The Collector: Dinh Q. Le

What do you focus on?

Over the years, I have collected Vietnamese furniture, French colonial furniture, Vietnamese ceramics, some Chinese ceramics and some contemporary Vietnamese art. I buy here and there, in Vietnam and when I travel through different countries.

I started collecting furniture because I needed furniture for the house, but I (haven’t stopped) even though my four-story house is full of furniture at the moment. I started buying old, handcrafted Vietnamese ceramics for everyday use. This is how I gradually learned more about Vietnamese ceramics and fell in love. I believe I have about 200 to 250 pieces ranging from northern Vietnamese (Chinese) Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) terra cotta, Oc Eo pottery (from the first to seventh centuries), and ceramics from the Vietnam Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) and Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), and Chinese Han, Song (960-1279), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

These days, I primarily focus on Ly Dynasty white ceramics from the 12th century, and 15th-century Tran Dynasty tricolor works, also known as works from the Hoi An hoard, from a shipwreck found in the area.

The Ly Dynasty ceramic shapes and forms are so classic and elegant that they are easily mistaken for contemporary ceramics. The Hoi An hoard drawings and the combination of colors are really beautiful. The artisans that created these pieces were really the artists of their time.

Where do you buy antiques in Vietnam?

I go to Le Cong Kieu in Ho Chi Minh City. The street teems with shops that sell everything from knickknacks to beautiful 12th-century ceramics. There are also a lot of reproductions, so be careful.

What is in your contemporary art collection?

I have about 10 works by international artists such as Shirley Tse, Brad Spence, Christian Marclay and Manuel Ocampo. The works range from photographs, drawings, paintings, video, ceramics and books.

Then I have 40 pieces by Vietnamese artists who I think are the most interesting of their generation and who I have great admiration for. Tiffany Chung’s work is very playful but firmly rooted in Vietnamese history. Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s conceptual practice is really fascinating. He is able to connect very diverse areas into his work such as graffiti and propaganda posters, hip-hop and the Vietnam War. Phu-Nam Thuc Ha’s work at first glance is extremely beautiful and formal, but once you dig a little, you find it steeped in social and political awareness. Tuan Thai Nguyen makes astute observations of the darkness, ignorance or emptiness that Vietnam is facing as the country races toward modernity.

How did you come to own so much contemporary Vietnamese art?

With some young artists, I co-founded San Art in September 2007 in Ho Chi Minh City with the idea of supporting artists in the community by providing space for them to exhibit, to gather, to meet with international artists and curators. When we lost our space and were closed for a few months, we missed the monthly gathering of the community there for the openings. We found that we needed the community as much as the community needed us. So we reopened this past June, two minutes from our old place.

San Art definitely has influenced my collecting habits…With doing so many studio visits and looking at works submitted by artists, I acquired a deeper appreciation of art in Vietnam.

Is your passion as a collector related to your artistic practice?

My artistic practice informs my passion as a collector. My knowledge and understanding of form, of aesthetic, assisted me in choosing the pieces in my collection. Over the years, collecting also challenged my idea of contemporary.

Many artists I know collect one thing or another. I think it is part of our practice. We always collect things that are interesting to us because it feeds into what we do.

Have you had to reconcile the contemporary art that you create and promote with the more traditional, decorative works that have long been associated with Vietnam?

I think there is room for both the decorative and conceptual art practices. Unfortunately, the decorative paintings from Vietnam (popular with tourists) have overshadowed everything else.

Myself and other artists involved in San Art are trying to change this misperception of Vietnamese contemporary art.

What is the place of contemporary art in Vietnamese society today?

Like everywhere in Asia and even in the West, contemporary art is always in the periphery of society and Vietnam is no exception. That is where it should be. There is more room in the periphery to experiment and to push the boundaries.

—Alexandra A. Seno is a writer based in Hong Kong


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