By Josh Feng
A rusty old metal chair stood in front of an analog TV, perched below a single hanging lamp. A small swarm of mosquitos surrounded the light, trapped by the curtains drawn on the sides of this makeshift theatre. On the humming screen looped a video of a man facing the ocean. The rhythmic sound of waves crashing onto shore overpowered the buzzing sound otherwise filling the room. And in this fashion, the display went on.
The artist of this installation is part of the Nha San Arts Collective, a group which aims to support Vietnamese experimental artistic expression. Another member of the collective, Thanh Nguyen, described the video as “colliding with what is happening right now between Vietnam and China.” According to Thanh, throughout the displays at Hanoi’s Nha San Gallery, artists tread the line of “traditional art,” challenging notions of what is accepted or rejected not only by Vietnamese authorities, but Vietnamese society as a whole.
But pushing these boundaries comes with costs. A few years ago, Zone 9, a space similar to the Nha San gallery, was an emerging hub of grassroots culture in Hanoi, an old pharmaceutical factory turned indie art center. In 2013, Vietnamese authorities closed Zone 9 down. According to the government, their decision was due to “safety violations,” but others speculated about political motivations.
The true reason may simply be financial: an expiring three-year contract signed by Zone 9 entrepreneurs gave leeway for OceanBank (a private Vietnamese bank that possessed the underlying right to develop on the property) to shut down the zone before its investment was threatened by the unexpected success of Zone 9’s businesses. Yet the question begs to be asked: why hasn’t another hub for independent art emerged following the Zone 9 incident?
Tadioto was a bar and art space formerly located in Zone 9 that has since relocated to another area of Hanoi. Nyugen Qui Duc, owner of Tadioto, stressed that the Vietnamese contemporary art scene is multifaceted. “Censorship is much more complex than most people think,” he explained, challenging the black and white paradigm of independent dissenting artists confronting strict government controls. “You know, the culture police will come into my galleries, they will know that’s the painting that has to do with the Party or the Communist Party or whatever,” he said. “As long as I can give them an explanation that they can walk away going, ‘OK I’ve done my job, I’ve gone over there, I’ve talked to the guy, he explained it this way,’ you can get way with some of it.”
Having debunked the myth of monolithic government censorship, Nguyen offered several other explanations for the extent of self-censorship among Vietnamese artists. “Censorship is not just dictated by the government,” he said. “[It] is also a function of money and capitalism, just like anywhere else.” The process of self-censorship, he said, is no different from that of artists in France, the U.K., or the U.S. “A gallery will say, ‘We support this kind of work,’ so the artist ends up doing that kind of work.”
Nguyen also highlighted the shift between socialist-era government censorship and modern market censorship. “Before in Vietnam, you had to be mindful where the permission comes from,” he said. “Now in Vietnam you have to be mindful where the money comes from.” A complex network of social, economic and cultural forces—not simply the government’s iron-fisted clampdown on dissidents —drives individual and market censorship of contemporary art.
In his April New York Times op-ed, “The New Censors of Hanoi“, Nguyen referenced the about-face of Dang Xuan Hoa. A 1990s artist who “defied the Communists’ insistence on rosy depictions of society,” Hoa now investigates exhibitions and performances as an officer of the Artists’ Union, a state vetting organization. “You don’t know what his incentive or motivation was. You don’t know what the story is,” Nguyen reflected. “I mean you can point out that, you know, he was a poor artist and to make money, he sold paintings and now he plays tennis and drives a BMW.” Nguyen questioned just what Hoa had compromised. “What’s so bad about that in the end?” He asked. “[Hoa] is accepting more of the government minds? Nobody knows, and I couldn’t say it very clearly.”
The line between whom or what is censoring and who is being censored is a thin one to draw. Though the West often answers this question by immediately faulting governments for their censorship of artists, what is occurring in Vietnam is far more subtle and nuanced.
“Classically trained” at Vietnamese schools founded by French colonists, Tran Luong is an internationally acclaimed artist, who has shown his work at the Guggenheim Museum. With fewer financial constraints and the ability to show artwork abroad, artists who are a part of Vietnam’s intellectual circles have relatively more freedom than their less cosmopolitan peers to create art that represents their own opinions.
Some argue this is truer to the purpose of art, untainted by external influences. On the other hand, others argue that artists like Luong could be swayed by outside factors —that even the notion of “contemporary art” is a Western import. Since most funding sources for “independent” Vietnamese art comes from Western countries, perhaps donors insert their own visions into the art as well. This patronage calls into question the very “Vietnamese” identity of the art.
In 2011, Luong and more than 20 other artists founded Muong Studio, a collaborative space in the mountains of Vietnam’s northwestern Hoa Binh province. They urged local and foreign artists to take up residency and create pieces on-site, using Vietnamese materials and surroundings as inspiration. But the studio’s presence has raised further questions about the foreign-local dichotomy in contemporary art and challenges of attempting to bridge the gap.
