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Nghệ thuậtBàn tròn "Mĩ thuật đương đại Việt Nam đang ở đâu"
Mai Chi, Nora Taylor
Talawas round table "Contemporary Vietnamese art in the international context"
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Mai Chi:

I don't know if I am wrong when I say that most Vietnamese artists seem to be unpretentiously playing on a playground with its border well defined. It seems that they don't have the interest to venture into forbidden areas, touching taboos of the society, whatever nature (political, moral, social) these taboos are. This is suprising, as the thinking of the Vietnamese society has been under massive change for some times, and one may assume that these changes in ideology and social values should be the primary themes of contemporary art, as one can observe in countries in similar context.

In Cuba, many artists are very political in their work. They play cat-and-mouse with the state power and repeatedly try to challenge the political restrictions, trying to step one step over the allowed line. In China, with the traditional society starting to have cracks, and with the end of the socialist era where sexuality was erased, the body, relationship and sex have became major themes of the new generation. Many young female artists (born in the 1970s) have entered the forbidden territory and explored sexuality as one of the basic personal experience, a new awareness of life, and put sex into the relationship with tradition. One example is "Twelve Month Flowers" of Chen Lingyang: twelve times a year flowers blossom, twelve traditional Chinese mirrors with images of the sexual organ of a woman having her menstruation. In Cui Xiuwen's "Lady's Room", a hidden camera filmed the restroom of a brothel, the only place where prostitutes can have a short break and be themselves, before they continue to work. It is notably that a similar trend can be recognised in Chinese literature; the latest example is the novel "Shanghai Baby" of the 26-year, female writer Wei Hui, which expresses the feeling of the new young, urban generation.

Nothing of the kind has been happened in Vietnam. No rebel, no scandal. What can explain the disinterest of Vietnamese artists in their very own life? What can explain the fact that they are so "well-behaved", so "harmless"?


Nora Taylor:

Mai Chi has just asked the million dollar question (as they say in America.) I have heard countless people ask the same question. Why aren't Vietnamese artists more angry? Why aren't there any satiral comments about Uncle Ho? Why don't they paint about the violence during the war? Why aren't Vietnamese artists more like the Chinese? Asking this question raises some interesting points. For one, it assumes that art thrives in adversity or that the definition of art is something political or anti-government or that Vietnamese artists are lacking some essential characteristic about art in NOT being political. I would answer this question in several ways. For one, I wouldn't necessarily say that apolitical art is non-political (see my article in Hue Tam Ho Tai's book "The Country of Memory" for example). Vietnamese artists have their reasons for not addressing political issues in their art and maybe that is the character of Vietnamese art, to only paint what is benign and harmless. The other reason maybe that politics and art just didn't mix in Vietnam. For one, there was never a real campaign to make propaganda art the way there was in China or the Soviet Union. If you want to call a few posters honoring Ho Chi Minh's tree planting campaign political, fine. But Ho Chi Minh was never likened to a mythical hero or given great power in art the way that Mao or Stalin was. So maybe Vietnamese artists just never took politics seriously and therefore there was never anything to rebel against. For another, the years of war and poverty zapped the artists of any sense of power so when money came around, artists were all too happy to paint pretty pictures rather than go on some sort of campaign against the government. Some people may argue that artists are still "afraid" of the repercussions of incorporating political subjects in their art. Although nobody has really tested this issue. Truong Tan had a show pulled down but he was never "punished." And an artist named Quan once staged a performance in Van Mieu in 2000 and waited to see how long it would take the authorities to come and arrest him. He said he waited THREE days! His comment was that the police don't know or care about art anyway so what is there to speak about. A book by Duong Thu Huong would last 4 minutes on the shelf, but an artist trying to do something illegal gets no attention. This raises the issue of audience. A successful political act requires the government to react otherwise there is no point of being "taboo" or "forbidden." If the authorities in Vietnam don't care, why bother. So, my opinion is that we can't say that artists in Vietnam are not political. After all it is a matter of interpretation. Nguyen Van Cuong, Truong Tan, Dang Thi Khue, Vu Dan Tan, Tran Trong Vu, Bui Hoai Mai, Tran Luong, Nguyen Trung, these are all artists who make art as an act of defiance without resorting to political cliches. Nguyen Trung made abstract art at a time when it was taboo. Cuong makes comments on contemporary society. Khue made an installation in Hue at sites that were bombed during the war. Tan brought a Cadillac to Hanoi, Mai and Luong refuse to sell their work in galleries, Vu makes paintings about censorship. All these are ways to "speak" about what is unspeakable in society. Whether artists are really "free" to speak their mind is debatable, and if NOT painting forbidden subjects in art is considered "fear" of repression is also debatable. Perhaps artists have other things in mind.


© 2003 talawas