Nghệ thuậtBàn tròn "Mĩ thuật đương đại Việt Nam đang ở đâu" |
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
Mai Chi's original point of departure, "[h]ow can we explain the fact that we still don't have [Vietnamese] individuals showing up in the international art scene?", appears to be the wrong question in my eyes, since it is more concerned with prestige - the presence of Vietnamese artists at international exhibitions - than with substance. Far from intending to rephrase the entirely legitimate idea behind this question, I would recommend to look at it from the point of view of the actual work presented instead of indulging in statistics - i.e. two 'Vietnamese'/'overseas Vietnamese'/'Vietnamese American' etc. works at the Documenta, or was it three? - or pondering the artistic value of these works in terms of political entities ('Vietnam') instead of artistic concepts.
The intuitive and natural reaction against such reasoning (Nora's "[a]s long as the artists perpetuate these ethno-national notions, audiences in American and elsewhere will continue to see Vietnamese art as ‚Vietnamese' rather than simply ‚art'") left aside, it actually seems to be a matter of what concerns whom in our discussion about the state of art in Vietnam, and I will take it goes without saying that depending on each of our individual interests and divergent interpetations of something considered to be not always one and the same yet quite real - ‚Vietnamese art' - we are prone to come up with widely disparaging views on how the artistic value of something produced either inside Vietnam or by Vietnamese minds outside the country should be assessed in terms of its relation to its political, cultural and social point of origin, since some of us are seemingly more interested in those questions than a discussion about the actual content of some of the works displayed at, say the Documenta or elsewhere [so much for run-on sentences].
Kaomi's intervention at this roundtable appears to corroborate this point: Admonishing us to admit (my italics) that "Vietnamese art itself does not have enough substance to make a difference", his underlying premiss (that Vietnamese art exists, is alive and well) impedes us to retort that it is often not a matter of substance, since we will be hard pressed to explain what exactly this ‚Vietnamese art' is supposed to be and hence can't readily talk about ‚making a difference' while it is unclear what it is that should or should not make this difference. And once the difference is made, who cares about its Vietnameseness, or how to elucidate the subtle gradations of just how much the 'difference' owes to it? When Kaomi professes that "Vietnamese painters are not ‚dying' with their ‚ethno-national' view as Nora Taylor said, but they are dying in the trap of self-created symbolism with a false notion about their ‚village culture'", I find it hard to perceive much of a contrariety, for issues of village culture are traditionally regarded as 'national' (Vietnamese) elements and while it takes some nerve to classify such artistic tendencies as "false", Kaomi obviously intends to make a point transgressing the discussion of an artist's tendency to portray village themes by charging the entire artistic community with doomed concepts, a point I will not subscribe to.
Perennially circulating an obsessive 'Vietnameseness' relegating the actual artistic realm to second division doesn't promise much in terms of inspiring intellectual perspectives. True, Vietnamese art may be heavily imbued with 'national' symbols and focused on topics we tend to identify as traditional, national, ethnic, parrochial etc., but even though scholars of art history like Nora, through her work on Vietnamese art, have alerted us to the linguistic occupation of Vietnamese art by its governing institutions - e.g. the IInd Congress of the VAA in 1962 propagating that curious 'national character' which, according to the same organization, defies definition - we should nonetheless be aware of the fact that moving toward establishing discursive devices more closely tied to the actual work of art itself is but one step in the direction of a not merely linguistic but also cognitive retreat from that tendency (of politicized discourse) in order to arrive at a form of art discourse simply taking into account yet not exaggerating national and cultural components, since working with equivocal analytical categories will hardly allow us to grasp the quiddity of their denotation - at least not in terms of their consequences for Vietnamese works of art.
Hence, Birgit's overdue question, "Mai Chi, why is it so important for you to determine what exactly is to be considered Vietnamese art?" pinpoints exactly the kind of misunderstanding that arises when art in Vietnam (or by Vietnamese artists residing somewhere else) is discussed as 'Vietnamese'. Or, to contradict Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn, American art is not necessarily recognized as 'American' seperately from being 'art' (at least that's not its primary concern), not even in the provocative expressions of archetypical 'Americanness' such as Jasper John's flags. Quite the contrary: as something coming out of America including (!) the various European traditions weighing pretty heavily upon American art until at least the fifities. The redundancy of reiteration notwithstanding, I believe Birgit's question was more than overdue.
Another point I'd like to add is in response to Kaomi's affirmation that "there are things standing in the spotlight, and there are things left in the dark. Being in the spotlight are those, which conform with the mainstream supported by the state, and acknowledged by an audience who hardly understands art and don't really needs art. This 'orientation' with the view of the mass is a filter, so that those areas, which are left in the dark, although strong and powerful, will stay where they are." This kind of 'mass line' argument doesn't really work, be it in the Vietnamese or any other context, since 'the public' doesn't, cannot and need not 'know': It has 'learned' most of its concepts about art from seventh or eleventh grade textbooks plus a few articles in the papers (I deliberately discount those who take an active interest in art and thus don't fall within this group). Artists' access to the public is not a mere organizational but a cognitive problem related to reflective processes which in turn depend on the public's ability to disregard what it has 'learned'. Even though a piece of art may be officially sanctioned, the public may still deny it any artistic value. Oldenbourg's notorious 'Tube Supported by its Content' might gracefully redefine the public space this sculpture occupies. It does, however, receive more attention as an eccentric curiosity than as a thoughtful artistic statement about toothpaste and the commercialized world of superfluous yet venerated gadgets we live in.
