Change is taking hold in the Vietnam art scene.
In a small but growing number of galleries, Vietnamese artists are turning away from the 1990s rise of the copy shop, where graduate students cloned the masters with great skill but little passion or originality. The new breed is exploring genuine self-expression and experimenting with media long considered heretical — video and plastics, performance and installation art, and more.
Like all art communities, the Vietnamese art world exists in a state of perpetual flux. But the changes occurring in Vietnam, where the government suppressed individual freedoms for so long, marks more a coming of age than it does a mere shift from one style to another.
Remember, nothing existed before 1986, when the Vietnamese government called for Doi Moi, a economic policy of “renovation” modeled after perestroika in Russia. While Doi Moi didn’t expressly address political liberties, it did usher in a new era of personal freedoms that did not exist previously.
Yet even a decade after Doi Moi, there still were few venues or exhibitions dedicated to showing freshly made contemporary art.
Now two decades on, in the summer of 2008, change is finally taking root, with a growing number of serious galleries and a few crucial national cultural exhibition spaces making a concerted effort to showcase artwork being made in Vietnam.
Foreign influences cannot be denied, as seen in the variety of people promoting contemporary art both within and outside Vietnam.
Art emissaries like Suzanne Lecht (USA) of Art Vietnam, Quynh Pham (USA) of Galerie Quynh, Veronica Radulovich (Germany) formerly of the Hanoi Fine Arts School, Natasha Kraevskaia (Russia) of Salon Natasha, and David Thomas (USA) of Indochina Arts Partnership have been powerful voices over the years.
They remain an important force of change by encouraging the development of the art community through teaching, sponsoring workshops, bringing in visiting foreign artists, and mounting exhibitions of Vietnamese art both in-country and abroad.
There is no such thing as a sealed and unified national art culture. Every country’s art scene has been directly influenced by the world that surrounds it, and this has never been truer than right now.
In Vietnam’s case, from the food to the language to the architecture, there is ample evidence of the historic influences of France and China on Vietnam’s present cultural landscape.
Every year the number of foreign tourists increases dramatically, and Vietnam is arguably more globally savvy now than ever before. Vietnam’s art world has been directly impacted by this dynamism.
After the domination of post-Impressionistic oil painting, colorful gouache on paper and semi-traditional lacquerware in the 1990s, the physical form of contemporary art has diversified tremendously.
In 21st century Vietnam, like everywhere else, anything goes. And the art community today is growing in confidence with its ability to probe traditional boundaries.
There is the smart faux-naive work of Vu Dan Tan and the radically powerful lacquer of Le Hong Thai; the loaded, elegant performances of Troung Tan and the layered, frenetic paintings of Hoang Duong Cam; and the experimental sounds of conceptualist Nguyen Manh Hung.
It is almost difficult to remember that this was all verboten heresy in Vietnam during the 1990s, when the emphasis was on a small number of familiar and traditional materials like oil, gouache, lacquer, silk, plaster, wood, and bronze.
While there has been an explosion of performance, installation and video art and art that uses atypical materials, the more time-honored conventional art forms are certainly thriving as well.
Check out the sumptuous oil paintings of Dinh Y Nhi; the expertly carved incisive woodcut prints of Le Quoc Viet; the soulfully intelligent canvases of Nguyen Trung; the rich, startling, large paper scrolls of Nguyen Minh Thanh; and the deeply confident paintings of Tran Van Thao.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
The one surprise in Vietnam’s contemporary art world has been the dearth of younger talent entering the pool, with the artists mentioned above ranging in age from their early 30s to their late 60s.