Vietnamese Art

Vietnamese Art

What do we know about Vietnam? Obviously minds will draw associations with a place afflicted by a infamous war that focused the world’s attention up until the 1970s. Vietnamese restaurants have become more popular and visible. Those who have a travelled to the country come back with tales of a land of rural beauty and extremely friendly and welcoming inhabitants. But Vietnamese art?

Well, a new book, Vietnam Eye. Contemporary Vietnamese Art, gives a fascinating insight into some of the art and culture influenced by the Southeast Asian country. Along with showcasing a host of local and international based Vietnamese artists making their mark today the book also puts their work into context of a country that has and continues to go through major transformations and shifts. How old and prevailing ideologies, cultural legacies, values and behavior in a modern globalised world have all played a part in Vietnamese art culture.

Early antecedents to today’s modern and contemporary Vietnamese art scene can be traced back to the Western influence of the Europeans. This is was very much the colonist period where Vietnamese artists would have operated in a culture ‘rooted in classical and modern European art history’. French colonial rule, the influence of the Impressionists and Post Impressionists would all play an important part for artists.

Duy Phuong, ‘Holding Water, no.04’, 2012, digital file, archival pigment ink, 40 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist
Duy Phuong, ‘Holding Water, no.04’, 2012, digital file, archival pigment ink, 40 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Freeing themselves from their cultural European modernist legacy and finding expression relating to their own cultural backgrounds was what non-Western Vietnamese artists had to grapple with. ‘But after the Allies won the war, the country was plunged into four decades of struggle and conflict. Artists did not have the luxury to debate how to deal with the modernist canon. As a result artists ‘felt that they had to create works to suit the prevailing ideology of the part of the country they were based in’. Vietnamese artists would have to undergo the similar dilemmas of other post-colonial nations.

One interesting thing that Vietnam Eye brings to light is how the Abstract Expressionism movement in the US  ‘promoted by the Congress of Cultural Freedom was actually unwittingly funded by the CIA.’ A little further research shows how the USA used modern art as a propaganda weapon against the Soviet Union. An article in the Independent noted:  “The decision to include culture and art in the US Cold War arsenal was taken as soon as the CIA was founded in 1947. Dismayed at the appeal communism still had for many intellectuals and artists in the West, the new agency set up a division, the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence more than 800 newspapers, magazines and public information organisations.” Former CIA officials confirmed the existence of a policy known as “long leash” which unknown to the artists saw the new art movement secretly used and promoted for ideological and propaganda purposes. ‘In Vietnam, artists on both side of the political divide were more aware of the ties between what they were painting and how it would be seen in a politicized climate’

‘The Mid-1980s brought about another abrupt shift in both the political and cultural arenas of Vietnam. The onset of economic reforms known as the Doi Moi or “open door” led to more liberal policies around the production and reception of contemporary art.’

The early 2000s Vietnam would see the emergence of new artist run and independent spaces. This could be seen in the context of the country not having any form of commercial gallery system.

The heady mix of colonial and post colonial, wars, conflicts and rapid modernization leading to an era of globalization all add to the rich and complex context of Vietnamese art and artists.

Nguyen Quan in Vietnam Eye pinpoints three types of what he refers to as “insane” transitions. The first transition from war time to peace time caused a variety of “social traumas” which included sexual liberation, population explosion and mental health problems. The second transition was from the centrally planned economy to a market-orientated system causing ideological and spiritual crisis, rampant urbanization, deterioration of  moral values caused by the pursuit of wealth and power. The third transition occurred as the country opened up to foreign influence. Globalisation brought with it the introduction into the country of ideas of universal values, human rights, women’s rights and the overwhelming “invasion” of international pop culture.

The three fundamental shifts clashed and often contradicted one another making the assessment of human, social cultural and artistic values in Vietnam more difficult than anywhere else in the world.

Vietnam Eye showcases the work of seventy-five outstanding contemporary Vietnamese artists working across a variety of established and new media, from painting to sculpture, from photography to video.

Vietnam Eye is being published in anticipation of a major exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery in September 2017.

Vietnam Eye: Contemporary Vietnamese Art

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