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Nghệ thuậtBàn tròn "Mĩ thuật đương đại Việt Nam đang ở đâu"
Laurent Colin, Dương Tường, Nguyên Hưng
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
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Laurent Colin (from the audience): I have been following the discussion going on only recently and therefore I apologize to come so late in the debate with a so long contribution.

Yet, I have been looking since 1992 at Vietnamese art, or art produced in Vietnam, by artists having the Vietnamese nationality... (after looking at some posting, I don't know which expression should be used to be politically correct!) and, in this regard, I would like to add a few comments as an " amateur " only since I am not an art critic, nor an expert let alone an artist. Also, I would like to add that I am not a curator nor holding a PhD in Art and that I don't make my living out of Vietnamese art or any related sponsorships. All this might certainly be seen as a limit or an opportunity to frankly deliver a personal point of view.

To begin with, a short (hence simplistic) historical flash back may be necessary. Since 1924, we noticed that Vietnamese art developed under an imposed situation (namely colonialism system with a Fine Art school, pure product of the colonial system), emancipated progressively and successfully through the Resistance and beyond, despite a coercive political context and awful material conditions. The artistic movement has certainly not revolutioned world art but yet resulted in the looming of sincere works produced by real talents such as Le Pho, Nguyen, Sang, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Gia Tri, Nguyen Sy Ngoc, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Tien Chung, you name it. After that, one can only notice that the "open door" policy started in the beginning of the 90's did not keep up its promises in spite of some daring tentatives held by artists like Tran trong Vu, Truong Tan and, after him, Nguyen Van Cuong, Nguyen Minh Thanh and Nguyen Quang Huy in the mid 90's. "Why did the take-off did not really occur?" is in my view the real question to be addressed as it explains why Vietnamese art is not currently more often presented abroad.

First paradox, it is when artists suffer less from political pressure, benefit from a kind of freedom, escape from past imposed influences (colonialism and to a lesser extent socialist-realism), have access to any information, start travelling and earning money, that creation and innovation appear relatively poor. And I don't think it is a point to blame the foreigners and pseudo restraint imposed by a pseudo "Vietnameseness". This concept of "Vietnameseness" is alluring on the paper and could make some effect during a colloque but does not help those really interested in what is going in Vietnam in order to get a better understanding, nor the artists who would start questioning really themselves and their work.

Vietnamese artists are definitely not victims and one have to keep in mind that they benefit nowadays from a visibility and status most western young artists do not have : just after leaving school and with a limited track record, number of them (selected through criteria that are not always crystal clear) can travel extensively being invited by noticeable foreign institutions. They receive "sponsorship", "stipendium" "bourse". In Vietnam, they can exhibit in numerous private or public galleries and foreign institutions such as Alliance Française or Goethe Institut. Catalogues are regularly published, art magazines do exist and I think the question of censorship should be more seriously analysed and weathered before concluding that it is far worse in VN nowadays than in western countries. Artists' standard of living is generally well above the one of the average citizen. I, on the other hand, do not think they suffer from any prejudice due to a so called "vietnameseness" imposed by ignorant foreigners. Vietnamese art remains relatively young and we have to be cautious not to overwhelm it with theoretical concepts. In this respect, I think that referring to Edward Said's brilliant yet controversial criticism on Orientalism (now a bit backwards and criticised not only by cynic colonialists) which is the result of a thorough and long research taking into account Middle East/North Africa's environment, is nice on the paper but appears rapidly to be too much simplistic and totally misleading as the parallelism between Middle East and Asia has to be approached in a very cautious way. I have even seen in the past the late Pierre Bourdieu convoked in the debate to use blankly his "distinction" approach (the result of a statistical and empirical survey conducted in the French context) for analysing the somewhat embryonic Hanoian art scene!!! Again, I am not saying that such references could not help in a way or another (notably by concluding that it is not adapted) but it has to be used carefully and really integrated within the VN context. This requires time, humble and serious work.. It is easy to blame the local institutions (ie Ministry of Culture, Museums, Art schools) after hanging the foreigners, however you do know well that art can develop without their support. Besides I have a real consideration for Hanoi Fine Art School (with high standards notably for the drawing practice and this despite, or perhaps because, of their proclaimed conservatism which constitutes a helpful constraint students can later contest. Sure the local audience remain confidential but yet we should not forget that local collectors have played a major role in the development of Vietnamese art well before self-declared experts and foreign teachers started looking at it. Taking into account the relatively short background of VN art, we should normally expect in the near future new collectors and possibly private museums/foundations to settle. The lack of local art critics seems to me the only real burden that artists can complain about.

