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Roslyn Bernstein: Between Underground and Above

April 23, 2014

After a burst of Western interest in the mid-90s, and amid a complex system of government censorship, Vietnam’s contemporary art scene comes into its own.


Photos courtesy Roslyn Bernstein

By Roslyn Bernstein

There is nothing subtle about the wall color in the Agent Orange Room at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): black-and-white photos of war atrocities by American soldiers scream at the viewers against a background of iridescent orange paint. Bodies with withered arms and legs. Faces with partial noses. Skin with holes.

Interspersed with the images, the wall text is equally pointed: a chart, by districts, of areas sprayed with defoliants, and a March 1965 quote from Professor J. Bernal, chairman of the World Peace Council, protesting the use of napalm and toxic gas against the South Vietnam population; “The peoples of the world note with repugnance the U.S. Government’s violation of all principles of international law.” Ten years later, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell.

I was reminded of that historical moment when I visited the museum, on a detour from my planned itinerary, a north-to-south journey to look at how contemporary art is faring in The Socialist Republic of Vietnam where the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is the ruling political party.

The work was rejected because it made Hanoi look dirty and poor.

The Trailblazer

First stop on the 1,100 mile trek southward was a talk with Suzanne Lecht, dubbed Hanoi’s “original art dealer.” Lecht’s Art Vietnam Gallery, presently in its third location, is now based in her home in south Hanoi, a typical two-story White Thai house on stilts that she brought down from the mountain village of Mai Chau and set on a new one and one-half story base. It took 11 villagers months to dismantle and reconstruct the 100-year old building. Found by an artist friend, the house appealed to her because she liked the idea of living in a unique fashion in the city.

Established in 2002 in an historic Hanoi-style tube house, which is very narrow and deep, in the Old Quarter at 30 Hang Than, Art Vietnam gallery moved to a second space at 7 Nguyen Khac Nhu in 2007. The decision to close it down after four years and move it to a home gallery/salon at 2 Ngo 66, Pho Yen Lac, a vertical space that involves walking up and down intricate stairways, was only partially related to rent increases. The real culprit, said Lecht, was the roller coaster effect, the up-and-down of the Vietnam art market since the big rush of interest in the years 1993-1997.

In 1993, Vietnam was just beginning to open to the outside world. Plum Blossoms Gallery first exhibited works of the Gang of Five in Hong Kong and then Galerie La Vong was established in Hong Kong exclusively for Vietnamese art. The Gang of Five
(Dang Xuan Hoa, Ha Tri Hieu, Hong Viet Dung, Tran Luong, Pham Quang Vinh) and others rose to prominence at that time.

“By 1996-7, young investment bankers and tourists were flocking to Hanoi to capitalize on the availability of quality artwork at very reasonable prices,” Lecht said. “A fusion of East and West, Vietnamese art was easily accessible to foreigners with its influence of French and European masters.” Lecht did her first exhibition, The Changing Face of Hanoi in Hong Kong in 1997.

At that time, Vietnam was considered one of the most promising “tigers” of Southeast Asia so there was a lot of speculation and interest in the country. But the economic crisis in Thailand in 1998 brought an end to these years of rapid growth and prosperity and the “art fever” was diminished as well. The next period, from 1998 until 2002, was a rather sobering time as the economy and the art market recovered, falling again during the global economic crisis of 2008.

The Vietnam buzz in the art world was followed by the China buzz. “Now Chinese art is crashing,” Lecht said, “because it is so overpriced. What is replacing it? People are looking at the Middle East, at Afghanistan, and all these marginal countries. Vietnam is much more a marginal country in eyes of the Americans.” Also playing a big role today are art fairs and biennales. Asia is a big art market. There were 11 Vietnamese artists at the recent Singapore Biennale. Although Lecht has now brought her gallery home, she hopes to reopen in town and dreams of setting up a contemporary arts museum since there is none in Vietnam.

