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Nghệ thuậtBàn tròn "Mĩ thuật đương đại Việt Nam đang ở đâu"
28.12.2002
Jun Nguyễn-Hatsushiba
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
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Dear everyone in the roundtable, I only began to read various thoughts on the issue. Perhaps for some of you, as I read the entries, exhausted from so many bombardment on opinions, would rather have the round table closed. It seems that lots of points are misinterpreted or misunderstood too quickly. Then, as Nguyen Hung states, we will not get anywhere with our discussion. If the point is misinterpreted, just clarify it. And if the point is not clear or could be misunderstood, we can try to ask the person to clarify. Just imagine, if it wasn't a roundtable via net?!? We may begin to kill each other???

I have decided to come into discussion, one, because Veronika has mentioned me few times in her entries as well as Mai Chi. And two, because I also feel the need to make some statement of my own whether it will be criticized or not. I will start by Nguyen Hung's most recent entry (14.12.02). By the way, we should get together sometimes and also please introduce me to Kaomi.

As an artist, I cannot stress more on the point which Nguyen Hung states, "In my opinion, one of the crucial reasons which causes Vietnamese art not to be able to "take off" is that "to a person with no strong will, a compliment or a criticism could drive him/her crazy." My interpretation of this passage is that it is one's dream or determination which needs to nurture the direction of art and his/her career.

For the last 5 years, I have been teaching design and creative development full time and also put my time into my own art development in Ho Chi Minh City. When I was 19, I made my decision to study art and to become an artist. It sounds very naïve statement and I agree to that now because I had no idea what it is to be an artist. I simply wanted to experiment or create my own things. Before that, I was really into making music. Not so much playing live, but composing. So, I could not play any cover songs which many of my friends were very good at. They could copy and play many top 10s. So I was sometimes embarrassed for not knowing any tunes. What am I without knowing any tunes of famous bands of the day? Well, I thought it wasn't so important, because I was seeking for a way to develop something different, my original piece.

Now that I look back to those days of seeking for original expression, it allows me to share my thoughts on creativity with my students. It all comes down to one's will and determination to achieve the dream with something different. I started university wanting to be a successful international artist. Of course, there are so many definitions to the word success, especially in art. And I had no idea what would be successful in art. Make a living with it or have big shows everywhere in the world? But I thought it means to be able to challenge myself to discover a new territory for many people all over the world to see and to contemplate. I would not be happy if it was something new just for me. I have to become a researcher for the society, because everyone is just too busy with their lives. At least that is one role of being an artist in a simplest statement, I think. It's something I will keep contemplating on.

So thinking from early stage of my artistic career the questions, what is international artist, who are they, what do they produce, what are they thinking about, where do they show, why they make these sometimes strange things… made me began to touch upon many aspect of "contemporary art" as we know in terms of artists invited to Documenta, Venice, Sao Paulo, etc. Of course, contemporary art in this category are not just shown in biennials of the world, but also at local contemporary art centers and museums.

I want to go to Hanoi and see this center for contemporary art. And if I could, I would like to have my third exhibition here in Vietnam. I have shown in Hanoi in 97, Ho Chi Minh in 98, but since then, showing else where. I remember how Minh Thanh, Huy, and Cuong all helped me make my installations for the 29 Hang Bai exhibition gallery back in 97. I remember Hai, Linh, Thang, Chau, and Ha (I am sorry for not putting the full names) who also helped me with many aspects of collecting and making the parts for the installation. They were all eager to know more about my "different" style (at the time)
and approach to art making. And I thought it was one of my responsibilities as an artist educated abroad (in US) to also share ideas to develop a meaningful discussion.

