A Stir in the Ranks

ASIAN ART NEWS 1997

By Bradford Edwards

Nguyen Van Cuong and his work

Artists in Vietnam are beginning to respond to growing social and artistic change in the country with fresh ideas and new voices.

As Vietnamese contemporary art continues to respond to doi moi (renovation), the clear influence of fundamental changes can be seen in recent artworks. Certainly market forces – such as foreign art collectors and museums’ heightened interest in Vietnamese contemporary art – have influenced much of the art that is being produced. Recently, though, some artists have been risking the safety of “artistic beauty” for art which raises question. An example of this can be seen in three recent Hanoi Fine art school graduates: Nguyen Van Cuong, Nguyen Minh Thanh, and Nguyen Quang Huy. They are restless, talented, and not afraid to experiment.

They are part of the new generation of young Vietnam artists who are curious about more modern ways of expressing themselves. During the past year, Hanoi has witnessed the introduction of both installation and performance art. While these methods have been familiar to Western audiences for many years, they are radical indeed in Vietnam, which was essentially sealed off from Western influence from 1975 to 1986. This is not to suggest that they have abandoned traditional technique or materials. These artists often wed more topical, current ideas with methods such as painting on rice paper or lacquer, which are the two dominant materials of traditional Vietnamese art. ” A big question for us in how to define what is traditional art – we are constantly asking our selves that question. It shifts and changes for us as Vietnam as a county changes,” says Nguyen Minh Thanh.

Tracing these artists’ paths is a way to better understand the art that they are making in the Vietnam of 1997. Coincidentally all there of them grew up outside the city of Hanoi. Huy and Thanh’s fathers were farmers while Cuong’s father was a local official in his province. Each of them had to complete three-year preparation course which begun at the age of 18 before entering the five-year course at Hanoi Fine Arts School. They seem to have adjusted to urban life and want to remain in Hanoi. ” While I enjoy living in Hanoi and now need what the city has to offer I still miss the countryside. I return to my family home as often as possible to stay connected to my roots,” says Huy.

Nguyen Minh Thanh and his work

In any country, what student experience at art school has tremendous impact. Yet in Vietnam going to art school has perhaps more significance . The role of the artist in Vietnam is widely respected and recognized as vital in defining the national character. Visual art appears to have more influence and power in Vietnam in comparison to most Western countries. In the West it may be applauded to leave art school and it is certainly accepted. But to chose to be an artist in Vietnam is a serious decision. Leaving art school before completing the degree is tantamount to social suicide. “The pressure to stay at art school is great. What is frustrating and painful is the desire to make my family proud and which makes me stay in school. It is difficult to gain entrance and I don’t feel I can reject the privilege,” says Cuong. Visual artists outside the art school system (there are three art school in Vietnam: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh city, and Hue) are often dismissed and not given much credence by fellow artists, curators, and galleries.

Also contrasting sharply with most Western art schools is the rigid structure of the traditional French Academy-style curriculum of Vietnamese art schools. In virtually all the courses it is mandatory to display traditionally accepted technique and content, but it can take its toll on a student. “Around the second or third year, I became very weary of having to do realistic figures or landscapes. To do different images was not allowed,” says Thanh. ” There is little encouragement to be individually creative. It sometimes feels like we are all learning to fulfill the same job. At the same time we are grateful to be able to use the materials and resources at school. Our experience at art school has formed us. The positive and equally the negative parts of our training have led us to the point where we are now.” Cuong and Huy also say that they were often bored by the third year in art school.

The struggle between the liberal and conservative faculty at the art school is an influential factor. It can be said that the Hanoi Fine Arts School is clearly conservative in tone. Still, credit must be given to the administration’s willingness to bring in contemporary Western art information, in addition to visiting teachers and exhibitions. In many ways the Vietnam art world mirrors the present condition in the country: the struggle between opening up to foreign contributors and the effort to keep Western “social evils” in check; the enthusiasm for new Western technology and techniques contrasting with the strong desire to maintain traditional customs and methods; and the general suspicious caution when dealing with the West.

But where are these artists now, given their experience within the systems? Thanh recently mounted an installation at the government sponsored gallery, 29 Hang Bai Exhibition House. The theme of this new work was identity, specifically his own identity in society. He hung banners in a variation on the Chinese scroll from which showed a consistent iconography. They contained familiar Vietnamese decorative elements and featured heads experiencing various mutations and enclosures. It was a simple and elegant piece.

During the exhibition period a performance piece was seen by a select few. In a rare collaboration between student and teacher, Truong Tan, a very influential and controversial artist who teaches in Hanoi, and Cuong performed a modern ritual. Cuong, in traditional dress and cone hat, covered Tan in red paint with a long mop brush while Tan was curled in a fetal position making very slow minimal movements. In a striking ten-minute performance the complexity of the mother/child relationship was explored.

Thanh has painted a series of beautifully rendered self-portraits on rice paper evoking a muscular yet whimsical Surrealist attitude. Using eggs as a repeating motif for the body, this recent work in reminiscent of Italian artists Francesco Clemente. Deftly using charm and delicacy, while asserting a definite statement, the paintings say: Here I am, but can you find the real me? “I am interested in exploring the many faces that I have within myself, the way identity relates to animal or objects around me. The eggs and my head seemed to be a natural paring,” says Thanh .

Cuong’s work betrays a fascination with social elements of Vietnam. He paints on rice paper fashioning a field of symbols. In some of the works there is text both in Vietnamese and English accompanied by symbols; the result is a visual essay. Cuong uses pictograms of consumer products, tools, multiples, of figures and geometric shapes to orchestrate a dense pattern of information. His palette is restrained( primarily black, gray brown, and red) and his recent work contains a certain anxiety and sense of being overwhelmed.

Being on edge seems like the place where Cuong is most comfortable. His shifting moods are a source of power in his work but, at the same time, the element of humor pervades his painting. His role is of the satirist and his keen eye for social context is what defines much of his subject matter. The work of Huy is the most mysterious of the three. He puts together large shapes with figures which suggest both humans and animals. They have a volume and density resembling sculpture. He blends reds and blacks striving for simplicity while adding indecipherable script around the shapes. In a conceptual manner he says, ” I am writing words but I am content that only I can understand their actual meaning.”

Huy’s manner is quiet. Underneath the polite and accommodating surface is a bubbling, enigmatic character. His paintings present blocks of color and biomorphic forms struggling to find an equilibrium. This is an instance where simplicity camouflages a depth that both seduces and unsettles the viewer.

It is said that the challenges and the difficulties of the human experience have resulted in the most meaningful art. Comfort does not stir the imagination. Perhaps hardships such as coping with a narrow-minded art school, severely limited financial support, and the scarcity of space (the three of them share a small studio) have pushed them to find their own voices. The tendency in Vietnam is to find one’s own identity in the group so it is difficult to find acceptance if one is different. It is not an east decision to go out into the Vietnamese world and insist on taking an individual path. This is not an angry rebellious line that the artists are drawing. Rather, it is the line that is focused, quiet but uncompromisingly personal.

In some cases the most intriguing element of artwork is what is “behind” the work itself. Without a doubt, the work of these three young artists looks very different from that of mainstream of Vietnamese contemporary art. It is their world view and their commitment to push boundaries which separates them from the majority exhibition today. Far form wanting to mimic the West, they are actively searching for ways to reflect a Vietnam beating with dynamic change.

Bradford Edwards is an American artist who works in Vietnam.

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