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Kaomi Izu, Mai Chi, Birgit Hussfeld
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
Kaomi Izu: In the argument refuting Nguyen Hung's on 04.11, Patrick wrote, "Nguyen Hung's charge that 'the artists of the economic renovation period' allegedly aren't 'any better' than those incessantly panegyrizing the 'hien thuc' character of a work of art, while both reasonable and legitimate, is about the cheapest reproach one can come up with, since entire generations were taught to be deeply steeped in the canon of socialist realism, and it's gonna take more than a decade to transform diehard concepts." (emphasized by me, Kaomi Izu). This is a very odd opinion. Can the inertia of that "tradition" that the artists of the "doi moi" period could not do "any better", be changed, if it is not named, is not "realized," and does not become a "subject of criticism" (in Nguyen Hung's words)? Moreover, isn't it an issue we need to consider, in order to have a more realistic view of Vietnamese art?
From looking at this opinion by Patrick, and looking back at our discussion so far, I have some comment. We are discussing about an art body/art scene. Our subject of discussion basically includes the following components:
First, the perspective and the way of expression of groups of artists;
Second, point of view, intellectual level and taste, etc. of groups of the public;
Third, the cultural and social environment, intellectual establishment, cultural institutions, market, etc. In general, the factors that govern and effect [art]...
We can start to discuss from any factor - from a current event, from a renowned artist, etc. - but we cannot separate it from the whole (Vietnamese art). Only if we examine it methodologically, have we any chance to determine a common coordinate system / common ground to evaluate and to judge.
So far, at least in this roundtable, as Le Hai correctly stated in his essay "Vietnamese value in art reproductions and Vietnamese art," in the Thao luan section of Talawas, that we have not proposed an agreeable definition for Vietnamese art while "looking deep" into it. More clearly, we have not determined all the components of the subject and their immanent relationships.
Thus, although the debate has been very intense, in fact, often "everybody talks to his/her ears". Veronica opposed Nguyen Hung's image of a "swamp" (her message of 8.11), but in her message of 13.11, in the last paragraph, when mention the "different rules for foreigners" in Vietnam, she gave us similar interpretation. As a result, everyone has a point of view, and everyone focuses on one factor, and we are often in danger of losing focus and wander into irrelevant issues. The more these issues are extended as the more there are opinions and ideas, the more difficult for us to come to a common conclusion. And I think that, in order to continue, we must start again to identify the whole picture. Who knows, when we look back at the general picture, we will realize that all the "disappointment," the image of "swamp," the feeling of "unfortunate," the comment about the "temporariness," etc. of Nguyen Hung are reasonable.
Secondly, here we use some concepts, which seem clearly defined, but they are in fact very confusing. In the end, we hardly understand each other. For example:
In the phrase "the international art world sees Vietnamese art in the order 'Vietnam first,' 'art second'...," the concept "international art world" is both "confusing and ill-founded" (Nguyen Hung's opinion in Thao Luan section of Talawas). There is no such thing as a homogeneous "international art world." We have ignored, and have not examined the point of view of the components of "the international art world," supposedly very large. Are these components [of the international art world] free of the prejudices acquired from our general education and from media about the "others?" And so on. Therefore, could they represent the "international art world?" We were so hasty and missed an opportunity to present our views. And Nguyen Hung's reaction that these components whose members need to "re-educate themselves" is understandable, to me. It is similar to the doubt of many Vietnamese about our ability (foreigners) to judge. We should not complain about this reaction so quickly. We need to prove our sagaciousness. To prove that foreign curators have discovered many original Vietnamese new faces, we need to show how original these new faces are, what they have contributed to change the view or the way of expression of Vietnamese art or world art, etc. This is a challenge. Veronica's recent opinion about Nguyen Minh Thanh is not persuasive enough, because it does not show the above point.
In contrary, when we write "the majority of Vietnamese artists express themselves in the way Vietnam first, art later," we lack the analytical view to limit this subject. It could be about the point of view, aesthetic tastes, or thinking process, etc. And factors which govern and effect, relationship with the art market, history, cultural tradition with all its ties, etc. Without adequate examination, we lose the opportunity to distinguish the different perspectives of "Vietnamese value" in different groups of artists. Therefore, we could not distinguish, which belongs to art scope, which belongs to the marketing scope, which belongs to the politically opportunistic scope, etc., in order to find a common ruler.
In conclusion, to me, we lack a methodological view, and an analytical view too. Our subjective opinions can neither show our knowledge, nor our good will.
Mai Chi: Dear participants, our round table has been running for a month, and I'd like to try to do a difficult and dangerous task of summing up the main ideas expressed so far (of course in the way I understood them, it may be not fully identical with what the authors had in mind).
We started with considering the view of the international art scene on Vietnamsese art, as well as with giving a general judgement about the situation of Vietnamese art.
Nora expressed that the problem of Vietnamese art has two reasons standing in mutual relationship. On one side, the international scene is still pushing Vietnamese art into the corner labeled "primitive" or "exotic", is still interested in Vietnam as country first, only second in artist themselves. But on the other side, Vietnamese artists are playing along this game, nurturing their ethno-national notion, instead of giving their work universal values.