Lecht has deep roots in the region. Born in Montana, Lecht, who studied art history and interior design at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, worked as an interior designer in New York until 1983, when she and her husband left for Japan where they lived in the 1980s. When he died suddenly in 1992, she faced a personal crisis. One year later, with Asia and Japan in an economic crisis and with her work permit expiring, she felt pressure to relocate. After trying Beijing, Hong Kong, and Cheng Mai, she finally settled on Vietnam. “I thought I can try to do the dream,” she said. “Do something with people who have not been so fortunate. Be a bridge of reconciliation.”

Since the fine arts universities in Vietnam were regimented, Oanh chose instead to study the technique hands-on with local craftsmen.

When she arrived in January 1994, 20 years ago, her visa was only for one and one-half months and she had to leave the country regularly to renew it. There were no computers in Hanoi, no cell phones, and only three restaurants where foreigners would eat. “By 5:30 PM, everyone met in the bar of the iconic Metropole Hotel.

In the rear lobby of the Metropole hangs an oil painting by Joan Baez of a young monk on a bright orange background (2012), inspired by a black-and-white photograph of an unnamed young Vietnamese monk by Do Anh Tuan. Baez who was hunkered down in an air raid shelter beneath the hotel when she visited in 1972, painted the work in 2012 when she returned to Vietnam. In an inscription on the cover of Baez’s album, Where are you now, my son? (released in 1973) Baez wrote: “To the keepers of the memorial and the staff of the Metropole who took me down to safety in those days. Best regards to the current staff, the bartender. May peace last.”

As an outsider, Lecht had to move slowly and carefully. She was a woman and a Westerner who had to learn the art, the music, and the language. At the time, according to Lecht, there was no concept in Asia of artists being in a gallery. Through an acquaintance, she met Pham Quang Vinh, a member of The Gang of Five, a collective of male artists who graduated from Hanoi Fine Arts University in the early 1980s. They were among the first generation of artists who were no longer required to do only propaganda art, freeing them to create new forms which bridged traditional Vietnamese art with modernity.

By 2002, when she opened her first gallery, Lecht knew the drill. For every exhibition, she had to submit photos and any text to get a license from the Ministry of Culture and Information. She knew the buttons that would result in government censorship: “Anything with Ho’s image and anything that portrayed the country in a negative image.”

One artist made calendars out of numbers with incredible photos of poverty. The work was rejected because it made Hanoi look dirty and poor, and so could not be shown in the gallery.

Today, Lecht said, “there is a lot more freedom although censorship in public galleries still exists. “Artists here must validate and put down reasons for their work or else there will be a negative impact on their family. So, they often don’t apply on their own to show their work publicly.”

She works with 30 artists, including her senior artist, Nguyen Cam, ago 70, whose family moved north in the 1950s during the first Indochina War. After immigrating to Laos, Nguyen left his family and moved to Paris in 1969. Nguyen Cam’s 2007 show, “As Time Goes by,” included Wandering Souls I, 2006, a painting with heart beats represented by tea bags and leaves from Gingko trees, the oldest trees in nature. “When the atomic bomb dropped on Japan,” Lecht reminded me, “the Gingko tree was the first to re-emerge.”

Lecht’s roster of artists is impressive, a compelling collection that is both traditional and avant-garde. There’s Sebastien Laval’s (born in France, 1973) series of “very painterly” black-and-white photos of Hanoi from early in the morning to late at night, Nguyen Thi Trinh Le’s (born in Hanoi, 1969) delicate and poetic silk panel paintings of The Monks’ Daily Activities, 2008, Nguyen Manh Hung’s (born in Hanoi 1976) airplane paintings, including Drop Rice, 2007, Vu Kim Thu’s (born in Hanoi 1976), miniature boxes, and Le Thua Tien’s (born in Hue, 1964), sophisticated lacquer painting, Reflection VIII, 6.5 feet high by 3.2 feet wide from 2005-2006. “His work has no meaning until a viewer stands before it,” Lecht said. Hanging in a hallway in her house, instead of on a white gallery wall, the painting dominates the space, a black oval, shimmering on a dark ground.

