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Nghệ thuậtBàn tròn "Mĩ thuật đương đại Việt Nam đang ở đâu"
16.4.2004
Như Huy
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
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The development of art in the 20th century is really the development of the conceptualization of materials. The latter cannot be detached from the former. To paint has always meant what to paint with and what to paint on which in turn is the [development of the] basic formation of materials.

From simple illustrations with natural colors etched cave walls until today, the body of the cow of Damien Hirst, "Some comfort gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything", 1996, up to those works using precisely the body as material, there have been major changes in the conceptualization of the material. In short:
  1. No longer is one material used to express another one
  2. The original significance of the material is no longer important
  3. The solidity of the material doesn't matter anymore.
As an example, the reasons for the persistence of oil, a classic material of the plactic arts, since its inception until the early 20th century, are:
  1. Oil possesses an incomparable capability to express other materials such as iron, steel, skin, hair or clouds;
  2. Its solidity: if preserved correctly and not destroyed by man, war or natural desasters, oil can be preserved for centuries;
  3. Its spirit of origin: oil retains and proved proof for what may be called the artist's 'stroke' in order to distinguish one from another.
Efforts to change or expand the use of oil was first explored by the artists of the abstract art school, e.g. Malevich's 'White on White'. In this painting, oil is not used to express something else. Nonetheless, the material's solidity and spirit of origin was regarded as important by those artists. However, there were other artists like Vasarelly who began to doubt the solidity and discount the origin of this material and started to introduce other projects such as the theory of modules in art.

We shouldn't overlook Marcel Duchamp and his "Fountain", either - a new theory in art - one which might be called "how to philosphize with a hammer" - which destroyed all concepts of solidity and origin. No wonder his influence, together with that of the Dadaist school, continues to hold sway over contemporary art. It is not until the late 20th century that the thorough changes in the conceptualization of new materials is seen in the different schools of thought in the arts, as exemplified by the use of video, performances, fluxus and installations. This new attitude, in which the origin of the material is dicarded and the concept of material which existed is re-utilized, is a major step leading to the perennial question, "what is art", a question whose legitimacy had already been occupied by other questions such as, "what can be art" and "what will be art"?

In Vietnam, the concern with material is not a real one yet. Looking at the changes in Vietnamese art over the last decades, they lie mostly in the perspective if the topics depicted and the conceptualization of the objects selected. I think it's fair to say that the first Vietnamese artists whose efforts are worth mentioning and who can truly be considered as the first Vietnamese plastic artists are southerners like Nguyen Trung, Hoang Tuong and Tran Van Thao. In the nineties, they began paying attention to the issue of material and did in fact succeed distinctly in expanding the possibilities of material. However, if we take a closer look at internal structure, their works are still heavily influenced by the idea of using one material to express another one, just like oil's influence still runs down their canvasses.

Among northern artists who were contemporaries of Nguyen Quan, Dang Xuân Hoa, Hong Viet Dung or Tran Lương, thoughts regarding the structural change of art (more concretely: thoughts on the change of material) are practically nonexistent. Nonetheless, there's something decidedly attractive about their works (as expressed in the unusually smart choice of topics). Together with the holy trinity of installation-performance-video, artists of the nineties undertook great efforts to introduce new concepts about materials into contemporary Vietnamese art. However, those efforts were not the result of each artist's particular philosophical concern with materials. On the contrary, their works appeared similar, almost like exercises in modernity. There was no serious reflecting on materials or contemporary life or art itself. Actually, I find Bradford Edwards' argument that Vietnamese artists like to shun contemporary topics well-conceived.

In Vietnam today, I think, of artists of this trend, only Vu Dan Tan stands out. But, the old circle of "material expressing material" still seems to influence his work, although he is ironic in his works, which makes them more contemporary then the works of many other younger artists.

One of the differences between the artist and the observer is that the artist has to actually experience whatever he's exhibiting. He actually lives his work, hence there's no standing apart reflecting on his work, as in the case of the critic. What's missing most in the so-called new Vietnamese art is individualism - although this current uses all kinds of materials like incense, lamps, candles, bells, gongs, mats, gonfalon, conical hats, clogs, poles, votive papers, images of houses on stilts, portraits of typical Vietnamese women with black teeth or self-portraits of male youths with large eyes and shaved scalps - mass production of copies of "fortune, goodness, ritual, intellect" art works, Dong Ho folk paintings (see "Vietnamese antique" - Phan Cam Thuong/ Le Quoc Viet/ Cung Khac Luoc).
To me, as long as works of video, performance or installation of most Vietnamese artists are influenced by "great narratives" on country, Vietnamese customs (for instance, pictures of old Vietnamese women chewing betel leaves and dying teeth black; or series of works depicting the cultural harmony of Vietnamese ethnic groups: the Kinh's practice of spiritual trance, Thai's houses on stilts, Tet's pole of Highlanders, etc.), we still cannot talk about any changes in essence of Vietnamese art.

