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Nghệ thuậtBàn tròn "Mĩ thuật đương đại Việt Nam đang ở đâu"
Laurent Colin
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
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I might have misexpressed myself, Natalia (09.12.02), if you came to the conclusion that I wished that Vietnamese artists should close themselves to foreign artistic influences and curl themselves up without looking at what was going on beyond their borders. Through my little knowledge of history of art, I didn't miss the fact that influences are a central and valuable (though arguable) notion and if you come to Paris we will see together currently an interesting exhibition "Manet-Velazquez, la manière espagnole au XIXe siècle" which witnesses the influence of Spanish painters in the XIX century (notably Goya, Velasquez et Murillo) over their French counterparts. Vietnam is no exception: the educational system imposed by colonialism was also the vector which allows notably the introduction of what is a bit quickly and simplistically called "Ecole de Paris" (a reference which needs to be seriously redefined) with painters such as Marquet, Rouault, Matisse and occasionally other artistic movements (ex: cubism with Ta Ty). As I mentioned in my previous intervention, this openness to external art forms progressively nurtured sincere works and later on helped artists to develop individual creativity and innovation. To my mind, I think that Vietnamese painting has always been a painting under influences (analysis of Chinese or lack of Chinese influence -cf. Nam Son's comments in the 30's- is another issue to be discussed) and I hope that by saying so, everybody understands that I am not trying to depreciate Vietnamese art in any way. I also hope that one day we will see a Vietnamese native researcher objectively interested by this issue.

What I was trying to say, Natalia, is that influences are good as long as they are digested and adapted and not flatly plaggied by clumsily scarifying to idols of modernity. This might take time but my understanding was that Vietnamese artists weren't particularly taking the right track which explains my disillusioned conclusions you also seem to share. Why? I think it is easier to open to foreign influences as long as you are strong enough to be in a position to welcome them without being swept by them. This assume to have a certain idea of where you are coming from and where you are going to or more precisely where you are trying to go. Knowing where you are coming from means to have started to conduct a sincere thought and ask yourself questions (even without finding any answer yet) on your background (first personal but also social, political and, of course, artistic) and to be in a process to identify what you have to say. This means to have something to say and not only a technique to show. Technique is not that important although it plays a major role in new art forms. Thus, I cannot concur with Natalia when she says that the results are currently poor because artists do not yet master the technique.

I think this thought on the background does not require at this stage the intervention of foreign experts coming to Vietnam with their structuralist theories suitcase and experiences developed under the auspices of Western institutional channels (which one day will have to be assessed notably in Europe and might not be positive). I think this analysis could be first conducted "internally" in Vietnam. In this respect, I have been quite surprised (but I would be very pleased to get feedbacks from participants if you think I am wrong) by a certain lack of interest, concern for exchange and national introspection among the artistic community. To go a bit further, I am not sure that there exist currently an artistic community in Vietnam. There obviously exist many artists, they meet from time to time around a few beers or a pool table and talk together ("I am coming from Brisbane and I am leaving next week to Osaka and you?" - "Just back from Toronto") but does this makes an artistic community with a real sharing of experiences, feelings, ideas, worries and doubts is something I am not sure of. In the past, it seems to me that there was some kind of debate among artists/intellectuals with identified positions and, as differences were sometimes sharp, this debate could become passionate. But I think at that time poets were talking to painters, historians to writers, photographs to sculptors, film makers to musicians. Phai's gallery of sketches/portraits is for me an illustration of this period of proximity among artists and if you refer to the Nhan Van Giai Pham affair (or even, and more arguably, to the debates during the first Agrarian Reform) you will notice that all categories of intellectuals took part in these movements on both side of the barriers. Another example are books of poetry and novels often illustrated in the 60-70's by renowned painters. I do not see currently the same dynamic. Painters do not seem to talk to writers and vice versa, and writers and respectively painters even not wish to establish a dialogue among themselves, let alone if they belong to different generations. Of course, we have seen painters participating in some film experiences recently but it was mostly foreign driven and I do not think that the surprising presence of Tran Trong Vu's paintings in Tran Anh Hung's last film as well as sporadic apparition of painters was a proof of inter-penetration in arts (but a very funny point of view anyway as if a sister and brother living in Hanoi were nowadays prone to invest in modern art to decorate their home, a case I have seldom experienced until now). Is there not also a certain lack of cultural curiosity prevailing nowadays?

I am not saying that the artists should get a PhD in ethnology but having talked in this forum about George Condominas, Edward Said and we could have added on the list Paul Mus or Vietnamese names like Tu Chi, how many artists have opened their books instead of collecting catalogues of foreign art fairs?

Finally, we can also notice that relatively few Vietnamese artists have until now participated in this forum as if they were not interested in taking part in the debate or, and this might be even worse, as if they prefer or feel easier to let foreign mentors explaining what their work is about.

As a conclusion, I would like to stress that a thorough critical work of Vietnamese art is yet to be written, hopefully by Vietnamese people, in order to objectively and concisely address many issues mentioned in this forum (national identity, influences, traditions...) based on materials available in Vietnam and through a fruitful dialogue between local parties (i.e. all categories of artists but also art dealers, curators, researchers, teachers...).

This kind of urgent needed researches which should result in the emergence of professional art critics might be of some help to the artists facing a certain disarray but also could help (and this is as important) the local art market to mature with an audience and art dealers in a position to understand, accept and, why not, buy/support contemporary art forms. In this respect, I am a bit surprised to notice that current condemners of orientalism and so called Vietnamesness do not feel any guilt to promote today new art forms (installations-videos-performances) which are incomprehensible to the whole majority of Vietnamese public (or if they are in some way comprehensible, it is mainly due to too obvious references as I mentioned before). But finally, aren't these new art forms precisely art for foreigners (i.e. art backed and expected by foreigners) paradoxically much more than souvenir painting?

That is why I wanted to point out last time this risk of neo-colonialism spreading in a climate of Western empathy to Third World countries and humanitarian curiosity displayed in order to prove our lack of ethnocentrism and which could result at the end of the day in a Vietnamese art for foreigners only, with consequences much more serious than orientalism denounced yesterday. I sincerely hope that the ideas I have tried to express here could be spurred without categorizing me as a Khmer Rouge or a backward colonialist.

© Talawas 2002