For an artist, communicating with the Vietnamese (art) public is not a matter of mere access to the art market, relations to gallery owners or patrons, associations or museums. The average art consumer sees precisely what he 'knows', and reliance on existing tendencies of interpretation might actually succour and aid if not guide the artist in his search for means of communication. The codex of fixed attributes may change (e.g. in the christianization of ancient gods whose representation continued to be 'classical' though now they appeared with new religious content), the system of hidden allusions and concealed references depending on it remains. Once the canon of 'art knowledge' transmitted and handed down to the public through the education system is challenged head-on or discarded outright, the average viewer doesn't 'know' anything anymore and cannot, with regard to his own perception of and approach to art, act independendently and self-consciously in his relation to an exhibited piece, not unless he possesses the rare inquisitorial mind so scarce among the (art) public. Whenever an artist places excessive demands on a viewer - and most contemporary art presupposes at least a basic familiarity with the art historical past, even when deliberately ignoring parts of it - the result will be resistance or rejection. This holds true for curators and Natalias's "art clerks" as well. Most of all, it holds true for ourselves (well, myself anyway). Watching Truong Tan's performance at Hang Chuoi in late 95 where he had spilled red tempera symbolizing blood all over his body, one couldn't help thinking - and I know of several people who did - 'I've seen that one before', the show being vaguely reminiscent of the Klein and Nitzsch performances. Sensing one's own limited, prejudiced and eurocentric understanding of Tan's performance is a result of acquired 'knowledge' and the inability to apply it creatively while at the same time ignorant of whether a particular idea figured prominently in the artist's mind as a matter of deliberate intention to allude or refer to. Utterly befuddled by a corresponding inability to interpret other acts of creative intention, people are forced to rely on simple enjoyment. On the other hand, the public would be wrong in demanding sheer functionalistic forms of art, since how is an artist supposed to enrich and inspire an audience if he keeps moving within established conventions, incapable of influencing the (dominant) forms of creative production?
Therefore, Nguyen Nhu Huy's concern that "what is lacking in Vietnamese art is the fact that it is not recognized and approached in its own language" appears to be less of a trite truism than a valuable assessment confronting our prejudices head-on. After all, Birgit is right in arguing that "I cannot believe that it really is such a major concern of artists in Vietnam to create some nationalistic art. They might merely be lacking the language to talk about and appraise art in different categories". Painting a village's bamboo hedge may be no less an intuitive reflex than the thoughtless mainstream of endless video installations at this year's Documenta. To couch such painting in terms of politically charged lingo pertaining to another, political form of discourse superseding and permeating Vietnamese art discourse appears similar to discarding the Documenta's installations as a closed discursive circuit.
The Talawas roundtable seems to reflect the isolation some Vietnamese artists feel they are working in, cut off from the international scene and condemned to fight it out with conservative art institutions. Natalia's point - that the success of those who do exhibit abroad is "hushed up" and not appreciated, partly because the "art community" and administration can't "distinguish [the] importance of that or another show" and that the "clerks from [the] Ministry of Culture [regard the] 'Documenta'" as essentially equal to a "small show in a café in Paris ... since both are 'abroad'"- appears well taken, since it illustrates the pervading sense of seclusion hovering over the Vietnamese art community, probably exacerbated by the recurrent discussions about ethnic and cultural identity. If Birgit avers that "one has to say that art currently functions in Vietnam to carve out some national identity", this is evidently true of all recent Vietnamese art periods and forms part of a larger picture of Vietnamese artists' and intellectuals' tendency to revel in continuously relating their work to themselves as a collective entity, hence ostensibly contributing to a form of autogenerated cultural solipsism not always transformable into creative and inspiring works of art.
Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn's query (if that's what it was), "which way can an artist give his/her art 'some universal value'?", and "who has the right to define what has 'universal value' and what does not?" has already been answered by himself. [This part of Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn's contribution will be posted onto the round table soon] Whether or not there are such things as universal values I will not engage in deliberating here. What can be said, though, is that they're consensus oriented and consensus dependent, and that consensus itself is heavily influenced by structures which attain to impose themselves over others. Such 'standards' may naturally be set by a or the Vietnamese, too. As Tuấn himself advocates, "Vietnamese art will still exist on the 'margins' until it can really re-write parts of the 'international history' of art to include itself." I wouldn't go that far yet believe the essential idea points in the right direction, that exclusion and isolation are more than relative and that even the most powerful traditions can be challenged by asking the right questions, such as Pollock's 'why not squeeze it right onto the canvas' or Gould's 'who says the Partitas require legato'?, both examples of American and Canadian attempts to overcome a European tradition suffocating individual (not national) expression.
Finally, if T. Minh-hà Trịnh's work is truly 'universal', as Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn suggests, it's because she might be consciously thinking about yet refuses to be obsessed with her Vietnameseness, instead allowing it to organically pervade her work. To put it another way, if Nam June Paik had wasted his time asking whether he's Korean or German, he might still be searching for some ephemeral 'Koreanness' in his work - which undoubtedly would have suffered heavily in the course.
© Talawas 2002