Visitors at the soon-to-come Singapore Biennale 2013 may stumble across a strange little man in the toilets of the event venues: Vu Hong Ninh’s Little Soap Boy (2009) looks like a child mimicking the posture of the Buddha Shakyamuni who declared his own greatness by pointing his fingers to the sky and to the ground, making himself the center of the world – only, our little soap boy is pointing his middle fingers, blatantly defying any claim of authority and unveiling the bigotry of present-day Buddhism.
This grotesque little putto invites the visitors to wash their hands using his body, combining both an Asian gesture well known to visitors of Buddhist temples and the occidental ritual of Pontius Pilate’s washing his hands off guilt.
The ambiguity and the boldness of the figure speaks for a sentiment that determines the lives of many Vietnamese: While the economic and political transformation of the past two decades have cumulated in a considerable growth of wealth, social and moral structures are becoming increasingly unstable. The fundamental disorientation about the own stance within a changing world brings about a collective anxiety that also marks the works of most Vietnamese artists present at Singapore Biennale.
Tran Luong, most of the curators in Vietnam are actually artists. Why did you turn into curating?
Traditionally, modern art did not have a strong stance in Vietnam. Inefficient public cultural management and the lacking recognition of the people challenged the development of a real art scene in the country. In the 1980s, when I graduated, there were only very limited opportunities to exhibit and so my friends and I would start to show our works in our apartments and in various alternative spaces. In 1998 then, Nguyen Manh Duc and I founded Nha San Studio in order to create a stable structure for contemporary art to grow. Since there was no curatorial structure, most artists had to curate themselves – and so my development was a solution to the constraints we had to face.
Do the economic and political restrictions in Vietnam impede the development of contemporary art? And do the artists present at Singapore Biennale represent the thrust of the local art scene?
In fact, Vietnamese avant-garde art has grown considerably during the past two decades. Given the circumstances of a very conservative understanding of arts in the Vietnamese society, the practice of censorship and the structural constraints, this is quite a remarkable phenomenon. While in many other countries art is rather a product of prosperity and freedom, Vietnamese art is a social reaction to and an escape from the given limitations. It is a form of revealing the anxiety on the future and the need to reflect and improve the social conditions in the country expressed through versatile media. Disorientation in a world of disrupting values, conflicts with the past, the definition of the own identity within a changing world, and prospectuses of an uncertain future are major themes addressed to by the artists present at the Biennale. Nguyen Huy An’s The Great Puddle (2009) depicts the shadow of a communist bureaucrat’s table. While the body is gone, the abyss of dark ink still spreads a pungent scent. Tran Tuan’s Forefingers (2013), as well, provoke a dialogue with the past. While the couches give comfort now, their shape of an index finger is reminder to the past. During the Vietnam war, anti-war activists cut off their index finger to evade war conscription. After the war, however, the missing finger became a stigma in the post-war society. Into the Sea (2011) by Le Brothers, chosen by Singapore Art Museum’s senior curator Khairuddin Hori, tells the story of two individuals in the context of historical conflicts while Nguyen Hoai Tho reflects on her role as a woman and mother within a patriarchal society. Her The Loofah Trellis (2011), exhibitied at the Hanoi Goethe-Institut prior to this, experienced a little odyssey in Singapore: It was first supposed to be presented on the façade of Singapore Management University (SMU), but as the work in breast shapes were considered to be too provocative, they were shifted to the courtyard of SAM and eventually ended up on a terrace a little off the main sight.
This story almost sounds like the story of a woman being pushed aside in society.
Unexpectedly, Loofah Trellis’ story reads very similar to our national epos Tale of Kieu written by Nguyen Du. Like the heroine Kieu, Loofah Trellis fleas a restricted environment, but experiences yet the same constraints in the foreign. In that sense, the work is not only the artist’s reflection on herself within this world, but actually becomes a subject living through human experiences. Thus, Vietnamese art is not only a social reaction, but has an actual potential to create a dialectics of self-reflection and critical discourse.
Tran Luong (*1960) is a Hanoi-based artist/curator and Vietnamese co-curator at Singapore Biennale 2013. After graduating from the Hanoi University of Fine Arts he founded the Gang of Five and later participated in many Group and Solo Exhibitions, most recently “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and South East Asia” at the New York Guggenheim Museum. Tran has played a leading role in promoting Vietnamese contemporary art in Vietnam and in the world.