Art Communities in Hanoi

BORETH LY[1] However, I think Taylor is one of the few scholars of Southeast Asian art who effectively applies this anthropological approach to looking at and writing about modern and contemporary art of Vietnam. [2] Taylor’s book is structured chronologically, and each chapter is devoted to an art-historical case study that addresses significant and current issues such as Orientalists/Occidentalists, arts and political revolution, gender, sexuality, and globalism. Moreover, each chapter is packed with new information detailing artists’ lives and tensions in political ideologies embedded in modern Vietnamese paintings and drawings. She moves beyond the biographical and formalist content of the art in question, however, to provide nuanced discussion of the production and subsequent circulation of these works, both in the Vietnamese art world and the global marketplace. A case in point is her in-depth discussion of the Western assumption that there are no women artists in Vietnam. Taylor argues that there are practicing women artists in Vietnam but their social status and identities can only be understood in the context of Vietnamese notions of gender relations and domestic responsibilities. [3]Furthermore, Taylor also includes a much-needed discussion of an openly gay artist, Truong Tan, whose paintings depict many erotic nude male figures fondling each other. Tan’s paintings have attracted the attention of Western art collectors, but sadly, this openly gay artist’s fame was short-lived because the communities of painters in Vietnam dismissed him and the subject matter (i.e., homosexual sex scenes) as not being Vietnamese: e.g., “his work is not Vietnamese” and “he is not Vietnamese.” Subsequently Tan was ostracized and is now living in exile in Paris. [4] In brief, Taylor’s book is a major contribution to the field of Southeast Asian art on many different levels and greatly advances scholarship on a too-long overlooked period of Vietnamese art.

Modern arts of Asia, and in this case, of Southeast Asia, are frequently considered to be derivative—and thus inferior to—European modernism. In addition, a number of scholars of Southeast Asian art have often dismissed modern Southeast Asian art as inauthentic. Taylor challenges these colonialist views. As suggested by the title of her book, Taylor has chosen an anthropological approach to the study of modern and contemporary Vietnamese art, grounded in the ethnographic observations that she collected during the three years she spent in Vietnam. She provides a sound justification for taking this particular approach:

I had to take an ethnographic approach rather than following a conventional art historical model in the classical sense. This was both for practical and methodological reasons. The practical reasons are straightforward: Vietnamese art history records are rare, thus it is much easier to interview living artists than to consult written documents. . . . This situation—that is, the lack of cohesive historical sources—creates an interesting set of circumstances and poses problems intrinsic to the study of art. And this is why an ethnographic approach is useful. Rather than trying to reconstruct a history [of art] where historical data is scarce, this book studies the context in which art history is developing in Vietnam based on collective memories and on texts that are recalled and rewritten, spoken, or produced in other ways that stray from the Western art history model. [5]

The publication of Taylor’s book does not simply fill in the gap in Southeast Asian art historical writing; it is also a book that raises many interesting questions. The most interesting aspect of Taylor’s book is her desire to capture and to analyze the contradictions inherent in the Vietnamese art world and the communities of painters in Hanoi. Thus rather than presenting us with yet another grand narrative of the history of modern and contemporary Vietnamese paintings, she has chosen a more inclusive approach that is solidly grounded in ethnography. The result is a multi-vocal text, punctuated by Taylor’s self-reflection about the process of her study and the compromises that she made. The dialogue between the artists and Taylor shatters any assumptions about Vietnamese art that are based on models of analysis taken from Western art history. In particular, Taylor challenges the assumptions of Western art by pointing out the different definition and conceptualization of an “art world”:

In global terms artists in Vietnam are part of a community that can be defined as an “art world,” though not quite the art world as it is known in New York and Paris. The art world of Hanoi is a real community as opposed to the imaginary community to which artists in the West feel they themselves belong. By real community, I mean that most of the artists actually know one another and are members of the artists’ union that was created in 1957 as one of the cultural organizations managed by the Ministry of Culture and the Fatherland Front of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. [6]

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