Artists born and educated in Vietnam are, whether we like it or not, Vietnamese and I do not see any problem with that. Artists do not suddenly spring out of nothing. And anyway, Nora, you can take the artist out of Vietnam but you will never take Vietnam out of the Artist. Besides, Veronika, I do not think that Picasso would be ashamed of being called a "Spanish artist" (even if his work cannot obviously be reduced to "Spanishness"!). I hope that you have noticed that the violence and the light of his works have more to do with Spanish than Finnish background ! Finally, I think that the work of the old Nguyen Tu Nghiem, who revisit regularly and openly Vietnamese culture, appears daring, modern and young compared to most of the works you can see nowadays.

In fact, during my last trips to Hanoi and after travelling extensively in the region, I frankly speaking had the feeling that current Vietnamese art seems to stall becoming progressively somewhat overvalued. This might be a transition phase but the transition, which I think started around 1996/97, seems to me to last a bit too long and I do not see any positive outcome (i.e. artists with innovative ideas, a real intelligence of the support , a poetic approach and, last but not least, a fruitful and stable relationship with a gallery).

I have noticed while discussing with some artists that they admit presently being puzzled if not lost. Lost in travels, art fairs, eager to swallow everything without digest. In search of modernity (or what they think being modernity or what they have been told being modernity), they seem not to know exactly where they stand and looking desperately for recognition and for references not yet identified. I thought that some of them could stroll in Hanoi streets with T-shirts mentioning "Beuys in Vietnam " as tourists do with "Tintin in Vietnam". These artists are told that installation-performance-video is the paramount of modern art but what they present -at least what I have seen- is a pale copy of what was seen abroad 5 years ago and, in some cases, pathetic plagiarism. The message seems to repeat itself and, in most cases, is an empty diatribe, caricatural, naive, too obvious without mystery and poetry. I am not saying by this that Vietnamese artists are unable to make anything in this regard (and I have obviously no right to say so), I am just noticing that what has been presented until now is sadly far from being convincing. By the way, I do not think that the last Documenta as prepared by Okwui Enwesor should be the reference and could help them in any way (except perhaps the old Louise Bourgeois' works).

Few examples taken amongst the more promising artist might be relevant at that stage :
Seeing Nguyen Van Cuong denouncing the " Karaoke, Bureaucracy and Tutti Quanti " is interesting but when you see that his harsh critic of VN society remains almost identical 5 years after, it becomes tiring and you start questioning the real depth that you thought having noticed before. Nguyen Minh Thanh is undoubtedly clever, Nora, but his self-portraits series launched more than 5 years before are now a bit overdue. As appears his speech about grandmother/child which I first considered as part of a meaningful interrogation on the Vietnamese village identity. Similarly, Nguyen Quang Huy's works on the graphic "@ " presented a few years ago could have hardly surprised a second-class Kreuzberg gallery.
What do you sincerely think about Truong Tan (who is, by the way, categorised not only as a "Vietnamese artist" but also as a "Vietnamese gay" or "gay Vietnamese" artist -this being another debate) current works/performance compared with what we saw in the mid 90s? Not to mention Tran Trong Vu: I do not think, Nora, that disregarding a "Vietnamese artist status" should be sufficient to define a coherent approach. Finally, I hope that everybody understands now what Dinh Y Nhy had to say and expects her to move to something else.

