Jennifer Gampell
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December 2007/January 2008

 

ART SCENE
BRUSH WITH REALITY

While commercial galleries flourish in Vietnam's capital, trailblazing art is still struggling to find a place
By Jennifer Gampell

One's first impression of Hanoi-besides the panic-inducing torrent of motorcycles-is likely to be that of an artistic hotbed. Dotted along the tangle of narrow streets radiating from Hoan Kiem Lake are any number of renovated shophouse galleries with large plate-glass windows and jaunty names like Green Palm and Red River. Hanoi has always styled itself as the cultural hub of Vietnam, and on my most recent visit, I assumed that the paintings on display in these places would be as contemporary as the sleek graphic signage out front.

And indeed, the long interior walls of these traditional "tube" houses (so called because their narrow street frontage belies the depth of their interiors) were lined-or more often crammed-with canvases. But the predominantly figurative works turned out to be variations on a small repertoire of iconic themes. Pastoral landscapes, trios of monks, longhaired women dressed in traditional ao dai-these were the same tired images that had catapulted the city onto the global art stage in the mid-1990s.

The Vietnamese government instituted its sweeping policy of economic and political reforms, Doi Moi, in 1986. Suddenly the many skilled local artists who'd trained at the Hanoi University of Fine Arts (the former École Superieure Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine, founded by the French in 1925) were free to create works beyond the propaganda art they'd churned out for years.

"There was a tsunami of development and commercial interest," recalled artist and curator Tran Luong, a member of the now-defunct Gang of Five painters, who were among the first Hanoi artists to gain international recognition. "There were overwhelming changes and no time to prepare for the journey. Artists lost their way, ignoring their history as they leapt to the money." Many artists became locked in a cycle of reproducing the same beautiful and reliably saleable images. Affirming the lure of market forces, an ao dai-garbed saleswoman at the ultra-commercial Apricot Gallery later offered me a succinct appraisal: "Most foreigners don't buy abstract art."

Back at square one in my quest for contemporary galleries that lived up to the name, I headed for the refreshingly unconventional Salon Natasha. Russian émigré Natasha Kraevaskaia and her artist/musician husband Vu Dan Tan opened the country's first private art space at their house in 1990. They offered their two front rooms as a much-needed venue for experimental exhibitions as well as a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and curious passersby. While the gallery component closed in 2005 to give Vu Dan more time and room for his studio work, art buffs continue to drop in.

"There aren't the contemporary galleries here that there should be," Kraevaskaia told me as we sat sipping tea around a low brass table amid the clutter of Vu Dan's projects. She attributed this not only to the pressures of commercial conformity, but also to legal obstacles. Every exhibition in Hanoi must obtain advance permission from the government, a restriction that not so subtly promotes self-censorship over creativity.

Kraevaskaia explained how groups of artists now create ad hoc shows in rental spaces like the 350-square-meter Viet Art Centre, which opened in 2006 as the city's largest exhibition venue. Essentially an empty space with white walls and an adjacent café that's much sleeker than the gallery, the center rents itself out for one million dong (US$62) a day. While large organizations like the Goethe Institute or the British Council can afford this, most struggling local artists cannot.

A growing number of socially engaged and politically critical Hanoi artists-Truong Tan, Le Quang Ha, Nguyen Minh Thanh, and Nguyen Quang Huy, to name a few-exhibit at important overseas galleries and events where themes like Truong Tan's explicit celebration of his homosexuality and Le Quang Ha's ugly caricatures of corpulent officialdom are free from censure. At home, they often show at international cultural centers like the Goethe Institute or l'Espace (part of the Centre Culturel Français de Hanoi), which have the expertise and funding to create cutting-edge shows, should their directors be so inclined. These organizations also offer a level of protection against government intervention, which can be partly symbolic or, as with the Goethe Institute, very real: thanks to a bilateral cultural agreement between Germany and Vietnam, events here don't require official permission. "The police can come here, but they cannot harm us," said Franz Xaver Augustin, the institute's popular and enthusiastic director.

For Kraevaskaia, the Goethe Institute is currently the most interesting cultural space in Hanoi. During Augustin's recently completed five-year tenure at the helm, it regularly staged groundbreaking exhibitions. These included 2003's "Quobo," which helped catalyze the installation-art movement in Hanoi. That same year, Tran Luong gave up trying to run the country's first contemporary art center under a Ford Foundation grant, moving on to become the institute's local visual arts curator.

The only commercial gallery in Hanoi to rise above the standard ho-hum mold in terms of content, presentation, and professionalism is Art Vietnam, which is run by an American with degrees in art history and interior design. Suzanne Lecht fell in love with Vietnamese art on a visit to Hanoi in 1993; she moved to Hanoi a year later and worked from home until opening her first space in a stylishly renovated tube in 2000. Art Vietnam recently moved to even larger premises, and now occupies two floors of a soigné French-built villa.

When U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Hanoi in 2000, it was Lecht who toured him around the city's galleries. Augustin described her as "a force of continuity" while praising her taste and support of young artists. Though exhibitions at Art Vietnam may not exactly push the envelope-the inaugural show in October featured the haunting, popular portraiture of Nguyen Minh Thanh-Lecht's online catalog of exhibited and locally represented artists includes most of the town's more progressive talents.

Meanwhile, the funky and unpretentious Ryllega-the name is an anagram of "gallery"-is a breath of fresh avant-garde air. Located just behind the city's gleaming symbol of French classicism, the Hanoi Opera, this tiny room opens onto a street blaring with the nonstop cacophony of honking motorcycles. Its owner, manager, curator, and general dogsbody is artist Nguyen Minh Phuoc. As the government forbids nonprofit artist-run Ryllega is registered as a commercial gallery and Phuoc still paints tourist-friendly Buddhist-themed works to earn extra income.

Ryllega's comprehensive Web site (the best except for Art Vietnam's) catalogs the eclectic range of exhibitions the gallery has hosted since it opened in 2004. Along with visual arts, these include lectures, installations, performances, and video works by locals and foreigners. Phuoc refuses to ask permission from the government before any show. "Art is for art and for people," said the lean, overworked art activist, "not for the government." Amazingly, the government has only closed him down once, and that was during a performance festival

Besides Nguyen Manh Duc's legendary House on Stilts-the atelier of a man generally considered to be the father of experimental art in Vietnam-the names of two other small galleries kept cropping up during my conversations with the city's art cognoscenti. Suffusive Gallery includes among its small stable of resident artists the up-and-coming Dinh Y Nhi, whose black-and-white silhouettes are hypnotic. The paintings at the large and design-oriented Gallery 39 are also worth the trip, though they are trumped by the art objects and furniture designed by owner Le Quay Thung.

Tran Luong succeeds still hopes to open his own art center one day; if he succeeds, it too will probably have to hide under the rubric of "commercial space." Yet he remains guardedly optimistic about the future of contemporary art in Hanoi. "The people who built up this regime threw away farm tools to become government officials. They can't understand contemporary visual arts. The general movement toward freedom is positive. It's just very slow."

Copyright 2007/2008 Jennifer Gampell