Seminar on “Post-1986 Revisited: The Political of Representation in Contemporary Vietnamese Art”

Ms Đỗ Tường Linh spoke at a Politics of Arts in Southeast Asia seminar on the state of contemporary Vietnamese art after the implementation of Đổi Mới (renovation) policies in 1986.


Tuesday, 11 September 2018 – Ms Đỗ Tường Linh spoke at a Politics of Arts in Southeast Asia seminar on the state of contemporary Vietnamese art after the implementation of Đổi Mới (renovation) policies in 1986. More specifically, the seminar revisited the extent to which Đổi Mới can be used to define a period of radical change in the development of contemporary art in the country.

Ms Đỗ Tường Linh discussed contemporary art in Vietnam, specifically 3 renowned artists of the Đổi Mới period  (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ms Linh began her talk by providing an overview of the Đổi Mới era, when Vietnam adopted an open door policy and allowed freedom of expression. The Đổi Mới era is often perceived as the turning point for art history, a time when contemporary art emerged in the country. She pointed out that most of the academic works on Đổi Mới came from outside the country, while domestically, Đổi Mới translated through literature and visual art. However, Ms Linh argued that the increased importance of Đổi Mới as a pivotal movement created high expectations from the art world for profoundly political subject matter in Vietnamese contemporary art. Besides that, it also influenced the creative process of subsequent generations of Vietnamese artists.

For Ms Linh geographical and historical aspects influenced the narrative of artists in the past. French colonialism and communism influenced the early generation of Vietnamese artists in the 1980s at a time when the modern art of Indochina and socialist realism emerged. After the Vietnam War, the artists’ identity was embedded in their geographical position, either North or South Vietnam. She presented three renowned artists of the post-1986 era from three different schools and main cities in Vietnam, namely Trần Lương (Hà Nội), Đinh Q Lê (Hồ Chí Minh City) and the Lê Brothers (Huế). This allowed Ms Linh to question the hierarchical position in Vietnamese art history as most historicisation were written in the northern part of the country.

From left to right: Dr Hélène Njoto and Ms Linh (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Trần Lương belonged to the artist collective Gang of Five (G5) and was one of the leading contemporary artists in Vietnam. He held an experiment under the Mao Khe Art Project by travelling from Hanoi to the northern mining town of Mao Khe together with young artists to conduct workshops, produce performances and videos, and engage with the local community. One of his performance, Lap Lòe (2007), addressed communist education through the display of a red scarf to symbolise the communist regime. Although the exhibition sparked resistance, it was still exhibiteduntil recently using a video installation.

Ms Linh also presented the work of exiled artist, Đinh Q Lê, through his artwork Damaged Gene (1998).  Đinh Q Lê is not acknowledged as a post-Đổi Mới artist because of his diaspora status as an exile in the United States. However as Ms Linh explained, because of the division between North, South, and diaspora artists, if Đổi Mới had not happened, Đinh Q Lê would not have come back to Vietnam and created art there. The last artist duo Ms Linh examined was the Lê Brothers with their exhibition Before 86 (2012) and 365 Days. This exhibition addressed the country’s division by showing people wearing uniforms.

Furthermore, Ms Linh pointed out how Vietnamese galleries were still struggling to address political issues in Vietnam. An exhibition ironically called “Be Open” (2016) at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum recently exhibited cliché socialists influenced artworks, and showed essays from Vietnamese and Russian artists. Ms Linh added thatVietnamese art studies are facing challenges due to the lack of documentation and inaccessible private collections.

The audience included individuals from ministries and embassies, universities, art galleries, museums, and private sectors (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

During the question and answer session, the 29-strong audience ––– from ministries and embassies, universities, art galleries, museums, and private sectors ––– engaged with the speaker on a range of topics, including the re-identification of Vietnamese art, the resistance and art censorship by the government, the role of private galleries in bridging gaps and giving alternative platforms for artists, and the influence of mainland Chinese art on Vietnamese art. Some members of the audience also questioned the genealogy of the ‘red scarf’ exhibition by Trần Lương and the very existence of Vietnamese artists before 1986.