Lack of pure thoughts on the materials themselves and of philosophy about own's materials, we artists will have tremendous difficulty when we want even a small change in art. (Here I talk only about artists living in Vietnam) By the way, I'd like to mention an issue of this roundtable. I have a feeling that a few individuals in this roundtable always have a tendency to turn this discussion of Vietnamese contemporary art - the initial subject of this roundtable - into a "religious war" between the new against the old, the conservative and the stagnation. (Of course, in that debate, they always play the role of the knights defending the new; they are the future man - in Alvin Toffler's words.) In my opinion, this tendency of "cheating (by turning one issue into another)" is not healthy, and will hinder our frank discussion. The discussion, if any, at this roundtable always ought to be the one with the purpose of figuring out the mechanism of the followings: the real/fake, the creativity/copy, the real existence/ illusion of Vietnamese contemporary art, whether there have been any differences in the development of Vietnamese art since the beginning, what the differences are, and whether we could predict its direction…

Up until now, in my judgment, it could be said that this roundtable has in some degree been successful when presenting a fresh slice of Vietnamese contemporary art, and creating an opportunity for us to discuss openly/frankly; however, we have had quite a few missed opportunities. In my opinion, we've spent so much time for the anger of the so-called "souvenir" art that we haven't noticed such kind of art has existed and will continue to exist; and in reality we have to learn to live with it, and through education, to gain its audience back.
We have wasted so much time when discussing about the existence of Vietnamese art in the art world that we haven't noticed that whether Vietnamese art exists in Vietnam, how it does so (through galleries, artists, public, art works, authors), and at what level of development of an art body in order to produce an author.

In fact, what is the position of art in Vietnam relative to other fields? To me, it is pitiful, pitiful at least to mathematics; in mathematics, everyone knows that to understand or to solve it, one has to study it; and advanced math is different from elementary one. However, up until today, Vietnamese artists, according to Natalia, "they are full of energy, of enthusiasm, eager to change, to express, to create, but... to learn new language is boring for them, but to make some small research before doing an installation on not very familiar concept - is still not their habit…"

I agree with the artist Bui Quang Ngoc on the issue that before 1975 there existed in South Vietnam a intersting art world with abundant materials, artists, works… I myself still remember a beautiful experience during my first few years of College when I was looking for old books and magazines, and happened to come across the "Van [Liturature]" No. 93 dated November 1, 1967 - on the subject of art. In that magazine, there were articles by Thai Tuan, Duy Thanh, Nguyen Quynh, Doan Them, Huynh Huu Uy, Trinh Cung, Ta Ty, Vu Dinh Luu, etc., as well as wonderful translations of essays on art by Paul Klee, Kadinsky and Mondrian, etc.

Another issue worth mentioning here: even though foreign critics have contributed much to the development of Vietnamese arts, there is a trap that I think few of the foreign colleagues could escape from; that is the view: Vietnamese art only exists from the point of time they began watching it. This is a view that is acceptable if you are an audience or an artist; but that is dangerous if you are a critic, because with this way of looking at it, art isn't viewed as a process in its true nature; therefore, the results of your examinations will not be valid. It leads to the inaccurate prediction and often time self-explaining, will-ism and imposition.
What affects Vietnamese history especially with its turns (each turn brings about numerous different social aesthetic experiments) will have on the existence and development of art. I happen to remember a very sharp comment, probably by Hoang Ngoc-Tuan, in the essay about postmodernism, that Vietnamese readers read postmodernist authors sometimes even before classical or modernist ones. In my opinion, such similar phenomenon occurs in art, and will it present any benefits or harms to us/our art? And how to rid of harms and to enhance benefits? Why hasn't this roundtable addressed such issues?

I hope that our future roundtables (will there be any, Mai Chi?) will be diversified, and less time/resources wasted on our opportunity to come together.
(04.01.03)

© 2003 talawas