Report – Art | Disrupted Histories: Young Artists in Vietnam

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Published: sleek magazine

Almost three decades have passed since the 1986 Doi Moi reforms unleashed a formerly isolated Vietnam onto the global market. While the economic demands of capitalism have taken over, the old cadres kept the outdated one-party socialist system marked by nepotism and corruption going, creating a state of suspended animation. The first generation born and raised into this state of systemic confusion has become young adults, channeling this anxiety in their lives and work. A subculture within this perpetually changing society, young Vietnamese artists are reflecting this disorientation like none other: raised in an environment of outdated education and infrastructure, the artists find themselves trying to find an own identity among people who barely understand the abstraction of contemporary conceptual art. As with Nguyen Tran Nam’s artwork “We Never Fell” (2010), a group of sculptures that oscillate upon impact, young artists are uncertain and uneasy about the now and the tomorrow.

Nam is part of Nha San Collective, Hanoi’s most active young artist collective, established in 2013 after its predecessor Nha San Studio, the first independent artist-run art space and education initiative in Vietnam, had to close because of governmental censorship. Seeking to establish a new platform for artistic exchange, the collective moved into Zone 9, a former pharmaceutical factory that was Hanoi’s largest independent cultural project with more than 60 spaces sheltering artists, designers, architects, bars and other creative organizations.

At the space, Nguyen Anh Tuan Mami, another member of the collective, took down a wall and planted cactuses on it (“Physicality” (2013)). The acrid chemical smell from the former pharmaceutical productions resurfaces when it rains, alluding to the repurposing of the factory. The cactuses growing from the mortar of the past are symbol of the increasing deterioration of humanist values in face of growing capitalist materialism of the market opening.

Zone 9 had to close in spring 2014 and to date, it is unclear whether the closure was due to economic or political reasons, illustrating the insignificance of individual creative activities such as contemporary art and design: “As a young artist, it is like I’m living in an environment that is perfectly normal, but somehow I feel alien and there is a lot of ambiguity around,” says Phan Thao Nguyen, an artist affiliated to Ho Chi Minh City’s artist-run initiative San Art, the most active independent art space and library in the country that has gained international recognition with a comprehensive art education and residency programme.

This ambiguity is rooted in a pathological relationship between Vietnam’s history of war and repression that, even today, remains firmly in people’s consciousness. Phan Thao Nguyen’s work consists of the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated elements that form a single narrative. “Uproot Rice, Grow Jute” (2013, ongoing) is an installation consisting of the paintings “30 Days of Looking Down,” and the works “Untitled (Heads)” and “Jute,” relating to the suffering experienced during the Japanese occupation of Indochina during World War II. Japanese soldiers forced farmers to grow jute to supply the Japanese military instead of food crops, and this era of Vietnam’s history still affects the land and the inhabitants today. “I am fascinated by the idea of fictionalizing and fabricating history in my work,” she says.

The fabrication of facts during the Colonial and the Socialist periods to create a narrative adjusted to political agendas of the time, and the uncertainty of today’s unstable economic and political situation marks the younger artists: “We are like a generation of undefined fragments paying back the debts of the past. Because of that, my perspective, and that of my generation will always be the perspective of someone who is going around to borrow, the view of an individual in the pursuit of the truth and understanding, but can only stand outside in the shadow of that ghost. What is it? How does it look like? These are the challenges of practicing and perceiving its nature,“ Truong Cong Tung, another San Art affiliated artist says.

This state of uncertainty attracts increasing interest from overseas – an opportunity, but also a burden for these young artists: “The way the West looks at us seems to follow predetermined notions of ‘political’ art. They want to see something bound to the nation, the doctrine you’re living in. There is newness in what comes from Vietnam; the deficiency in our development and education is our foundation, our chance to exploit and acknowledge,” Tung says, “right now, Vietnamese artists have a great chance to get to international art, and that is the fortunate aspect of living within this state of change.“

The potential for Vietnamese artists does not come only abroad, from Europe, the US and countries like Korea and Japan where Vietnamese artists are increasingly present at museum exhibitions and Biennales. In the country itself, artist initiatives such as San Art and Nha San, and an increasingly artistically literate youth, often educated abroad, raise hope for a rise of contemporary Vietnamese artists. In such unsettled conditions, they are standing out as a herald of a new rising of individualism that grows out of an undefined status quo.