Veronika stated that foreigners (business people and tourists), equiped with money and desire to purchase easy art, are mainly responsible for the unpleasant picture of tourist ethnic art in Vietnam. There is a strong, powerful art scene in Vietnam, which remains undiscovered. Many Vietnamese artist would be able to take part in international shows like Documenta, but such as exhibition strongly focus on Western countries, neglecting other parts of the world.
Kaomi partly agreed that the international scene has an biased view on Vietnam, but also said that we should not blame on the foreigners. The main problem is that Vietnamese art has no substance, does not reflect the reality. Artists are in general weak, they may have a crisis of awareness, even a crisis in ethics and moral. Additionally, the art environment is confused and lack information, and art orientation is dictated by the state and an unqualified art public.
According to Natasha, Vietnam has a few artists on the international level, but they don't have an appriopriate environment. If they would take part in Documenta, noone of their colleagues or cultural state clerks would notice or appreciate. The main part of Vietnamese artists limit themselves in national themes, therefore cannot reach an international public. The market has a strong destroying power. She also agreed that there is a crisis in moral and ethics.
Nguyen Hung emphasised the lack of character of artists. They still have an outdated, superficial view, with no independent thinking and are temporary/opportunistic artists. More important, these issues are not recognised in Vietnam, and therefore, they are not subject of art critics. The Vietnamese art body, hence, doesn't have a solid ground and no potential for further development.
Although there are common ideas in the expressed judgements, the differences are also substantial. Therefore, I would say that it is very difficult to arrive at a conclusion shared by all participants (as Kaomi wished); and this common conclusion is even not necessary. I hope that as we continue to talk about different components and sub-topics, for example about new art languages and forms (Nhu Huy and Van Sang), or about the role of individuals (Nora and Veronika), as well as about other actors of Vietnamese art in the next rounds (the public, the critics, policy makers, etc.) we can provide evidences, concrete examples illustrating the general view. I think our readers need to have concrete information to retrace how we arrived at our judgement.
Based on what Veronika talked about Nguyen Minh Thanh I understand that in current Vietnam, an artist needs more then just innovation in his art work to be in the leading position and play an important role for others. Other factors include the political attitude, and the values of the society that the artist should personlize (education and wealth, for example). I think the fact that the artist should personlize the values of the mainstream in order to be recognized is quite a different thing compared to the West, where important artists create their influence mainly through their art work. Is this difference characteristic for Vietnam in a process of change, whereas artists are freeing themselves from the dependency both materially and mentally of an idology, freeing themselves from the poverty and narrowing state associations. To exagerate a little bit: is a new star in Vietnam someone who not only makes brilliant art, but is also able to market himself successfully, is independent of state organizations, can maintain international contacts and possess wealth? What do you think? I hope through examples of some key artists we may be able to see more clearly the thingking of artists today, as well as their links with other factors of their environment.
Some people have mentioned art critics. Nguyen Dai Giang said that artists need critics like athlets need trainers. So what is the role and influence of critics in Vietnam? Are they merely further tool of the state cultural machinery, or do they have the capacity to pull artists out of their "crisis"? Nora mentioned Nguyen Quan, Duong Tuong, Thai Ba Van and Phan Cam Thuong. How do they contribute? What are the main problems of current art critics and what can be the measures and solutions? (Some readers provided feedback that although seeing problems and weaknesses being pointed out is very important for them, they would wish to know more about possible solutions. It would be good if we could keep this wish in mind).
Birgit Hussfeld: I could not agree more with Nhu Huy when he states that many of us have gotten too emotional and also thank him for his call to discipline: that is,
to call things by their real name and not use terms like 'buffalo paintings'
as a shorthand for more complex issues. At the same time, please excuse me
for getting a bit emotional now myself.
I sense a lot of sarcasm on part of some members of the roundtable whenever
foreigners are talked about, be it as potential buyers, as 'experts' or whatever. I particularly take offence about Nguyen Hung's phrase: artists like Veronika, who have spent years working in Vietnam with Vietnamese artists and students are 'bringing the light' to the Hanoi Art School. Why don't you simply view her, and others in similar positions, as a resource. She is a resource in terms of her experience with the international art circus, in terms of her knowledge about art not widely known in Vietnam, but also in terms of her networks. Because, face it, and everyone knows anyway, artists are not just discovered. In order to get attention you must build up a wide network concsisting of curators, critics, established artists, galleries and museums. That is part of your work as an artist, otherwise you can produce the most interesting art and noone will know, let alone ever show it. Mainting the network and at the same time keeping up the good work, not just temporarily is up to the individual artists themselves, though. Nobody can do that for them. People like Veronika cannot make or break an artist's career, but she can be an important link for some artists, and a source of information you would otherwise not get. The same is true for Viet Kieu or other foreigners who brought more than just a temporary interest to Vietnam. It seems to me that anti-imperialist alarm bells are ringing in many heads when some of them are gaining a voice, that they fear is more heard than their own. Understandably, yes. But curators don't tend to take chances by simply travelling around the world on the look-out for 'interesting artists'. Their interest to pay any attention at all needs to
be raised first. And the persons who are somehow in-between, belonging neither here nor there, who have roots (and a voice!) in both places, combined with a profound knowledge of both Vietnam and how the art circus functions internationally, are a vital link in this process. Not more and not less. It's all part of an ongoing process of opening up, of an emerging dialogue at best.
© Talawas 2002