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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s visual arts and COVID-19

By Quyen Hoang
(2,100 words, 8-minute read)

On a rainy evening towards the end of May 2020, it seemed like Saigon’s most dapper guys and modish gals all flocked to Galerie Quynh. What was buzzing inside the gallery’s three-storey space was a new exhibition titled “Lunar Breccia”, featuring new works by Hoang Duong Cam, Do Thanh Lang, Sandrine Llouquet, Vo Tran Chau, Hoang Nam Viet, Keen Souhlal and Nghia Dang. As the city’s first contemporary show after April’s two-week isolation period due to COVID-19 was officially lifted by the government, the opening reception marked not only a social event for patrons of the arts and friends of friends to gather and reconnect in real life, but was also a definitive sign of how life in Vietnam had in many aspects returned to normalcy, or shall we say, assumed the new normal.     

Much has been reported and analysed when it comes to the country’s successful combat against COVID-19, and though we can leisurely – even without masks (gasp) – enjoy a cup of coffee or a nice dinner around town these days (Vietnam has reported zero cases from local transmissions for the past two months at the moment of writing*), the reality is economically severe and starkly contrasted across members of different social strata, the local art scene included. One recent afternoon, while taking a stroll along the famed Dong Khoi boulevard, one of Saigon’s stalwart tourist attractions occupied by a series of luxury and souvenir establishments, I was stunned, though not entirely surprised, to see the whole of Art Arcade eerily behind shut doors. This alley, which leads up to an old apartment building filled with popular coffee shops and bars, houses a number of shops selling dubious replicas of Western and Vietnamese masterpieces, catered chiefly to innocuous tourists and locals. With tourism accounting for 9.2% of Vietnam’s GDP in 2018 and international flights still currently on hold, the plight of the Art Arcade is hardly atypical of the pandemic’s sweeping impact on the hospitality and real estate industries, and indicative of the impact on the arts.

At the onset of the country’s uncompromising and unifying battle against the pandemic, the arts were called upon to fulfil a pragmatic and patriotic function in society. This led to propaganda-style posters, viral pop songs, as well as online auctions coordinated by state-affiliated newspapers to raise money to support heroic frontline efforts, a response to the government’s nationwide call for donations. Fast forward to the months of May and June, there was a spate of exhibitions organised by the aforementioned institutions and some local galleries, comprising paintings (still arguably the primary medium through which most of the local population perceives art) either created before or during the social lockdown, depicting new hopes and dreams for a brighter future. Titles such as “Sunny Day”, “Day of Pink” and “Spring No.1” were spotted in a show called “New Day Returns” in Hanoi. There were reports on our national TV channels of the efforts of stated-funded museums across major cities in adopting digital tools to share “online tours” and “virtual viewings” of their spaces, ostensibly to stoke public (and tourists’) interest in Vietnamese arts up during the social lockdown. Yet regrettably, at the moment of writing I come across only 83 views of the video uploaded by the Da Nang Museum – understandable, since everybody has different priorities and more pressing issues to monitor online during these trying times.   

The opening of “Lunar Breccia” at Galerie Quynh. Courtesy of Galerie Quynh.

In contrast, contemporary art spaces have had quite a delineated narrative and a more active presence. Over the course of my 40-minute Zoom call with Bill Nguyen, assistant curator at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Saigon, he is outspoken of the fact that his team received no salaries during the social distancing period and was advised by the administrative managers to actively seek new means of income, in case the privately funded centre is unable to bounce back after the pandemic. Programme-wise, the Factory will cut their annual four major exhibitions down to three this year and possibly the next, amid an ongoing tightening of budget for its community events, such as talks, workshops and walk-through curatorial tours. Concurrently, the space is now open only five days a week, instead of the pre-pandemic six. Apart from its new exhibitions, which publicly opened to resounding success (according to Bill Nguyen, the number of visitors in the first week has been statistically higher than previous events), the curatorial team at the Factory still maintains the online project, “Home”, which was set up in April as a site to collect artistic responses to the pandemic. The series started with Hanoi-based artist Nguyen Duc Phuong’s playful interpretations of legendary paintings by revered Vietnamese modernist masters such as To Ngoc Van, Tran Van Can and Nguyen Phan Chanh, in which the artist places the classically portrayed ladies in imaginary scenarios which sees them wearing masks and social distancing.               

Similar financial adjustments also ring true for Post Vidai, purportedly Vietnam’s largest private collection of local and international contemporary art (“Vidai” in Vietnamese means “great” or “monumental”, states its company website). Its director Arlette Quynh Anh Tran reveals to me that its acquisition budget for the remaining months of 2020 has been put on hold. While well-funded museums and galleries in the United States and Europe can afford an allocated budget for picture-perfect 3D online tours of their latest exhibitions as well as in-depth talks with their curators, the practice remains costly for even the most commercially established contemporary galleries like Galerie Quynh and Vin Gallery in Saigon. Linh Chu, gallery manager of Galerie Quynh, shares in an email the challenge of international collectors not being able to travel to Vietnam to directly purchase their favourite works. Instead, the gallery now relies on emailed catalogues to connect with foreign buyers, while upholding a firm belief that its local collectors are interested in investing in the arts in the long-term, which will keep the market afloat.

