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Nghệ thuậtBàn tròn "Mĩ thuật đương đại Việt Nam đang ở đâu"
Nora Taylor, Veronika Radulovic
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
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Nora Taylor:

I think the issue of individuals in a pertinent one. That is exactly the way to move beyond the label "Vietnamese." I think that the day that Dang Xuan Hoa or Dinh Y Nhi can be considered Dang Xuan Hoa or Dinh Y Nhi and not "Vietnamese painter" or "Vietnamese woman painter" that will be the day when Vietnamese art will have truly entered the international artistic arena. I think, to be optimistic, that day will come. In some of my research I have noticed that those artists who tend to transcend these categories are those who travel abroad and earn a reputation outside of Vietnam. This brings me to discuss this issue of "foreigners" and Vietnamese art. I agree with Natasha that it would be absurd to dismiss foreigners as unknowledgeable about Vietnamese art. Does this mean only Vietnamese are capable of understanding Vietnamese art? I would imagine Vietnamese artists would not want that to be the case. I would like to offer a little historical perspective. It seems that in the 1980s there were Vietnamese artists who were dying to receive some recognition outside of Vietnam by exhibiting abroad and the means to get there was to make friends with the few foreigners who came into Vietnam. A mutually beneficial relationship emerged between artists who wanted "out" and foreigners who wanted "in." Foreign dealers and gallery owners were looking for artists to show abroad and artists were looking to them to exhibit their work internationally. Plum Blossoms was soon followed by La Vong etc. In the early 1990s, a few foreigners tried their hand at opening galleries in Vietnam. Cyril Lapointe was one example (Suzanne Lecht is now opening a gallery in Hanoi.) How successful these galleries are is not really the issue, the issue is what kind of contributions to the reputation or success of individual artists have these galleries made? If we look at it that way, it may turn out that foreign galleries have not been nearly as influential as Vietnamese galleries. Similarly if we look at the few foreign critics who have written about Vietnamese art, it may be that they have not nearly been as influential as local critics. I am thinking of Nguyen Quan or Thai Ba Van versus Ian Flindlay-Brown of Asian Art News let us say (or even myself). Certainly the audience and customers for art have been foreign. Many foreign buyers of art have been influenced by Duong Tuong, Nguyen Quan or Phan Cam Thuong, but it seems that these foreigners are rarely on the "inside" (I am speaking about foreign consumers or buyers) so they tend to follow what Duong Tuong or Nguyen Quan say or buy what is exhibited at Mai gallery or Apricot gallery without really formulating a critical opinion of the art in question. I think overall foreign buyers and Vietnamese artists tend to co-exist in a patron-client relationship. One serves the needs of the other. To say that Vietnamese artists are "fine" without foreigners is no more or less accurate than saying that foreign dealers are "fine" without Vietnamese critics. Of course what is "Vietnamese" and what is "foreign" is also debatable. When artists like Maritta Nurmi or Eric Leroux live and exhibit in Vietnam for years is there work still "foreign"? When Natasha runs a gallery in Vietnam for 20 years is she a "foreigner"? Tran Trong Vu has lived in Paris for 20 years is he Vietnamese or French?

Veronika Radulovic:

Sometimes I'm not sure we're talking about the same country. That question regarding Minh's Jazz Club ... I simply have to dissent: any music is possible - and playable - any place in Hanoi. Traditional, pop, rock, rap, techno, experimental, classical, jazz and blues. Endless possibilities. And TV offers a wide selection of different music programs. Same with Minh and his club, same as anywhere, worldwide: MTV culture. A jazz musician can play anywhere - I insist: anywhere in Hanoi. Now, whether there's an audience for jazz, and a young one at that, is another story. Minh's club is a commercial hangout for foreigners. Similar program each night, totally overpriced - why would anyone want to mention this place? Weird example.

I'd like to add one point with respect to the notion of the 'individual': Duchamp was doubtless a unique artistic personality. Moreover, he assumed a leading and guiding position for many artists of the twentieth century. I'd like to distinguish between an individual's artistic personality and a leading artistic figure in the sense that Bui Xuan Phai was a leading figure for many Vietnamese painters, just as Picasso was the same with regard to classical modernity, i.e. in the sense that Mai Chi emphasized this concept in her question. A well-defined artistic personality does not automatically mean this person will assume a leading or guiding position in the arts.

Artistic individuality is measured against individual capability and achievement and is intrinsically related to an artist's personality, hence may imply social failure as well. Needless to say, there's no guarantee for economic success.

Every society produces artists with a high degree of individualism. The best known of such an 'individualist' in Vietnam is probably Nguyen Nhu Y. Author of an enormous and supremely interesting opus, this sculptor is nevertheless unlikely to assume a leading position due to his personality, since he does not represent values such as education, success and, most of all, material wealth. In short, he moves outside these socially embedded values.

I mentioned Nguyen Minh Thanh's position and would like to add why he is so important for me: He was one of the first artists turning inward (most notably in his serial self-portraits), attempting to come to terms with his own personal history. Utilizing Vietnamese materials, able to capitalize on formative international experiences in conjunction with the application of international artistic forms of expression (e.g. ready made, photocopy etc.), he has acquired a leading position for many young artists. This was due by no minor degree to his making use of public institutions and smart self-promotion, at times leading his own cheering in the media. Unlike others who worked and exhibited exclusively in the private sphere, he became a public person through his art. All of a sudden there was a public shpere.

His works displayed a pronounced antiacademicism (in other words, he was a bad student, academically speaking) yet even that attitude blended in well with the political environment of the nineties and a Scholl of the Fine Arts engaged in reforms and opening up internationally.

He belonged to a group of young successful artists who could travel abroad without an exit visa thanks to the changing political climate. Moreover, there was the unrestricted procurement of information from abroad, which underscores his role. That in turn led to both irritation and admiration within the organized artists' circles. He did not belong to any of the Vietnamese organizations or associations.

His success (participation at exhibitions in Paris, Fukuoka, Brisbane, Berlin etc.), plainly visible to everybody, questioned the very existence of the artist associations. While he himself may not have intended this effect, but his success led to other non-organized artists being noticed by the associations and invited to participate through the back door. To me, this was part of a larger scheme of these associations' functionaries who were hesitant to admit their new position of relative insignificance and thus went on to integrate these successful 'individualists' who'de have made it without them, anyway.

Nguyen Minh Thanh's role is due not merely to his interesting and convincing installations, texts or pictorial plates. For many, he stands for a new political direction. Odd as this may sound, to me he embodies the credibility and feasibility of a new policy: To be, feel, think and act Vietnamese, to possess certain material wealth, to be pround of being a Vietnamese artist living in Vietnam not having been coerced into this attitude like so many artist before.

He personifies, to many, some of that Vietnamese nostalgia, hope and freedom come true. He was put in a position to take certain liberties because the political circumstances of the time allowed him to do so.

Nguyen Jun Hatshushiba and other 'foreign' artists with interesting and important works will never be able to assume this position. They simply lack this sense of 'He's one of us and intends to remain so'.

The same holds true for us foreign artists residing and working in Hanoi. Considering Natasha's objection: Yes, we do possess insight into Vietnamese living conditions, since we partake in the same form of living. Sure, we understand something. After all, we shared it, didn't we? Most of all, however, because we, and her in particular, have been living there for so long.

Yet we're still foreigners. Could be it's that particularly pronounced and distinct Vietnamese sense of nationalism that one always tends to believe foreigners don't quite understand them or that all of humanity functions according to different principles (which Natasha alludes to), but the rules of the game simply aren't the same for us foreigners, both in the positive and negative sense. I got a German passport.

© Talawas 2002