Hanoi's Young Avant-Garde
by Kurt Opprecht

for World Art, No. 12, 1997

It’s never much of a surprise to see censorship in a communist country, even as we watch real communism draining away with the cold war bathwater. And although Hanoi’s artists have been enjoying a refreshing respite from the government repression of the past few decades that allowed only art in the socialst realism category, no one was really shocked when the government stepped in and closed the exhibition of Truong Tan’s works at the Red River Gallery in Hanoi two years ago. In fact there must have been plenty in Vietnam’s art world who breathed a sigh of relief.

Dismembered phalluses, male figures with bold erections, corpses in funeral wrap and flowing blood -- hardly shocking anymore in Europe or the States, but Truong Tan’s work is light years from the government sanctioned socialist realism ; depictions of noble agrarian life, heavy industry and military heroism. By some dealers’ estimation Truong Tan’s works are an attack on establishment sensibilities, tacitly demanding censorship -- perish the thought.

The censorship Hanoi’s officials invoked just may have been the exception that proves the freedom is real because it is evidence that the government has truly been exercising tolerance, not just patience. It could mean the nascent young modernist movement in Hanoi can continue to breathe and grow without the constant fear that a sleeping government dragon might be on the verge of waking and shutting down the game altogether. To others, it was a relief to see where the hand of authority ultimately decided to draw the line.

Truong Tan (the o is mostly silent) isn’t the picture book revolutionary and iconoclast. He’s quiet and unassuming, neither cocky nor self-serious. He doesn’t want to be considered the leader of Vietnam’s young avant-garde, but for now he’s their standard-bearer. Young artists such as Nguyen van Cuong, Nguyen Quang Huy, Tham Poong, Le Hong Thai, and Nguyen Minh Thanh he calls friends, not followers.

Although he is currently Vietnam’s only openly gay artist, Truong Tan is not the only artist to use a large amount of phallic imagery. T. Thanh does too, but with a softer, less aggressive approach and a broader palate. "It wasn’t just my art that made them close the show," Truong Tan says. "It was that so many people were talking about it."

Truong Tan’s calm demeanor belies his anger at having part of his body of work banned. "I’m very upset. Naturally, I want to show my work. They don’t understand my art." (It’s an art that is no doubt a product of a life he will only describe as "very sad.")

When asked what direction he’s heading, Truong Tan says, "That depends on the ministry." To what extent do they control his art? " I can paint what I want, but I can’t exhibit anywhere."

Truong Tan is an established artist in Vietnam, a professor at the College of Fine Arts, but the entire contemporary art scene here is so young his first exhibition was in 1991. In addition to his native Vietnamese, he speaks English, but is more comfortable conversing in French.

"Nearly everyone disagreed about my work," he says about his first show. "Only my close friends said it was any good." Now that he is covered in the foreign press, he gets more respect and support at home. Indeed, the Red River Gallery, where Truong Tan became the first artist banned in Vietnam in ten years, is one of Hanoi’s most elite galleries. "Before they were afraid . . . afraid my work was crazy."

Now he’s not so keen on all the attention, not just because it’s part of what got him in trouble, but maybe also because he can sense that fame and the money it brings is a distraction from his art. He’s also just plain modest and tries to deflect discussion about his own work to talk about the new wave of young artists overall.

His work is bold and accessible, and whereas the images themselves and what they represent are anything but subtle, the works overall have subtlety of form. There is always more to see in them. The latest lacquer pieces have an elegance about them that tries to disavow their subject matter, which might happen to be floating phalluses. It’s not the work of someone just trying to ride on the coattails of post-modern homoerotic art.

The latest acrylic works are less elegant and more up front. There’s an implicit narrative running through these pieces that goes beyond the shock that bones and blood and funeral cloth evoke and takes the observer into the realm of the lost, the dead and the dying. It’s no surprise that Hieronymus Bosch is on Truong Tan’s short list of admired painters, (in the company of Vincent Van Gogh and Keith Haring). In one series of large pieces, what appear to be ropes are actually sheets, wound tight and dripping with blood. Are they sheets from a bedroom or are they from a hospital room or from a morgue? Most likely the difference is not the point, in this decade we all know the connection.

It’s no surprise he feels in tune with Haring’s works, his acrylic paintings have a Haring feel about them, but Truong Tan goes beyond the Graffiti look. In fact, his Lacquer works barely fit that genre at all, and although his art is branching off in several directions, including lacquer, acrylic, oil and even video, he’s not lacking in a coherence of style or focus.

His works wouldn’t be avant-garde in London or New York, but his body of work is ahead of the leading edge here in Hanoi where abstract is new and impressionism still live. It’s difficult to be a visionary in a milieu that’s already history in the rest of the world. But the role of the vanguard isn’t only to produce that which is yet unseen, it’s also to mark new paths and help drag the herd forward to fresher pastures.

As it is with all of us, where one is now can only be understood in view of where one has been. Vietnam has been blessed with a fine art tradition not shared by its developing neighbors, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand, a tradition nurtured by French rule in the first part of the century. The director of the College of Fine Arts in Hanoi in 1925 was French. The current director is a student of his and is said to be very faithful to his teacher.

Little changed in the art establishment from the time of the French departure in 1945, through the war and the communist revolution when only socialist realism was allowed, until the late 1980’s when the government began to relax its grip. In 1990 everything opened up and Vietnam’s art community took up again where it had left off in the forties. The 1990 show in Saigon was the first exhibition of abstract painting in Vietnam, 10 artists. Then another followed in 1992 in Hanoi.

