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Nghệ thuậtBàn tròn "Mĩ thuật đương đại Việt Nam đang ở đâu"
Đo Mai Trang, Bradford Edwards, Veronika Radulovic
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
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Dao Mai Trang:

In this short message I would like to go back to my previous message sent to the round table and to the reply from Natalie. My questions I asked in that message did not aim to criticize any foreigner taking part in the contemporary art scene in Vietnam. Furthermore, these questions were not separated, but should be seen together, questioning our understanding attitude we have towards Vietnamese artists (Reading with a little attention, readers will see my intention. If not, it is probably because of my poor expression). We have been pointing out and criticizing artists as being weak, outdated, superficial, and not sincere, but what is the cause of this illness? With these questions I liked to motivate us to share our thoughts between us and also with the community of Vietnamese artists more widely and deeply.
If only we know how many contemporary artists are seriously following our round table… If our voices are not listened by the artists then it doesn't matter how these voices are, critical, pessimistic or understanding, they will be of no use.

Bradford Edwards (from the audience):

I have been reading the roundtable discussions with great interest. Many relevant issues surrounding Vietnamese contemporary art have been introduced and discussed. One of the most obvious and influential is the notion of "Vietnameseness". I feel that this issue has been discussed in great detail and I can offer little that has not already been stated, but there is another aspect to Vietnamese contemporary art that has received no attention thusfar. This is the determination of what is a working definition of "contemporary art" and how art presently produced in Vietnam relates to the rest of the world's contemporary art.

The definition of "contemporary art" is salient because there has been alot of discourse on the acceptance of Vietnamese art abroad and where Vietnamese art can be placed in the broader spectrum of, for lack of a better term, the "global contemporary art". Also, the context and the barometers of what constitutes success in the global arena are very important aspects of this topic.

I will frame the issues that I feel should be considered point by point in a rhetorical fashion (i.e. I will pose specific questions to consider).

a) Is contemporary art called "contemporary" simply because the artwork is made in the present day? Can an artist currently working in a more traditional form be decribed as making "contemporary art"? Or rather is "contemporary art", by its very title, mean that it is "about" the contemporary life of the artist or "about" the period of time in which the artist is living?

b) If we are to use the latter definition for what determines "contemporary art" (mainly relating to the content or intent of the artwork) then the vast majority of Vietnamese art is not "contemporary art" at all, but rather neo-modern or neo-traditional or something else. Albeit, this definition reflects the readily apparent bias of the global contemporary art world. Witness the current (and for some decades now) the complete dominance of artwork which addresses the time in which it was made. Socio-political work that incorporates certain agendas probably describes 90% of "known" contemporary art.

c) What are the means by which any of us even know about other artist's work at all? Art books, art magazines, gallery visits, museum exhibitions, word-of mouth? Is this more established contemporary art world completely dominated and controlled by the West? In fact, does there exist a much longer history of "contemporary art" in the West than in other regions? Does this world also exist in some form in places like Tokyo, Seoul, Tapei, Bangkok, Manila, etc.?

d) With the rise in awareness of "globalisation" some of the Bienneales are taking place outside of the West. Can one say that on the world stage currently (again, for lack of a better term) there are many artists who are not from the West? In fact, in contrast to the stated opinion that there is a predjudice at work against artists from developing countries, can there be a case made for evidence of an active search (by gallery and museum curators) for more exotic, outside-the-mainstream artwork from lesser known countries?

I take the position that there is not a resistance or reluctance to "allow" Vietnamese contemporary art to participate on the world stage. Actually, I believe that certain curators from the Western contemporary art world would love to find some Vietnamese artwork that they could actively promote. Why? Because there is little or arguably none in that context right now (from a native Vietnamese raised and educated completely in Vietnam). Perhaps they either haven't seen any that they believed could prosper in that context or they haven't looked hard enough. The fact is that there are very very few Vietnam artists making work about their personal life in the world they presently live in or about the larger context called modern day Vietnam. Period. Why is this?

I strongly believe that Vietnam's absence in the world arena isn't about the "quality" (however defined), but largely because of the content. Of course, this begs the obvious question - so what? Should Vietnam artists care whether they have a presence on that stage or not anyway?

At this point I have posed many questions and I can offer almost no clear answers. Still, these are relevant topics for any serious observer of Vietnam contemporary art to consider and debate. I would like to end with a concrete compare/contrast example with another country. There are certain parallels in recent Vietnam history with Cuba. They are, of course, different cultures with different histories, but there are also a number of similiarities. It might be useful to look at another socialist country recently isolated for a number of years from ouside influences and what has happened in their contemporary art community in the last decade. Far from being discriminated against, a sizable number of Cuban artists have been "exported" and have achieved international success and recognition in the last several years. Most of them make topical artwork with a message or statement about present day Cuba or more specifically their present day experience of Cuba. The artwork is loaded with concept and subtext - there is virtually no "decorative" Cuban artwork. It "fits" well with the current Western market bias.

