Viet Art at a Turning Point

The Straits Times Singapore, January 2007
Arts Correspondent
By Clara Chow

Dao Hai Phong - fishing season oil on canvas

After the false start of the 1990s,Vietnam’s art is poised to take on a higher profile, despite rampant fakes and copying.

Soon after Karen Ong moved to Hanoi on a job posting in 2003,she was lured by a landcape with a blood red sky.

It was a US$1,200 painting title Ky Niem(Vietnamese for memory),by well-known Vietnamese artist Dao Hai Phong. She had spotted it in a little gallery wile wandering around Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Struck by its evocativeness,she had to buy it. Ms Ong, 30, a Singapore civil servant who returned home last year,recalls:”In the middle of the painting,there is a lone house under a big, blooming tree.It made me think of home, my past and everything I left behind to start a new chapter in my life in Vietnam”. In a way, the Vietnamese art scene itself is also poised on the brink of a new chapter. Once touted as the next big thing in the 1990s, it has been keeping a lower profile in recent years.

At the peak of the vogue for Vietnam, you could barely duck into a gallery here without seeing works by Vietnamese artists and their distinctive ink and gouache or lacquer works.

One reason for the popularity of Vietnamese art when it emerged was the fact that many artists were highly skilled in techniques and influences left behind by the French colonists.

In 2003, a bumper crop of Vietnamese modern masterpieces were auctioned off at Sotheby’s here to record prices.Among them,Le Pho’s (1907-2002) painting Mother And Child sold for $283,200.
Since then, the hype has died down somewhat.
Eclipsed by the fantastic boom of the Chinese and Indian contemporary art markets, Vietnamese art prices have increased at a relatively slower pace.
Mr Mok Kim Chuan, Sotheby’s specialist in charge of South-east Asian painting here, says that – allowing for huge variations depending on artists, styles, media and sizes _ many contemporary Vietnamese art pieces fetch between US$5,000 (S$7,686) and US$12,000 on the block these days. This compares with the hundreds of thousands of dollars which paintings by comparable Chinese and Indian artists fetch.

Mr Jasdeep Sandhu, owner of Gajah Gallery in Hill Street, says prices for the Vietnamese artworks he deals in hover around the US$5,000 mark.He became interested in the country’s art 10 years ago,and still makes monthly trips there to “drink wine with my artists”.

But the Vietnamese art market hasn’t moved much in the last few years. Gallery owners and art observers Life! Spoke to agree that the lack of a proper arts infrastructure,such as a lack of good patrons of Vietnamese art and lack of government support for artists, is largely to blame. Also, certain cliches of Vietnamese art – the delicate, elongated women in Ao Dai and conical hats; breezy landscapes and exotic street scenes – have become so ubiquitous and popular with tourists and collectors that artists are loath to change a formula that works. Unfortunately, it has also contributed to the sense of déjà vu that now clings to many of the commercial galleries’ offerings.

Mr Sandhu puts it bluntly: “Younger artists are painting works similar to senior ones. They look like carbon copies, for about US$1,500. But you’re basically buying an artist who is very much influenced by another artist’s style. “It’s just a cheap way to cover space on the wall.The artistic culture is absent from these types of work.”

The matter is complicated by Vietnam’s in famous “cope houses”, where masterpieces by local and foreign artists alike can be duplicated. So rampant are these paintbrush-wielding copy-right-infringers that The New York Times’ South-east Asian correspondent, Seth Mydans, wrote on Sept 9,2001,about the cottage industry of fake Van Goghs, Picassos and monets.
“It is possible, depending on the skill of the copier,to find a Mona Lisa looking as if she had just been tickled,”he observed wryly, adding that actual galleries were struggling to differentiate themselves.

Dr Eugene Tan, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Singapore, and a co-curator of the Singapore Biennale, feels that collectors are realising that Vietnamese art had stopped engaging with international discussions and ideas.
He says: “It had become a market largely fuelled by tourists, and not by serious collectors. Censorship has certainly played a part in this, as Vietnamese artists stil face heavy censorship.”
He gives the examply of the Saigon Open City exhibition an art biennale-like event, which was due to open last month, but has yet to be granted a permit.

Pretty women and graffiti
NEVERTHELESS, the climate surrounding Vietnamese art remains a vibrant, hopeful and exciting one.
This week, Sotheby’s Mr Mok visited Vietnam to soure for new artists to champion. Coincidentally, Ms Jazz Chong, owner of Ode To Art gallery in raffles City Shopping Centre, was travelling separately on the same flight with the same purpose. Ms Tran Thi Anh Vu, owner of Particular Art gallery in Vietnam’s capital Ho chi Minh City, says she sells between 10 and 15 artworks a month, mainly to Europeans, Americans,Hong Kongers and Singaporeans.

Ask her about young affordable Vietnamese artists in the market and she cites names like Hanoi’s Hoang Hai Anh, Tran Viet Phu,Doan Hoang Lam, and Ho Chi Minh’s Limkhim Katy. All of them are in the 30 to 35 age bracket and paint expressive oil works, priced in the region of US$1,000.
She adds that many artists branch out into installation, performane and graffiti, while focusing on social issues like Aids infection in their work.
“It is not completely true that it is all pretty women and landscapes,” she says. Vietnam’s experimental artists include Nguyen Minh Phuoc, who is fast gaining international notice for his works.
These include an art performance in which he bound himself in red cord and stood among packs of paper currency for the dead. In another performance,he collaborated with impoverished street porters,who sat in a circle and wrote their dreams and aspirations on the back of the person in front.
Nguyen, 34, tells Life! That his brand of experimental, spontaneous art is not easily accepted in conservative Vietnam. He also laments the lack of government support and institutional training for artists who choose to strike out away from the established, acade-my-taught styles.

In 2004, he co-funded and set up a non-profit gallery, Ryllega, with fellow artist Vu Huu Thuy, to nurture young artists and link them to the international art community.
So far, the gallery has produced art books, set up exchange programmes and residencies, and even provided English training for its artists.
In short, it is helping to establish the kind of infrastructure needed to put the country’s art back into the spotlight.
Does this mean that Vietnamese art might soon fullill its early promise? He says: “After much endeavour by the artist community and our collective responsibility, we now have some light.”

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