Now exhibition space is relatively easy to come by and there are more than 70 galleries in Hanoi alone, (although the vast majority are nothing more than conduits for high-grade schlock). Art lovers can find almost anything they want and artists are creating almost anything they can envision. Almost.

One haven for Vietnam’s newest wave of artists is the Natasha Gallery, a cozy downscale gallery with a funky bohemian air couched in the middle of Hanoi’s insanely busy and buzzing Hang Bong street.

Natalia Kraevskaia (Natasha) runs the gallery, which shares the building with the studio of her husband, Vietnamese artist Wu Dz‚n-tan. "We are not like the tourist galleries that just sell the photocopies, you know," she says, joking about the predictable nature of the open air gallery line. "But sometimes it’s better economically to sell the tourist stuff."

Here is where a visitor to Vietnam can get a feel for the young Hanoi avant-garde. There’s something from many and not too much from anyone. The place has a very 60’s modern air about it, but here and there details stand out -- a piece of gold leaf here, brushed ink there -- that remind one that he or she is still in Southeast Asia. A closer look reveals the Asian character in all of the works. The trail with roots in traditional lacquer, paper, and Buddhist script leads to the present, even to Wu Dz‚n-tan’s sculptures that incorporate cigarette packages and soft-drink cans.

As a Soviet immigrant, Natasha has been around long enough to see the current florescence in Vietnamese art since it was just a bud on the vine. "I knew even in 1985 some artists, but not many, who made very modern things," she says. It was very difficult to be up-to-date then, there were no exhibitions of current art from outside Vietnam, no books. "At that time there was only socialist realism. Now artists see books and they know what it is possible to make, you know, modern. ‘So this is impressionism? O.K. Before we had been socialist realists; now we shall be modernists, abstract modernists, whatever we want.’ For Vietnam this is new."

Natasha considers the current level of freedom to be adequate. The only instance of government repression in recent years that she can recall is the closing of Truong Tan’s show. She feels bad about the action but added, "I think with such paintings it could have happened even in another country."

But with all the hubub aside, the Vietnamese art community may be facing a more serious threat from the opportunities of capitalism than from the repression of communism. Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world; many artists dream of the Hong Kong, Singapore and Japanese markets and their idea of what kind of art the buyers want there. Natasha estimates 95 percent of art sales in Vietnam are to foreign buyers. Establishing a reputation is more important than usual for these artists selling to buyers from the outside. Unfortunately, there is no real secondary market in Vietnam to reestablish price and value and one of the products of this is high price volatility. Few in Vietnam are investing, and it’s all just quick money.

The last few years have developed very quickly on the conceptual front, but on the economic front the change has been even more drastic. "For some painters the influx of money is very dangerous. They started to buy good things to put in the house and they forgot to paint; their painting was dead. Some painters had strength enough not to change their work, but it’s testing the strength of the artists." She says it is not a crisis, however, for "the artists who are really artists in the soul."

It’s easy to sympathize with the Vietnamese artist. Painters that used to be struggling just to find and pay for materials and exhibition space five years ago now find themselves involved in new battles within themselves. It’s not just the money-vs-art issue, but also the need to choose among career possibilities that couldn’t even have been dreamed of five years ago.

Natasha’s concerns are echoed by Than Ha, owner of the Than Ha Salon d’Art at 2E Quang Trung Street. "For 20 to 30 years artists made only for themselves and exhibitions," she says. "They couldn’t sell it. Now they’re poor, they have to sell it. The Italians and French, Europeans in general, are buying it up, 50 to 60 works at a time. It’s good the artists can sell their work, but new artists need time. The market changes month to month."

She mentions what is known as the "Gang of Five", currently very popular, all of whom command high prices for their work; Dang Xuan Hou, He Tui Thien, Pham Quang Ving, Viet Dung and Tran Luong. But if you’re looking for the best works of these painters, Hanoi or Saigon might not be the place to look. "Unfortunately, all the best Vietnamese art is in Hong Kong and Singapore."

Asked about the young avant-garde in Vietnam, Ms. Than says, "There’s really only one. Truong Tan. You see his work, it always includes the word 'fuck'."

It’s to his credit that Truong Tan can stand alone in the environment here, and it’s a testament to his status as an artist to the soul. Truong Tan isn’t a Vietnamese artist trying to mimic Western art. He’s not even a Vietnamese artist trying to further Vietnamese art. "I want to create for the world, not just for Vietnam."

In Truong Tan’s studio a work on paper stretches across one wall. Male bodies, erections, viruses, arrows going off, why? "A warning," he says. "A warning to the deer: There are hunters."

The new money issue is a serious threat to the nascent art world here, but surely not a grave threat for an art community that survived the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties in Vietnam. It’s in the nature of any art community to change unpredictably and rapidly. This goes double in a country like Vietnam.

Truong Tan will most likely continue to paint regardless of what happens in Vietnamese politics and the economy. We can only hope that his own government can see clear to permit images of blood and death in Truong Tan’s work the way it condoned them in the recent past in socialist realism.

Additional artists to watch:
Thanh Chuong
Minh Thanh
Thiet Cuong
Pham Viet Hong Lam
Vu Thang (lacquer)
Vu Dan Tan
Do Minh Tam
Le Tuan Anh
Mai Chi Thanh
Tran Quang Huy



 © Kurt Opprecht, 1997

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