Standing there in the market, Tan went entirely unrecognized as the enfant terrible of Vietnamese art.
In 1997, addressing the idea of “contemporary Vietnamese art,” artist Truong Tan designed a T-shirt featuring a drawing of a seated male nude headed “Bao Ton My Thuat” (Defend Beautiful Art). The slogan beneath, “E con de Bo-za (1925–1997),” announces prematurely (in unambiguous phonetic Vietnamese) the demise of the country’s legendary, and still most important, art school, the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (1925–1945), which changed its name to Truong Dai Hoc My Thuat Ha Noi in 1956 and is now known as Truong Dai Hoc My Thuat Vietnam. A photograph from the same period shows the artist posing at a stall in the Hanoi market Cho Hang Da, where desirable Western products first became available in Vietnam. Thus he was already underscoring, with heavy irony, a shift that would be recognized in years to come as the commercialization of traditionally state-supported Vietnamese art.
Standing there in the market, Tan went entirely unrecognized as the enfant terrible of Vietnamese art. The action was just one of his many characteristic provocations, and it seems unlikely that he would have received a permit for it, as is not only customary but ordinarily required for exhibitions and other public events. So it is understandable, perhaps, that Tan and I, with help from a local student, felt rather subversive when we produced a limited edition of this shirt, adding the handwritten line: “O day, chung toi van con ve tieng phap” (“Here, we still draw in French,” a modification of the official slogan of the Francophone Summit that took place in Hanoi in 1997, “French is still spoken here”). Even “Defend Beautiful Art” was never a flattering tagline, especially since the school had been making efforts to live up to what was expected of a modern, international institution.
But much more important than pointing out commercialization and the deficits of a traditional education system whose origins lay in France was the still-pertinent question of where art should be presented. It was true then, and remains so today, that, as Birgit Hussfeld writes in the catalogue for 1999’s Gap Vietnam at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin: “In Vietnam, art takes place in specific places, in spaces that are by definition dedicated to art. What happens outside that arena is private entertainment and is of no concern to anybody.”
Wearing a T-shirt is a private matter but also explicitly public, yet does not require official permission. Perhaps Tan’s gesture marked the beginning of an emphasis that still characterizes the young art scene in Vietnam: taking legitimate, personal pleasure in inspired and creative (and often fleeting) reconfigurations of spaces and possibilities while taking into account the effects of the country’s cultural politics—or, to put it differently, a resourceful and humorous understanding of a reductio ad absurdum.
The effect began with spontaneous performances, messages on T-shirts, painted cows, tablecloths, and texts printed on pillows, and took place exclusively in private spaces—or at international art exhibitions. There is no way that Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh could have imagined all this when, in a vaguely worded announcement, he promised artists and intellectuals more freedom of expression at the Sixth Party Congress of the Communist Party in December 1986.
A new independence from the Union of Artists, a free choice of subjects as promised by the Ministry of Culture and Information, simplified travel arrangements, and the easing of certain restrictions accelerated these “private” tendencies and seemed to anticipate the developments of the following decade, which continue to this day. The increasing political liberalization of Vietnam, its post-1986 Doi Moi (New Thinking) modernization policy, and the resulting international competitiveness led finally to young Vietnamese art being able to emancipate itself from much of its former dogmatic rigidity. Thus a “free” art scene emerged in the still-socialist context, one that was able to establish itself in multiple ways through independent galleries and event spaces such as Nha San Duc, San Art, Ryllega, and Zero, as well as via participation in international biennials, workshops, and conferences, all without the direct involvement of the Vietnamese state authorities.
How nonchalantly artist Nguyen Phuong Linh today opens a tea stand under the monumental statue of Lenin in the center of Hanoi. For a moment, the tea stand became a meeting place for young artists—it could even have been declared an international forum of sorts—while in the Nha San Studio, human passions and desires, alongside the structures of art and daily life, are restaged for our entertainment in the form of contests. Artists Nguyen Hong Ngoc and Tuan Mami spend twenty hours knitting together the bricks from a recently demolished house in a district ravaged by property speculators, but the event has ends before it is even recognized as a performance. Only a line of red wool yarn remains.
The space of art has long been redefined by artists in such ways; what now matters is the moment. It is no wonder then that performance has become one of the most popular forms of emerging practice in Vietnam.
The third generation of artists following the advent of Doi Moi in private space has distanced itself from the aims of the Union of Artists and the prescriptions of the art school. “One size fits all,” it argues, simply doesn’t work any more.
Veronika Radulovic is an artist, curator, and lecturer based in Berlin.