist in order to be something as one Hanoi friend once told me.
© Talawas 2002