Depending on whom you talk to, dealing with art censorship in Vietnam is an easy, not-so-easy, or downright difficult experience.

Since Vietnamese artists, unlike American artists, often show at more than one gallery, another airplane painting by Nguyen Manh Hung from 2009, in which the plane is dropping carrots, is simultaneously on view elsewhere in Hanoi at the Green Palm Gallery at 39 Hang Gai Street.

Redefining Tradition

Vietnamese-American artist Phi Phi Oanh is not affiliated with a gallery. Born in Houston, Texas in 1979, the second largest Vietnamese community in the world, Oanh first visited Vietnam in 2004 when she received a Fulbright to travel to Hanoi to research a traditional medium, working with lacquer painting. Although the French brought oil painting to Hanoi, the lifespan of oil paintings was short because the climate was extremely humid. Unlike oil paint, lacquer had distinct advantages: it dried quickly and its colors were shinier and brighter. After the French left in 1954, lacquer painting became important for Communist propaganda and for revolutionary art. Social Realism prevailed. Later, in the 1990s, with the introduction of the open economy, many lacquer paintings were modeled after modern oil paintings, especially Cubism, and lacquer artists became more experimental.

Oanh’s passion for lacquer is born of her conviction that it is a cultural and not just a painting medium. Since the fine arts universities in Vietnam were regimented, Oanh chose instead to study the technique hands-on with local craftsmen. Her first exhibit at the National Museum in Hanoi, just after the Fulbright year, was her Black Box series, 2005-2007, coffin like boxes where the lids were the paintings. The theme of the painted lids was changing Hanoi, with the seasons marked by the lunar cycle. One lid had a bunch of shoes at a door, another, an image of a banquet after the food was eaten. “They were seen as over-sized coffins,” Oanh said, “and yet they passed censorship.”

Depending on whom you talk to, dealing with art censorship in Vietnam is an easy, not-so-easy, or downright difficult experience. Some curators, who are experienced in handling cultural board reviews—with four or five members on a committee—say that they just submit paperwork and that they receive a stamp of approval in a week or so. Individual artists have a more uneven experience, although Oanh’s experience was positive and her exhibit was well accepted. Non-profits seem to come under more government scrutiny than private galleries. At times, several people noted, the only solution is to call a show an open studio, not an exhibition.

Oanh worked next on Palimpsest, an installation within a black box arena and slides shown on nine altered projectors, which was on view at L’Espace in Hanoi from April –May 2013 and Specula, a 21-foot long by 12-foot high passageway or archway, where she lacquered the entire interior which was up at the Hanoi City Exhibition Hall. Although lacquer works are traditionally on wood, Specula was made of fiberglass and epoxy.

Her lacquer technique consists of working with lacquer which is thick like molasses, mixing it with pigments, not only the traditional crimson, and layering it with gold and silver leaf to give it luminosity. To Oanh, the work is more like sculpture than painting, since the process involves drawing, layering, and then sanding. Currently in the Singapore Biennale 2013 (which closed February 20th), the Singapore Art Museum is considering buying the work which was on view in its Chapel Space. Despite her recent success in creating a different vocabulary for lacquer art, Oanh said that it “still bears the stigma of utilitarian art.”

A nomad, who lives half the year in Spain and the other half in Hanoi, Oanh has a cavernous studio, 2200 square feet space for only seven million Dongs or $350 a month rent, a deal that would make American artists jealous despite its being a seventh-floor walk-up. As she looks forward, Oanh plans on continuing her experimentation with lacquer, which she describes as “a new but ancient medium.”

Artists’ Platform

Unlike Oanh, who was born in America, the four founders of San Art at 3 Me Linh in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), an independent, artist-initiated, non-profit gallery space and reading room, were Viet Kieus, Vietnamese who were born in Vietnam but who studied overseas, returning from the 1990s onward, many with MFAs in hand, to discover that resources for artists were stagnant and that the art schools were outdated.