So, should Vietnam art adjust to global market realities? Or is the present state of Vietnam art "genuine and natural" to its own context? (01.12.02)

Veronika Radulovic:

1. Huy, it's really not about my artists or your artists, cows, Thai or Laos elephants. It's about some artists coming up with a great and unique idea, painting cows with joy, humour and spontaneity and thereby discovering an intuitive expression for their agricultural Vietnam. And a new form of body art, living culture or whatever, which (I am certain) would find international recognition.

Why do people in Vietnam always believe that one thing wants to replace another. Nobody has to follow or repeat it. The cow doesn't exclude the buffalos. There are so many varieties. Only with the difference, namely that the pictures on the cows could move. And in virtue of their transience much closer to life than some bronze sculture or lacquer paiting. In addition, with the cows it's about an expressis verbis: non-commercial art. They also meet the criteria for art in public space. Art is rooted in the life of the working population. Art which is fun. Art which irritates, changes the old way of seeing and much more.

And thus they are closer to the international definitions of contemporary art than some traditional painting which could be from the 18th century. Quite simply: young art. And after all, the canvas was cheap. More money left for bia hoi.

2. As for the question about criticism, I can only ask: Does Vietnamese young art need the kind of criticism that Hung recommends and requests.

My answer ist: NO. And who is to be critic and how many different critics will or may there be in Vietnam anyway?

Hung, do not misunderstand me, criticize whatver you like, that's part of a public discussion and your right. There are enough discussion boards in Vietnam. BUT. Do not bemoan the fact that the artists do not listen or read what you say. In that case, I cannot check it, the artists may be just too tired to follow the good many advices, intructions and prohibitions.

3. You react to my mentioning of Minh Thanh. Unfortunately I am not able to talk with you about the substance of his art in this forum. However I would like to answer some of the questions.

I did not talk about the substance of his work, but try to explain his popularity. That's two different things and I agree with you that popularity doesn't say anything about substance. Popularity can also mean such things as well-likedness and fashionable clothes.

Although artists like Paul Klee, Miro, Leger and many others, not by an academic art, but by works that at the time could well be called antiacademic, achieved international fame, I consider this aspect in Nguyen Minh Thanh's work remarkable. His anti-academicism makes clear, that a new orientation is taking placed and another path is being looked for.

Let me say something about the term international. For you, even that doesn't seem to be a substantial criterion for Minh Thanh's art. I definitely do not agree.

Art is public. Art is dialogue. Without the public no art. And today art works to a large degree through an international public. Minh Thanh has as one of a few engaged in a highly sophisticated international Dialogue. And that is the substance of his art.

In the following I refer to an exhibition on the occasion of his artist in residence 1998 by artist unlimited in Bielefeld, Germany.

Minh Thanh belongs to the generation of artists who grow up in a transforming society. Politically, economically, culturally. This new life forces the individual to deal with strange life styles, informations, media, new technologies, confrontations with other cultures and much more. A difficult, and dangerous, chalenge.

This new, other life brings about a feeling of estrangement. Estranged from tradition, family, and also national identity.

Minh Thanh and his family lives in different worlds, which though allows, however makes it difficult for us to live together. Much of Minh Thanh's work is unknown to his family.

During an exhibition in Bielefeld, Minh Thanh had an exhibition with the title: Letters to my mother. He showed big-formated, idealized woman portraits over which he hanged an envelop. He asked ca. 100 people who visted the exhibition to send somthing from their life to his mother. He sent these photographs, texts or paintings of the German visitors together with a letter to his mother.

There he wrote among others:...Normally we receive letters only from people we know...but in this case you do not know the sender, but when you open the letter it is a letter from me, your son, with a sender you don't know. Is it not wonderful the world of today.

You have contact with people on the other side of the world,...that is because the erth is still round and rotating and humanity keeps unfolding. I stand as artist in the middle, and what I produce is art... I stand in the middle between you and the people who visted my exhibition, you and they, don't know each other yet. I want to connect you, bring you closer together.

That's the only thing I could not make possible yesterday or tomorrow, but only today. You, I and all the people here live at the same time. We are however different. This coming closer together makes it clear that it is only important that we live, really live.

The visitors here may find that weird...und you will see, even if we are all strangers to you, they will not scare you.

Soon I will come home and I hope you will recognize me, I hope I will not appear strange to you. Your son.

Minh Thanh has in this work reflected on his role in a transforming society. This work is a description of the political situation. For ME this work was and is also a melancolic, lovely attempt to patch up what has broken.

He uses the form of the picture, the of letter, the participation of the public. He presents an intercultural dialogue.

I don't know if that has enough substance for you. For me it does. I cannot bring you any closer to Minh Thanh's art. After all, we look at things differently and why should we change that?

4. My view on Vietnam and Vietnam's artists is not yours. And the most important thing during our life together in Vietnam was and is: to get bound up with a many facetted and authentic life in Vietnam. And it is so wonderfully loud and bright that I am certain that this vivacious life will bring forth an art which not only satisfies technical and political criteria but is also alive. In addition to that also controversial and humoresque. There are already many illuminating examples.


© Talawas 2002