Asian Art News, 1997
By Ian Findlay and Helene Hagemans
The vitality of the contemporary Vietnamese art scene is being driven not only by clear commercial considerations, but also by artists and dealers committed to creating and promoting quality work.
Less than a decade ago, contemporary Vietnamese art and artists had little resence in their own country and virtually none on the international art scene.
Yet, just four years ago, the eminent critic and painter Ca Le Thang reported in the Vietnamese art journal My Thuat, “In 1992 a total of 130 groups and one man exhibitions were opened in Ho Chi Minh City, featuring works by local (Vietnamese) artists … and even (artists) from overseas. Over 5,500 works created by more than 200 artists were exhibited in 25 different locations; attendance numbers rose to over 400,000.” In that year, the first exhibition of Vietnamese abstract painting took place. During the same period, equally dramatic changes were taking place in Ha Noi.
Since then the transformation of the Vietnamese art world has continued apace. It has not only been in the profile which the nation’s art and artists have achieved that is impressive, but also in the quality and scope of the art and its representation through local, regional, and international galleries and museums, as well as the extremely important exchanges between the Queensland College of Art, Brisbane, and the University of Fine Art, Ha Noi, and the visionary Indochina Arts Projects spearheaded by David Thomas in the United States.
Although during the past two years there has been a decline in sales locally, the galleries-and a number of important collectors-remain at the heart of the drive to promote art in the major cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hue. Estimates as to the number of galleries in these cities vary widely since many are really no more than shop. In the major cities there are some 50 quite professional galleries. The Art that they handle ranges from highly popular landscape and figurative work to abstract and experimental work in lacquer and other mediums.
The sheer number of artists producing work is quite astonishing and this has helped to maintain the pace of development in the market. Many of the exciting artists who rose to prominence over the past decade are still active. At the same time, much commonplace work has been produced which has had an adverse effect on the reputation of some of the galleries. But more artists of distintion – Do Quang Em, Khuu Duc (ceramicist), Nguyen Quang Huy, Dang Xuan Hoa, Pham Luan, Tran Luu Hau, Nguyen Van Cuong, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Tran Luong, Le Quang Ha, Thanh Chuong and Pham Quang Vinh, for example – are being shown abroad regularly. At the first Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993 in Brisbane, Australia, Nguyen Xuan Tiep represented Vietnam. In 1996, three artists took part – Vu Dan Tan, Dang Thi Khue, Mai Anh Dung – to much acclaim.
Now that so many artists have had first-hand exposure to a broad range of Asian and Western art, there are some significant points of difference between their work and that of those who have had no exposure to other influences at all. The differences can be as subtle as the manner in which paintings are marketed and exhibited or as conspicuous as style and the handling of materials or simply the risks they take with their themes. While painting is the mainstay of the art scene, sculpture and ceramics are also becoming more visible. Photography, however, is perhaps the most visible of new developments, with exhibitions becoming more frequent. A number of photographers have had the opportunity to study in the West, which has also helped to raise awareness of Vietnam’s own fine photographic past.
There are no new major trends within the contemporary Vietnamese art world as yet. But there are rumblings. Installation and performance art are now beginning to be seen, albeit on a small scale. As Vietnamese artists travel more and are exposed to fresh influences, these art forms will certainly be seen more frequently. But, if one can speak of a trend, then it is to tradition that one must look. Lacquer painting has a long history in Vietnam, but it is only fairly recently that a broad range of artists have taken to it as a regular medium through which to express themselves in a contemporary manner. Vu Thang, the dynamic Hanoi artist, showed recently at Trang An Gallery just how powerful lacquer work, mixed with other media, can be. Lacquer is a good “example of using tradition in a contemporary context,” says Pham Quang Vinh.
Many artists are still producing semiabstract and figurative work for the market. But there are some never names around. Tran Van Thao and Do Hoang Tuong are considered two of the most interesting and promising painters currently working in Ho Chi Minh City. Thao, before 1992, painted nature scenes and landscape but is now inspired by “my remembrances of the war. Abstraction is the only style in which I can express my feelings.”
Artist’s group such as the “Gang of Five,” in Hanoi, and “Recent Works” group, in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, continue to work together and their members are known overseas. Foreign artists’ exchanges such as the Dutch-Vietnamese workshop, “Dalat Dialogue,” in 1995, and “April Colors,” in Hue, in 1996, included artists from America, France, Australia, Japan, and Vietnam. The presence of foreign artists which includes Eric Leroux (France), Nguyen Cam (France), Russell Craig (Australia), Bradford Edwards (the United States), Maritta Nurmi (Finland), and Veronika Radulovic (Germany) – has initiated, at grassroots level, exchanges which will be felt for a long time to come.