My father is Vietnamese and mother is Japanese, but I have also spent half of my life in US. The topic of what is Vietnamese art or what is Vietnameseness becomes irrelevant for me when I make my art, because I simply consider myself as an artist, not as Vietnamese artist or a Japanese artist or even an American artist. It is very so easy to term me as any one of these national artist because of my multi background. I do not refuse to be called a Vietnamese artist if someone desires to mention me that way. Or an American or a Japanese. I am mixed, but at the end, I am just an artist making my own work. When I was invited for the 25th Sao Paulo Biennale early this year, I saw amongst many flags of participating nations a Vietnamese flag. I felt very happy to see it along with the Japanese, the American, and many other national flags. I felt happy to see that Vietnam can be part of such international art forum, or I call the biennales, Olympics of art. I then realized that this flag was put up because I was participating in the biennale. So they had made me a Vietnamese artist! It was kind of interesting to know that no one in Vietnam supported (or I should say no one in Vietnam knew) my participation in Sao Paulo. So I felt quite lonely in Sao Paulo knowing that other national artists had supports from home.

Going back to my own career history, in 1996, before I made my decision to begin living in Vietnam, I was nominated for the 1997 Whitney Biennial (a survey of American contemporary art). Or maybe I wasn't nominated officially, but the curator had visited me in Dallas, Texas, not so much of a city for the contemporary arts. Anyway, I did not get selected, but the point here is I was somehow an American. And in 1998, I was selected to have my first exhibition in Japan as the recipient of the Japanese Artist Living Abroad Award sponsored by Cartier and Shiseido. It is really funny and also little awkward to be in these situations.

So coming back to Veronika's comment on me as, "Another example is Jun Nguyen Hatsushiba who makes a great career as a Vietnamese artist. I wonder in all seriousness, isn't it a marketing strategy?" (25.10.02), I would like to say I am little puzzled about her statement. Here I would like to ask her to help me understand what she means by the last sentence. Actually, the first sentence as well. Is she stating that I am using the term "Vietnamese artist" to market myself into the international art circuit? And that it is working very well for me to say I am "[making] a great career as a Vietnamese artist"? Reading her entry, I thought I would not be considered as a Vietnamese artist because Minh Ha is claimed by her (Veronika) as an American artist, but here she claims that I am a Vietnamese artist. Or is this a sarcastic remark on my identity? If you didn't mean that, I am sorry to misinterpret. But I think, as I had mentioned earlier, I hope to be making a successful career as an artist. It doesn't have to be Vietnamese.

My art career has been pure work. It is almost 10 years since I graduated from Master's course. And I still have loans!!! I did not get pick up by the art press like the three Nguyens in Hanoi right after graduation with BFA. In Hanoi, Thang and I found ourselves with a gallery owner in Tokyo, who we introduced to the 3 Nguyens where they subsequently had their first Japan show. I felt confident about introducing them because they had shown me their paintings on paper. The works were wonderful! In my eyes, they were strong images fresh with vitality.

I think that if one wishes to be international, he/she has to think and DREAM international and question like what I had mentioned above, what is international standard? We cannot expect to participate in the Olympics and expect to win medals if we don't have the understanding of standard. We have to develop a goal and do research to expand our perspective on what is international. I am NOT talking about what is mainstream art internationally and try to imitate the hot style of the time. We just need to be aware of what is going on out there to some extent. All these understanding will help one recognize his/her position in the art world. Basically, as Birgit Hussfeld states (22.11.02), artists need to do their homework. I did much homework to know who is doing what and who is showing where, etc. It is indeed thinking strategically. Perhaps I am fortunate to have the chance to learn these skills in school (they teach promotion and communication skills in US art schools). Because, as Birgit says, "artists are not just discovered. In order to get attention you must build up a wide network consisting of curators, critics, established artists, galleries and museums."

And now, every artist in Vietnam can have the access to begin the development of his/her network. I am talking about the exact technology we are using to make this roundtable possible. Internet is my best resource living in Vietnam. I make almost all communication with curators and galleries via email. And because of these email exchanges, some of these curators actually come visit Vietnam to meet with me. I cannot ask for more! So, curators do come into Vietnam if they know that you exist with interesting work.

