In Vietnam, a Bridge Between Cultures

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HO CHI MINH CITY—”Sàn” means “platform” in Vietnamese, and in an art scene once largely defined by fragmented communities, a conservative government, and isolation from international debates and practices, Sàn Art — one of Vietnam’s first nonprofit, independently run art spaces, established in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007 by artists Dinh Q. Lê, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phu Nam Thuc Ha, and Tiffany Chung — is certainly living up to its name.

Dinh Q.Le

Sàn Art has quickly become one of the most important creative platforms in Southeast Asia, elevating the quality of local discussions and the visibility of contemporary Vietnamese art, and bridging geographical distances and generational gaps through its ambitious roster of exhibitions and educational programming. It’s a platform built on the generosity of its founders and their supporters, sustained by the donation of tangible resources as well as immeasurable gifts of time and energy, faith and vision. On the occasion of the recent appointment of Zoe Butt as curator and director (programs and development) and the organization’s move into a new space earlier this year, ARTINFO spoke with artist and co-founder Dinh Q. Lê to learn more about Sàn Art’s cultural context, history, and future. Lê, who was born in Vietnam but emigrated with his family to California at the age of 10 after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978, speaks in particular about bridging the gap between Vietnamese artists and those in the diaspora.

What was the art scene in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) like when you first returned to Vietnam in 1993? What inspired you to get involved?

The biggest and most important part of the art scene in HCMC at the time was the government-supported HCMC Fine Arts Association. They would organize annual exhibitions on national holidays and its members could rent their gallery for group or personal exhibitions. Most of the members were traditional painters. There was no alternative art scene back then; most of the young artists in HCMC were working in isolation. They gathered at the HCMC Fine Arts Association’s events, but were not really working together. At the time, the government was very watchful of southerners. After all, the south was on the wrong side of the war. The artists were scared stiff of the cultural police, which is why the southern artists at the time did not organize themselves to create an alternative scene. They were fearful of being accused of being subversive by the government and didn’t want to end up in jail. Young artists had started dabbling with performance and installation, but they were basically searching in the dark. There was very little access to information on contemporary art at the time. Internet usage was illegal in Vietnam and the U.S. embargo against Vietnam was still on, so southern artists were completely disconnected from the rest of the world. The biggest reason I wanted to do something to help was because of the respect I felt for young artists at the time. They were well trained as painters and traditional sculptors and could actually make a decent living by creating works catering to the emerging tourist art market. But they decided to abandon their traditional training and try out installation and conceptual art, even when they had little information on these practices. I thought they were very brave. As someone who came back to Vietnam [a “Viet Kieu,” or overseas Vietnamese], I did not want the local artists to think that I was trying to take over their territory or, as we say in Vietnamese, dai doi (“teaching them the facts of life“). The challenge was how to get the local artists to trust me and to understand that I was just trying to help.

I remember you initially talking about establishing an art-focused reading room, which eventually became one of Sàn Art’s components.

At the time, I thought I could approach the art community quietly by just opening a reading room. It could be a resource center of information that local artists really needed, and they could come and go as they please. I could hire a librarian to oversee the reading room so I wouldn’t have to be there. My presence in the art scene would be very minimal, not intrusive. But the reading room did not work out because the Rockefeller Foundation in New York could not release the grant to an individual and it was not possible to set up a legally recognized nonprofit organization in Vietnam at that time. I tried hooking up with the Vietnamese cultural organizations in HCMC, but they either thought there was too little financial benefit for them, or worried that a room full of books on contemporary art was potential trouble. I even tried to work with the U.S. State Department Fulbright office in HCMC, and they turned me down. In the end I lost the Rockefeller Foundation grant for the reading room. Out of frustration and with the help of my Los Angeles dealers Shoshana and Wayne Blank of Shoshana Wayne Gallery, we set up a not-for-profit organization called the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts (VNFA) in Los Angeles. Our original programs were: 1) Subscriptions to contemporary art magazines from around the world for the four fine-arts universities and colleges in Vietnam — this part of the project was appropriated by the Ford Foundation in Hanoi and has expanded to aid all kinds of universities in Vietnam;2) Bringing artists, curators, critics, and professors to Hanoi, Hue, and HCMC to hold studio visits, workshops, and lectures about their work in the fine arts universities or Fine Arts Association in the three cities; 3) An annual individual grant to a promising emerging artist to help with his or her living expenses for one year. After about a year of working in this way, bringing people like Asia Society Museum director Melissa Chiu and former LA MoCA director Jeremy Strick to HCMC, I realized that the artists here really needed a place to showcase their work without having to pay a gallery rental fee. They were trying new things, and the traditional, tourist-oriented painting galleries would not show their work. So we switched some of the funding from the VNFA lecture and artist grant programs to fund the opening of Sàn Art. Education and exchange programs are still a very big part of Sàn Art. Today there is more information on contemporary art in Vietnam, and the Internet is legal now, but the artists still do not have a deep understanding of contemporary art. They are also not getting critical feedback on their work. So we still try to organize as many lectures and studio visits as we can when art professionals come through. Vietnam is such a popular destination that most people come through by themselves and we just ask them to give some of their time to the community. So far, everyone has been extremely generous.

How does Sàn Art fit within the Vietnamese art system? Is it recognized by the government?

Sàn Art acts as a bridge between local and international art scenes. We are nationally recognized. All our openings have been televised nationally by government stations and written up in the local and national newspapers. I guess, in a way, they are supportive. But at the same time, they are also keeping their distance and keeping a watchful eye on us.

How do you think Sàn Art has impacted the local art scene?

The biggest impact is that Sàn Art created a community that was not here before. Both the sleepy HCMC Fine Arts Association and the HCMC Fine Arts University are reconsidering their programs in order to cater to the younger artists. The HCMC Fine Arts Association now holds an annual exhibition of young artists that includes installation and conceptual practices, even with the grumbling of the older members. Hanoi used to be the place to go if you were an international curator coming to learn about the Vietnamese contemporary art scene, but today many artists from Hanoi are considering moving to HCMC. Despite previous conflicts between the Viet Kieu artists and the local artists, Sàn Art has become the place where the two groups are meeting, hanging out together, and talking to each other. We are also bringing overseas Vietnamese artists such as Tran Van Tam and An My Le, Brooklyn Rail editorPhong Bui and artist Tomas Vu of the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies at Columbia University back to Vietnam to exhibit alongside the local Vietnamese artists. Personally, I get a great deal of satisfaction from this.

With new leadership in place, a new building, and two years of experience behind you, what does the future hold for Sàn Art?

We hope that Sàn Art will have a closer working relationship with the HCMC Fine Arts Association and the HCMC Fine Arts University so that we can reach out to the older members of the Fine Arts Association and to the students at the university. Sàn Art can contribute a tremendous amount of content to their programs through our international connections. Like many artist-run spaces, our most fundamental hope is for Sàn Art to be financially stable so we can keep serving the community.

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