Their first initiative in 2007 was to create an art reading room, filled with catalogs and reference books. For the next two years, they collaborated with Zoe Butt, a curator who was then living in China. “Butt was fascinated by the number of artists here and struck by the fact that there was no potential for them to shine,” said Tra Nguyen, San’s Manager for Promotion and Development.

Within a year, Butt agreed to move to Vietnam and they created two galleries where they hung exhibitions. The upstairs space is for art works that are no longer in exhibition. “We like the public to view them,” Nguyen said, explaining that artists donate part of the selling value to San. The main floor gallery is a project space where San shows curated projects to promote the public’s experience with contemporary art.

“The situation here can best be described as between underground and above ground.”

Currently on view is Unconditional Belief (February 27 – April 25) by the art collective, Art Labor (Truong Cong Tung, Phan Thao Nguyen and Arlette Quynh Anh Tran), an exploration of the concept of belief in Vietnam through an examination of history and through visits to particular sites including the Magic Garden in Long An Province, a private garden open to the public that is believed to have healing powers. When they proposed the project, Butt worked closely with them. The result, according to Nguyen: “They were all happy and the budget for the show grew much higher than it has been for other exhibits.”

Determined to expand their role, San Art has now grown into a cultural organization. They bring in curators and artists to give talks, they engage the public, and they invite in people from all over Vietnam and from all over the world. Their newly created speaker series, Conscious Realties, 2013-2016, which has support from the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands, has as its primary goal promoting horizontal linkage between the cultures of people in the Southern Hemisphere. At the inaugural lecture, in August 2013, there were 600 people in the audience at the University of Social Sciences to hear Professor Ngo Bao Chau, a distinguished mathematician, now a professor at the University of Chicago. Confirmed future speakers include such luminaries as the poet Inrasara, art critic David Teh, multimedia artist Nalini Malani, sociologist Thanes Wongyannava, filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and social scientist Prasenjit Duara.

Tra Nguyen believes that the art scene in Ho Chi Mini City is growing because of organizations like San Art. “The government does not support contemporary art,” she said. “The fine art museum is stagnant and not much changes there.” Things are rather difficult with all of the bureaucracy. “But so much has changed. There are underground networks and talks. It’s not orchestrated.”

She leads me to a back office where Nouveau Riche (2011), a framed photograph by Phan Quang hangs. It is a picture of a man sitting on the hood of a car; both are covered by a large woven basket. The photo was one of nine works that were proposed for an exhibit and it was one of seven that did not receive approval. “The exhibit became famous because of the censorship,” Nguyen said. “The situation here can best be described as between underground and above ground,” she added.

Helping Young Artists

Do Thi Tuyet Mai’s gallery is currently open by appointment but she has not given up on her dream of helping young artists. She lost Ford Foundation funding several years back and now depends on local money to run her studio for emerging artists and for community projects.

An art lover and collector, Do visited an artist friend in Brooklyn in 2001. She returned to Ho Chi Minh City determined to “add value” to the life of young artists, who she said were very innocent and who, although having access to the Internet, struggled with reading English. Her solution was to invite in lecturers, writers, and artists, such as American Andy Davis, who was just there for a three-month residency. She also has created clubs for locals who are interested in creative projects, art history, and contemporary art.

Do’s personal experience with setting up Saigon Open Art City, an art festival, was extremely frustrating. They planned to open the festival in 2006-7 and raised half a million dollars. Yoko Ono even made a special work for the exhibit, a white flashlight with a black ring and black text printed on it: ONOCHORD HO CHI MINH CITY y.o. 2006. “But the government slowed us down. We were to be open for two months but we were only open for two weeks,” she said. The idea was to run the festival as a biennial but Do believes that this will now be impossible because they face serious competition from the Singapore Biennale. “All the money is going there,” she said. “An art fair will cost at least one million dollars and we just do not have that kind of money.”

Raising the Bar

Quynh Pham understands money. While 95 percent of the clients at her gallery, Galerie Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City, are international collectors, she has her eye on the growing affluence in the local community. “People buy $15,000 handbags here,” she said, “so why not art?”