Coming back to Veronika's remark on Minh Ha's success as she states, "isn't she successful because she lives in the USA? She works with video. She is a female artist - all this circumstances are virtually predestined to success. She is successful because she is an American working on Vietnamese issues." (25.10.02). This statement makes me wonder what kind of reasoning she goes through to evaluate one's success. I cannot accept such process of evaluation. This kind of viewpoint discourages Vietnamese, not only the artists, but the general public. I have heard many times that because one is foreigner, therefore he/she is successful. That is plainly sad to hear. And we all know that it is not always the case. My father is 100% Vietnamese. He was awarded a Monbusho scholarship (a scholarship offered by the Japanese Ministry of Education) to study at Tokyo University during the midst of war in Vietnam. I want to say this to portray that a Vietnamese in Vietnam can make the difference for his/her future by seeking for self development. Yes, the difference was made because he was able to study in Japan, but that difference was made by him, his determination. So I do not think and will not think that if an artist lives in US with the Vietnamese background, he/she will be successful or even be close to be chosen for Documenta. And I can say that there are many Vietnamese origin artists in US struggling right now. It's all determination and hard work (a good work) along with communication skills to develop relationships. I would never make such a statement as you have to my students. That would be the end of their hope. I believe that many of my Vietnamese students have the chance to make big if they take things seriously in their studies.

On another separate issue, one may have to apply various language or universal language as Natasha comments from some Asian panelists at the workshop in Hanoi as they state, "If you make installation, performance - western invention, you have to know the language of these forms, set of codes, filling it with your own concepts and ideas. Otherwise you can't provide ground [for] communication." (09.12.02). I hope that young Vietnamese artists who were there at the discussion will not be so disappointed about this comment from other Asian artists.

Actually, art may have many approaches in making, but we don't have to categorize what is the language understood by international audience (including curators) or what is universal, because that is really determined by time, even the things concerning universal. Time will shift the meaning to that as well. Artists in Hanoi should just go ahead and keep on experimenting with new approaches. When the experimentation stage develops into its extremity that may be the time when something innovative can explode. But I would like to relate here to Bradford Edwards's view into what Vietnamese artists may need to question if wishing to go into international art scene. By the way, Bradford is also an artist working in Vietnam and Cambodia once in awhile as well as a contributing writer to art journals. So he has the understanding of Vietnamese contemporary art to certain degree we can learn from. Bradford raises some points to think about (01.12.02). And I agree with what need to be questioned. Note that he is only asking us to question to find our answers. If I analyze my approach to making art, I also practice similar principles he regards as points which can lead the artist to international art scene. Of course, the bottom line after meeting these points comes down to additional factors as below.

Originality of issue attempted to discuss.
Originality on how this issue is approached, interpreted by the artist, digested, further developed, and presented.
When viewing the art, how many other association and links can critics and audience make out, which are relevant to their culture, history and future existence.

I think it is how the artist conceptualizes the context of life he/she lives in and rewrites it into a new script. For example, a Thai contemporary artist (now known international) Surasi Kusolwong works with fishing poles not to catch fish from the water, but makes his installation where audience can "fish" many of Thailand's plastic gadgets, toys, utensils, basically mass produced colorful junks which may do some people some good for a very short period of time. And one can have them if one can catch them. And it's all free. I enjoy this simple game which he took the initiative to call it his art. Here, the art is actually the concept. He can probably use any material to discuss his concept because, like me, he is not reliant on the traditional sense of material for art making. It is the concept and how he associates various objects he brings into his installations, which develops the magic experience of art. And the great thing is it can be very sophisticated in how the audience can read his work. I think that is the power and the magic of art, demonstrating layers of ideas, yet simplicity in presentation. Another work by Surasi is the Free Massage. That installation just made me feel wonderful. And I did not even get the massage. The audience can get a free massage by a professional massager in the museum setting. Wow, how wonderful it is to just lie down on a bed (which he also furnishes for his installation) and breathe the large space of museum and get a free massage! His works are just some examples of the beauty of contemporary art. The beauty is no longer just experienced via perception of the eyes, but becomes physical as well as psychological.

But I am sure that he would not have encountered these wonderful ideas if he was looking at art as experience separate from his daily life. Everything he sees can be given a new context, function, or a purpose. Thus, a new concept. Thus, as I try to demonstrate to my students, we must also observe the many things that others see and begin to construct different ways to interpret what we see. I think it is hard work, but that is also a part of sophistication that we artists must develop if we are to achieve international standing.

Ok, I will end my input here. Thank you for this exchange.
(28.12.02)
© talawas 2002