Văn họcThơ và Thơ Trẻ
Birgit Hussfeld, Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
Mai Chi, why is it so important for you to determine what exactly is to be
considered Vietnamese art? Tran Thi Minh Ha, for example, is recognised as
an artist, writer and film maker for her work. She happens to be of
Vietnamese origin. Her personal history in Vietnam and as an immigrant to
the United States both have a some bearing on her work, as do other
aspects as well. Why not leave it at that? Why should anyone be interested in
classifying her work in terms of "Vietnameseness" or "American-ness"? I am
tired of this question. While I was living in Hanoi and writing on
Vietnamese art there, many artists spoke of 'tinh dan toc' as a main concern
in their work. 'Tinh dan toc' was written endlessly about in Vietnamese art
criticism. I cannot believe that it really is such a major concern of
artists in Vietnam to create some nationalistic art. They might merely be
lacking the language to talk about and appraise art in different categories.
Maybe I am wrong, your comment makes me think, that it is a major concern
after all. In that case, however, one has to say that art currently
functions in Vietnam to carve out some national identity. Maybe there is
some heartfelt need to replace the state sanctioned symbolism with something
else. Let it be buffaloes or rice-felds, village romanticism, whatever ...
The art doing that, however, would not be interesting to anyone beyond the
national boundaries of Vietnam. Why should curators of international art
shows care about this very local and specific need of the urban middle
classes, some tourists in Vietnam and last but not least the Viet Kieu
abroad? If it exists at all (the need) - it's just a guess, after all. At
the same time, there are plenty of other artists who take their
'Vietnameseness' as a given, as a matter of fact, and just go on making
their art without being obesessed with it. Don't get me wrong. I am not
thinking that 'Vietnamese themes' as such are a hindrance to making good
art, but what are Vietnamese themes? Take Kabakov (just because Veronika
mentioned him). He first made his entry into international audiences as a
"Russian or Glasnost artist". Now, he belongs to the "Champions League", to
use your term, and no-one refers to him any longer as Russian. His work,
though, reflects the reality of him having lived most of his life in a
Moskow communal appartment. (His obesession with flies and dust, for
example.) The question is HOW artists approach their work, whether they
dwell on clichees, try to debunk them or - probably most interesting of all
- don't even bother.
Hoàng Ngọc-Tuấn: The fact that Vietnamese art is not treated fairly by the "international art world" (or perhaps more correctly, the eurocentric art world) does not surprise me at all. Vietnamese art will still exist on the "margins" until it can really re-write parts of the "international history of art" to include itself in it.
During the last nearly 20 years, I have witnessed how the white Australian art world has treated Aboriginal art. I think Salman Rushdie observes very correctly that history is just a report of "an interview with the winners." Aboriginal art (including both traditional and contemporary works) had been seen as things done by the outsiders, the ones existing on the margins, until the late-1980s, when the re-writing of history became a popular movement within the postcolonial, postmodern milieu. Before the Aborigines could re-write parts of the Australian "official" history, most contemporary Aboriginal works, no matter how highly original they are, had been mainly treated as artifacts from a "primitive" world that could only serve to satisfy tourists' exotic appetite or trivial cultural curiosity.
By the late-1980s, contemporary Aboriginal art had gather momentum and achieved unprecedented success. However, by the mid-1990s, only a few names could "leak" beyond national boundaries: Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Rover Thomas, Abie Jangala, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, and such women artists as Queenie McKenzie and Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
The first time contemporary Aboriginal artists could have their works placed in the context of contemporary "international art world" was only 5 years ago, in 1997, at the 47th Venice Biennale, where paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Judy Watson, and weavings of Yvonne Koolmatrie (after the Ngarrindjeri traditional styles), were hung in the Australian pavillion. Another not less interesting aspect is that among the three Australian curators at the 47th Venice Biennale, two are Aborigines (Hetti Perkins and Brenda L. Croft), the other one is white Australian (Victoria Lynn).
Having witnessed such things, I think that Vietnamese art can only become "international" if Vietnamese artists are able to re-write parts of the "international history of art". Of course, we have seen that a number of Vietnamese artists, at various degrees, and through different ways, could do a little bit of the re-writing of that "history" to include themselves in it, and make themselves appear before the "international" eye.
Let's take T. Minh-ha Trinh (Trịnh Thị Minh-hà), for instance. (By the way, I'd like to remind Mai Chi that the correct surname of the Vietnamese-American artist is not Tran, but Trinh.)
At "Documenta 11", in Kassel, Germany, Trinh presented 3 works (not 2, Mai Chi):
1/ Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), on identity and culture through the struggle of Vietnamese women; duration: 108 minutes; language: Vietnamese and English, plus subtitles. This film was shown 15 times at the event.
2/ Shoot for the Contents (1991), on culture, arts, and politics in China;
102 Min.; English. This film was shown 7 times, together with the following film:
3/ Reassemblage (1982), on filming in rural Senegal and a critique of the anthropological I/eye; 40 Min.; English.
As we see, in the 3 works presented by Trinh, Surname Viet Given Name Nam is the longest and most important work. And it deals with racial and cultural identity through the struggle of Vietnamese women. Here, Trinh not only takes as her subjects her "Vietnameseness" but also her "womanliness". Doing so, she seems to double her marginalized position. But it does not matter: she is recognized by the international art community as an artist rather than a "Vietnamese" or a "woman". How could Trinh achieve this recognition? She achieved it because the notions of "being Vietnamese" and "being woman", though frankly and frequently dealed with by her, only existed as subjects in her art and did not overshadow the uniqueness of her art. Let us read what an American critic wrote about Trinh:
"Trinh T. Minh-ha in her unique and beautifully composed films is a lyricist of the first order, an imaginative see-er and thinker whose art radically remakes narrative modes of filmmaking by invoking then reinventing the tools of the anthropologist, the poet and political witness, the visual artist and the musical composer" (from Steve Dickison, the Poetry Center).
There is not a single word about Trinh as a "Vietnamese woman". All words are about her art, and about her as an artist.
And it is here that I do not agree with a particular idea expressed by Nora:
"As long as the [Vietnamese] artists perpetuate these ethno-national notions, audiences in America and elsewhere will continue to see Vietnamese art as "Vietnamese" rather than simply "art"."
Let us reverse the idea:
"As long as the American artists perpetuate these ethno-national notions, audiences in Vietnam and elsewhere will continue to see American art as "American" rather than simply "art"."
How do we feel about it? The reversed idea sounds like a joke, doesn't it? Because, apparently (and how ironic!), the contemporary "history" has defined the term "American" as "international", "global", "universal", and the term "Vietnamese" only as "local". History is "an interview with the Americans", isn't it? (I am paraphrasing Rushdie)
(to be continued...)
© Talawas 2002