“At the early stage of the pandemic, what I tried to do was to secure the gallery’s physical space as well as all of my staff, who have been with me for such a long time,” shares Shyevin S’ng of Vin Gallery over Zoom from Malaysia, where she has been stationed for the past three months. This has been her longest period of absence from Vietnam, even considering her extensive work travels prior to the pandemic. Structurally her gallery has already cultivated an online presence via Artsy since last November, and though Ms Shyevin believes that online sales is the way to move forward, she conceded that it boils down to the collectors’ buying behaviour. “The majority of my collectors are friendships which I have been personally cultivating over the years. Our online revenues come mostly from them, and they have been generously supportive of the gallery and our artists through the past challenging months,” she says. The only setback of Artsy is the fact that it has yet to implement a direct payment infrastructure, either via PayPal or wired bank transfer. “It shines a light on very pragmatic matters – what if you don’t personally know a gallery’s direct contact point, and a painting never got delivered once the payment has been made?” she stresses. “With Vin Gallery, we have been fortunate enough to finalise sales of artworks that are relatively more affordable, meaning thousands of dollars [in sales] in place of hundreds of dollars in the past months”. 

On a more optimistic outlook, the first week of July marked the happenings of “Nổ Cái Bùm” (roughly translated as “Exploding with a Bomb”), an intensive art week organised in Vietnam’s central city of Hue by local art collectives and funded by generous patrons which include established artists and in-town businesses. The event boasts artworks from 56 artists nationwide displayed in Hue’s major art spaces, along with other activities such as five open studio sessions, two performance art events, a contemporary dance performance and one discussion regarding film and cinema. The event’s organisers hope to provide a stupendous kickstart to the relatively under-appreciated Hue – as compared to the more active scenes in Saigon and Hanoi, even though the city boasts one of the finest art schools in Vietnam –  as well as a morale boost to artists and art enthusiasts across the country’s North-South elongated geographic stripe. The event had originally been scheduled for April. 

 Artist Phan Hải Bằng welcoming guests to their studio during Nổ Cái Bùm in Hue, Vietnam. Courtesy of organisers.

Le Thien Bao, a Saigon-based curator and Nổ Cái Bùm’s co-organiser, describes it as a  “love letter to the city of Hue” and “a collective effort of the local artists, with zero interference/input from the established curators, myself included”. “It’s all about the artists having an open stage to toy and play with, to freely and intimately express their arts, soul to soul, without censorship enacted by our government,” she adds.  Echoing her opinion, Bill Nguyen of The Factory expresses his hope for a more open dialogue between various players contributing to Vietnam’s art and cultural sector: “We’re not attacking nor being critical [of the government’s policies], but in an ideal scenario, all concerned parties should be able to understand one another’s position, that the end result that we’re all striving for is an elevated stature of Vietnamese art in the global stage as well as the promotion of our local artists.”

With most major international art fairs and cultural exchange programmes, such as Venice Biennale and Art Basel, currently facing uncertain reschedulings or definitive cancellations, or migrated online, the contemporary art galleries in Vietnam are also deprived of worldwide exposure (thus a stream of revenues) as well as residency opportunities, funding and resources for artists. Post Vidai’s Artlette Quynh Anh Tran had her own personal brush with the effects of the pandemic on global movement when she was forced to return to Saigon in March whilst pursuing a Masters degree in Aesthetics and Politics at California Institute of the Arts. “[It was] such a fortuitous strike of luck since I do need to conduct my research in Vietnam at one point this year for my thesis,” she shares. Her experience boarding the last flight into the country before its suspension of international flights, and her subsequent quarantine experience is well-documented here

Artlette Quynh Anh Tran during quarantine in Saigon. Courtesy of the artist.

A member of Ho Chi Minh City-based art collective Art Labor together with artists Truong Cong Tung and Phan Thao Nguyen, Ms. Arlette’s international activities with the collective have either been steadfastly carried out (without the artists’ attendance) or indefinitely postponed, which include an exhibition in South Korea back in April and a panel discussion with the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, while her upcoming curated shows for Galerie Quynh have been pushed back to August and November respectively. “From my personal point of view, the art establishments in Vietnam which we’re so accustomed to [visiting and paying] close attention to have been relatively slow in response to the new reality compared to the rest of the world,” she observes. “But to be fair, as a nation we have effectively controlled the outbreak, and reduced the nationwide social quarantine period to last only two weeks.” Ms. Arlette points out the fact that when it comes to virtual efforts concerning Vietnam-based artists, it has been mainly initiatives organised outside of Vietnam, namely Dinh Q. Le’s chat at the STPI, Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s Whitney screening, and Phan Thao Nguyen’s two-week run exposure on Vdrome

Cam Anh Luong documenting her mother after brain surgery. Courtesy of the artist. 

For Cam Anh Luong, an emerging artist currently active in the city of Berlin, a planned three-week visit back home to Buon Me Thuot in the central highlands of Vietnam ended up becoming a four-month period of isolation. Ms. Cam Anh arrived in Berlin in 2016 with a background in graphic and industrial design – but found a natural transition into the arts with the availability of state-funded resources and infrastructural support  in Germany. Back in Berlin, her project “Menseer” (the German word “mensa” means “canteen”), which aims to explore the social and cultural status of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Colour) students in Berlin, has been postponed from this month to the later half of 2021.

She confesses to a certain sense of solitude and disassociating identities split between two major cities. “During my stay in Vietnam, I have been fulfilling the role of not being an artist, but a devoted mother to my son, and a daughter to my ailing mother,” she tells me. “Frankly speaking, I couldn’t concentrate 100% of my time on my online classes nor discussions with my collective in Berlin, for reality poses the challenge of women still being confined in their conventionally assigned place in the kitchen in my hometown.” She adds with a laugh: “Of course I do cook my own meals in Berlin, yet in comparison to my exhilarated spirit when I returned to Vietnam earlier this year with my confirmed funded project, the past four months have been a more solemnly reflective period, for which I’m entirely grateful.”

* On July 22, Vietnam confirmed the first case of COVID-19 community transmission in 100 days


This article is supported by Splice Lights On.

Quyen Hoang is an independent writer based in Saigon.

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