Studio director Nguyen Anh Tuan explained to the Globalist that the local Muong people, one of more than 50 ethnic minorities in Vietnam, often help out in the gallery, and artists take inspiration from the Muong cultural tradition, particularly its exquisite fabric patterns. Nguyen Anh Tuan said that locals welcomed the gallery, viewing it as an opportunity for employment and exploration into art forms other than traditional folk fabric art. The village’s shaman even holds Muong religious ceremonies in the gallery from time to time.
However as a project led by Vietnamese intellectuals funded by Western European groups, Muong Studio walks a thin line between including rural Vietnamese in what is usually the territory of cosmopolitan elites and perpetuating imperialist tropes. And though the space was created as one of the first museums of contemporary art in Vietnam, its location two hours from Hanoi seems counterintuitive to this purpose. This physical distance may alienate many poor and working class Vietnamese, who don’t have the time and money to travel to the gallery.
At times, a lack of dialogue can distance contemporary artists from the general Vietnamese public. Tran Luong pointed out that public misconception of contemporary art is one of the largest hurdles artists must face—a majority of the public is still trying to understand exactly what contemporary art is. “In Vietnam, they [the Vietnamese public] don’t quite understand my artistic standard,” he said. Luong and his internationally inclined peers have tried to go through indirect routes to increase education of contemporary art in Hanoi, but the government has not been supportive of their efforts. “We tried to apply one time to create a small, private [arts] school but we never got permission,” he explained, “So we have to be sneaky to learn how to make it.”
Sometimes pushback from the public is more direct. Thanh Nguyen, member of the Nha San Collective, echoed Luong’s sentiment: “Contemporary art is simply not understood by a lot of people.” He offered examples of challenges the collective has faced, referencing a shutdown in 2010 due to depictions of nudity in one of the pieces on display. Thanh notices that performance art and pieces involving nudity are often more prone to public criticism, as this break from traditionalism seems threatening. Such “public censorship” continues to drive how censorship in Vietnam takes shape.
A small but growing collection of grassroots contemporary art galleries and art collectives in Vietnam aims to bridge the gap between artists and the public. Manzi, a restaurant in Hanoi serves as a hybrid space, combining visual arts, literature, film, and music exhibitions into the café. Manzi owner Tram Vu aims to make Manzi into a place open to the general public to enjoy art and talk with artists. She said that “in Vietnam, people don’t have the habit to come to galleries or museums. And there’s not many galleries and museums at all to see. There’s no art education in schools, like in the States or other places in the world.” Vu hopes that that the hybrid space Manzi occupies will help draw more people in to learn about contemporary art and supplement the lack of arts education in Vietnam.
However, Manzi continues to be subject to frequent surveillance by Vietnamese authorities. “The cultural police come all the time,” Vu told the Globalist. “Whenever we have events.” Yet she also pointed out that the “cultural police” doesn’t care much about the sometimes-controversial nature of the work since the café creates profit and brings in business.
“Every time we do [an art show] here, we don’t call it an exhibition. We call it a display,” she explained. “If someone comes and asks ‘what happened?’ we just say, ‘Because Manzi is a bar/café, we just do it for decoration.’” Infusing the café and art gallery into one allows Manzi to effectively subvert political authority and censorship. Manzi shows that the “iron fist” of Vietnamese communism softens up quite a bit when some money is placed in it.
The Nha San Arts Collective also aims to work under the radar of Vietnamese authorities, but this tactic comes with its own sets of advantages and disadvantages. Thanh Nguyen says that Nha San and other experimental contemporary art groups simply don’t have enough impact to really sway the Vietnamese people, so their work doesn’t garner the attention of government officials. They simply don’t view the collective as a destabilizing threat. On the one hand this “invisibility” gives Nha San and other groups greater autonomy, but it also means that their efforts are not reaching a broad audience.
In addition to grappling with the challenge of attracting public interest while avoiding the attention of government censors, artists and groups like Nha San must navigate the market’s prevailing currents. Thanh Nguyen emphasized that “contemporary art is simply not funded by the government.” While some artists are able to secure funding from abroad (Thanh mentioned the Danish Cultural Development and Exchange Fund, the Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands, and the Goethe Institute), most continue to struggle financially to sustain their practices.
Artists themselves also need to make money as well, and often must work within existing political and economic structures to do so. As Nguyen Qui Duc explained, many artists are creating “dissent art” because there is a demand for it. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, people looked to China, Vietnam and Cuba for dissent writers, the same goes for visual arts. To make a living, artists sometimes cater to this fascination with Vietnamese communism. This trend is also intrinsically tied to domestic Vietnamese policies, as the lack of government support for independent creativity leaves artists with no other choice but to “cater” to foreign demand.
China’s contemporary art scene offers clear parallels to Vietnam’s own. The rapid growth of Beijing’s Zone 798, another indie art space housed within abandoned factories, may prove telling. At first, Zone 798 thrived. Artists flocked to the area due to its low real estate prices and to work with the creative community centered there. However, Zone 798 quickly became hyper-commercialized, a hub for tourists more than artists. Artists’ freedom of expression became increasingly bound to the limitations inherent in marketization. Whether or not this will be the fate contemporary art in Vietnam is unclear. One thing is clear: like in Vietnam, the Chinese government didn’t even need to directly censor radical artists; the market did it for them.
Josh Feng ’17 is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at josh.feng@ yale.edu.