Much of the effort to show works of artists from Vietnam has been rare—especially in New York—but then again the idea of big group shows never quite does justice to a single work by a good artist. Nevertheless, the show at the WAH Center in April 2003 was a worthy effort.
From painting, photography, sculpture and installation, to video and performing art—curated by two participant artists: Kim Tran, a sculptor and a local resident, and Tran Luong, an installation artist who is also the Director of The Contemporary Art Center in Hanoi—the show aims to achieve its comprehensive objective and, to some extent, does so effectively by updating unfamiliar viewers with the current art scene and artists from that region, and the few that are here in New York. The rest of the artists are: Dinh Gia Le, Nguyen Le Vu, Nguyen Minh Phuoc, Nguyen Viet Tu, Tran Hung, Kim Ngoc, Khanh Vo, An Pham and An-My Lê.
Having been a self-taught enthusiast of Vietnamese poetry, traditional music, and folk art, I assume it must have been difficult for the development of fine arts to be nourished under the circumstances of perpetual war. First, it began with China’s on and off invasions for nearly 5,000 years. Then there were the colonial French for another 200 years. Finally there were the Americans, who eventually came to replace the French after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva agreement which split the country in half by 1954. One can understand that poetry or music would have been more conducive to creative impulses and self-expressive tendencies because of a strong oral tradition and folk art. Though often regarded, as in other cultures, as marginal activities, they come from a deep source of inner necessity to preserve regional identity against any mainstream culture imposed by Western aesthetics.
However, unlike Japan, China, and recently Thailand, whose cultures had greater access to exchange programs, particularly in the arts—Japan with its economic height in the ’80s and China in the last few years—Vietnam is only beginning to have more contact with the United States since the Clinton administration lifted the embargo in 1994. This new policy provides more opportunities and certainly gives more fruitful exposure to many Vietnamese artists. For instance, Nguyen Minh Phuoc’s video "Self Portrait" and his related installation of 30 self-portraits which lie beneath uncooked rice crepe all of which rests upon a wire mesh structure raised above the aluminum-foil-covered floor; Dinh Gia Le’s "Goats on the Grass," another combined installation of 12 hanging carcasses of papier mache goats and an accompanying video of their domesticated habitat; and Khanh Vo’s "Fishing for Resolution," a witty floor piece in which the aluminum foil suggests the sea and tiny boats are made out of soap. All of their work shares a strong reminiscence to Bruce Nauman, Kiki Smith, Christian Boltanski and perhaps Annette Messenger. Likewise the presence of Joseph Bueys and Anne Hamilton are equally palpable in the work of Tran Luong and Le Vu. As for the four Vietnamese-American artists Ah Pham, Kim Tran, Khanh Vo and An-My Lê, the commitment to their singular mediums in painting, sculpture, and photography, provide an interesting dialogue to the show.
There is subtle political content, which fluctuates around the need to recreate through the outdoor and stage-like construction of combat epistle in An-My Lê’s photographs, and in the sense of recovery and healing from the war in the work of Tran Luong, Kim Tran and Le Vu. Ultimately though, the premise of the show proves to be a productive example of an open and ongoing effort to expand universal and democratic values through the visual arts both here and there.
TOMASSIO LONGHI is a contributor to the Rail.