In the main gallery, Pham showed Truong’s three (2013) oil-on-canvas portraits of heads of state with their Chinese zodiacal animals: Kim Jon Un as a dog, with dog ears; Barack Obama as an ox, his hair flying to the sides like horns.

Pham is an intelligent and driven young woman, who was profoundly affected by her trying life experience fleeing Vietnam in 1975. She left Danang with her mother and five siblings for Phan Rang (Ninh Thuan Province) to join her aunt and grandmother. Later, they made their way down the coast to Saigon. One week before the fall of Saigon, they took a bus to Vung Tau, walked to the shore and headed out to sea. “We were rescued by a US navy ship,” Pham said. After stints in refugee camps in Guam, and Wake Island, they settled into Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. Her mother worked in a factory and Pham’s personal escape from her drab life was to get lost in museums. She studied art history at UC San Diego and had an internship at the Smithsonian in DC where she studied Indian art.

In 1997, Pham sold her car to buy an airline ticket and she returned to Vietnam, where she built her gallery from the ground up. She runs the De Tham Street gallery like an art center and is so successful that last year she opened a second gallery downtown, near the Opera House. “The De Tham Street location was just too local for some collectors,” she said. Her downtown gallery, at Dong Khoi Street, is a slick space, up two flights, in an old building. Entering the space, however, requires walking through a kitschy art arcade. Still, Pham believes that “Downtown has cachet and that the new space will attract illusive customers.”

On view in both galleries through March was The Orient, The Occident, an exhibit of new paintings by Lien Truong, a Viet Kieu who was born in Saigon, and who received her MFA in painting at Mills College, in Oakland. Truong currently lives in California.

In the main gallery, Pham showed Truong’s three (2013) oil-on-canvas portraits of heads of state with their Chinese zodiacal animals, priced at $7,500: Kim Jon Un as a dog, with dog ears; Barack Obama as an ox, his hair flying to the sides like horns; and Angela Merkel as a horse, her hair a mane and her ears shaped like horse’s ears. In Truong’s larger works, we see human figures, animals, and mythical beasts in allegorical works set in Eastern landscapes. She is inspired by bonsai, dragons, snakes, birds, rhinoceroses, and unicorns. The largest of her paintings is on view in the Dong Khoi Street gallery where The Apple, 2013, an 8-foot by 6-foot oil-on-canvas can be best described as Adam and Eve with a dragon. Its selling price is $16,500. To celebrate its 10th Anniversary, Galerie Quynh opened Onward and Upward, a new exhibit in both galleries, running from March 28th-April 26th.

At this moment in time, Pham is happy. Her most famous female artist Tiffany Chung has developed a global reputation and, finally, after ten years of hard work, Pham is making inroads with collectors and museums. She now has the funding to do an art fair and she will soon, at the end of March or in early April, be opening Sao La, an initiative of Galerie Quynh in the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Museum. It will be a raw space for emerging artists who, she said, “need more platforms.” Pham will be giving these young artists money to produce work but her plan is to seek individual and corporate sponsors.

Pham is a woman of high energy and strong opinions. “Vietnamese art is not this ethno kitsch,” she said and “sales prices should fall in line with the trajectory of an artist’s CV.” She looked me straight in the face and added, “My gallery is not a shop. We work like a serious gallery in New York. It’s an uphill battle.”

***

Note: Vietnamese style is to list family names followed by given names; however, those Vietnamese who have lived abroad tend to use given names first. I have used the style which individuals prefer.

Roslyn Bernstein reports on arts and culture for such online publications as Tablet, Huffington Post, and Guernica. Bernstein is a professor of journalism at Baruch College, CUNY and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.

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One comment for Roslyn Bernstein: Between Underground and Above

  1. Comment by Myron Schwartzman on May 5, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Hey Roz, hey world art and culture writer/journalist: I am so proud to know you and to be your longtime Baruch colleague.
    Your writing is beautiful. And your reportorial style is both intelligent and elegant.

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