In this context, for Natalia to announce that she was considering closing her gallery (which is surely the only one trying hard to promote experimental art through a sincere action - please remember notably the creative exhibitions co-organised with Eric Leroux) was for me an alarming signal that the former dynamic Hanoi art scene is vanishing.

Oddly enough, I come to the conclusion that the Vietnamese art (let's generalize and be politically incorrect!) is much more colonised today than it was during the colonisation period. In fact, whereas the colonialism, thanks to remarkable individuals (Tardieu, Inguimberty), allowed a real development of a creative artistic movement, the current neo colonialism noticed today (which, of course, includes a strong criticism of colonialism) is much more coercive with its stereotyped speech and its imposed references on the installation-performance-video triptych. This neo-colonialism, promoted by those who denounce the institution whereas they directly belong or benefit from institutions, prevent artists to conduct a real interrogation on Vietnamese culture roots and tremendous changes occurring nowadays in the Vietnamese society.

Duong Tuong (from the audience): First I just wanted to be a reader, but as the discussion is getting interesting, I'd like to share some thoughts.

1. The (Vietnamese) topic and title of the round table is "Modern Vietnamese art in the international context", I think there is a confusion between the terms "duong dai"/"contemporary" and "hien dai"/"modern". The talk has been around aspects of contemporary, not modern Vietnamese art.

(Mai Chi: Yes, there is a difference in the English title of the round table, which uses the word "contemporary", and the Vietnamese title that uses the word "hien dai". Thanks for pointing out this inconsistency).

2. I don't object the slogan "nurturing the national character". In many papers I wrote, I even mentioned that one of the things that could draw attention on Vietnamese art was a clear expression of the national character. But I don't want to emphasis that all the time. There is no sign that the national character is being erased, so why one should chant "keep the national character" over and over again? I don't think that chanting that phrase would help an artist making an art work full of "national character". One should also not stick too much to tradition. Sometimes tradition is a stone tying to one's feet. One of the things I like about America is that country of 200 years doesn't have a tradition. Additionaly, I think cultural breeding is an interesting thing. There is no culture in the world which can be termed as "pure" culture. Besides, was it not Jorge Amado who was proud of the cultural mix in Brasil?

3. About the question about the international position of Vietnamese art, in some of my papers (for a Dutch exhibition in 1999, for Asian Art News), I stated that probably we had to wait until the last decade of the 20th century to see Vietnamese art emerging from unrecognition, even from anonymity. Until now, I think, Vietnamese art has hardly moved a few inches.

Nguyen Hung: It is true, Van Sang, that "the art world is not a primary school class". But, this example too is your example only. Just because you look around in the country and hardly find somebody who is capable of doing art critics it doesn't mean that art and art works can't be subject of critics. The 20th century, especially its second half, was seen as the "golden age" of culture and art critics. It is just a pity, that it hasn't arrived in Vietnam yet. This is a long story. I will try to write in detailed abou this topic soon.

In Vietnam, it is true that people often speak "in the name of moral". Sometimes, they use "moral"/"heart" to pull back talents. But on the other side, talent has its own "heart", its own "moral". It is the awareness of a creative person about discipline and techniques. Talking like you did is creating confusion. Hoang Ngoc Tuan wrote a very interesting article on this theme, I will forward it to you. (Besides, I have many other reference papers, you may contact me directly via

Talking about "hurray the foreigners", you are also creating confusion. According to your view then everywhere in the world one should celebrate foreigners. Is there any culture which doesn't own something from other cultures. I think, confronting the "poor" reality of Vietnam, instead of "celebrating foreigners", we, including you and me, better frankly admit our weakness. Maybe the next generations will have a chance to "wake up".

Actually, I feel that I have to thank Van Sang. You kicked few problems to be opened up. We haven't dug deeply into these problems, but at least, they are touched.

© Talawas 2002