The changes in Vietnam’s current art scene have been welcomed by most artists. There is also greater enthusiasm, an elevated sense of self-confidence and defection among the artists, the vast majority of whom are men. There are different pressures now, though, and different standards. “In the past, I made more works, now I do less,” says the artist Le Quang Ha. “I spend more time on one painting. In the past, I was perhaps not so careful in my work.”
“Five to ten years ago, the art was terrible, but since the Government has opened up, the quality has improved. For me the best time to be an artist is now, in Hanoi,” says Thanh Chuong, one of the most important contemporary lacquer artists. “Now artists have better skills, there are now more styles than before. Now there is more choice. In the past, if someone asked a painter to paint a picture, they told the artist what to paint. Sometimes a number of artists worked on one painting. I can now do what I like and use my own ideas. It is a good time for Vietnamese artists. Artists are now more independent. The artists’ ways of selling their work have changed. Some artists paint and sell immediately. Others hold onto their works.”
These are the sentiments expressed by many young professional artists. To meet the greater sophistication, not only of the country’s major collectors, but also the international art community’s expectations of high standards, is definitely now an important driving force among artists. It is a question of improving or be left behind; taking a professional approach is more important than ever before.
“Artists have improved their skills. Now there are many more artists so they have to improve their skills if they are to survive as artists. Artists in Hanoi are much more open-minded and they think more about their work. Now it is easier for artists to go abroad and so they are able to see what is happening elsewhere,” says Pham Minh Tuan. “At this time, artists have a better understanding about themselves. They can live off their art now and don’t need other jobs.” But living off one’s work is not easy. While prices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City command between US$400 and US$3,000, a dealer may take 20% on the sale. But few dealers will handle work on consignment. They prefer to buy, which means that the artist might not obtain the best price for his work.
There are two quite distinct markets for contemporary Vietnamese art: local and international, although there is also a growing interest among some regional collectors, particularly in HongKong, where Gallerie La Vong leads the way with quality shows, Singapore, and Japan. The purchasing trends have changed, too, though the major buyers in some galleries tend still to be foreigners, individuals and overseas museums.
“During the past five years, we have sold a lot of paintings. I would say tat 95% of the buyers have been foreigners. Many Vietnamese do collect art, but as the economy improves, we expect to see many more,” says Nguyen Lai of Hanoi’s Nam Son Gallery. “Vietnamese are influenced by other countries, certainly. But they have their own style and preferences and these are not really influenced by overseas ideas. The culture and environment is quite different.”
Salon Natasha, the first gallery in Vietnam to be opened by a foreigner, Natasha Kraevskaia, took “different art” to its heart from the outset. Showing such artists as Vu Dan Tan, Truong Tan, and Le Hong Thai (a member of the International Association of Lacquer Painters, in Japan), as well as a host of foreign artists, Kraevskaia as followed the belief that her gallery should have “a special spirit and atmosphere, and represents the reluctance to separate the world of art from daily life.”
Cyril Lapointe, of the Red River Gallery, Hanoi, notes also the changes in the people who are buying art, as well as those affecting the artists at a more personal level.” The majority who buy are Westerners, many of them already resident in Asia,” he says. ” When I stated the gallery (two and-a-half years ago, my clientele was expatriate. About a year ago, I began to have local Vietnamese collectors buying. Now there are museums and institutions and government ministries buying more art. I see Vietnamese companies buying young Vietnamese artists work.
“Artists now are more professional. And the relationship between artists and galleries has changed as it has done with overseas galleries and museums and collectors. For the moment, the best artists who will continue to be there are those who can cope with the changes. Yet, with all the changes there are few artists who deal politics and social changes in their work”….
“In the past, collectors perhaps looked at it only as an investment,” says Thanh Chuong, “now they are looking at the art for itself.” Collectors are at the heart of the Vietnamese art world, corporate as well as individual. These men and women are responsible for maintaining private collections that might otherwise have gone abroad. Do Huy Bac and Tran Hau Tuan, to name but two of the most active, have built impressive collections. Both Bac and Tuan highlight one of the most important trends in contemporary Vietnamese art which is that they are now traveling overseas to purchase the work of leading Vietnamese painters and to bring it home….
Trying to predict the future is always dangerous. Yet it is possible to see with some measure of clarity what the near future may hold. As the economic situation improves, a strong and constant sale base will be established in the market. The decline of the market over the past two years has led to a more moderate pricing system across the board. One might expect to see more installation art being made, as well as more sculpture and ceramics. As more artists are shown overseas and come into contact with foreign artists working and exhibiting in Vietnam, we will see fresh flights of imagination and strong individual visual statements….