“Vũ Dân Tân and the Music” at Goethe-Institut Vietnam celebrates the birthday of the visual artist known for his alternative take on contemporary Vietnamese art.
Long considered the acute opposite of mainstream Vietnamese contemporary art, artist Vũ Dân Tân is celebrated with an exhibition that examines his mixed media and installation practice, which towards the end of his life incorporated sound and music components as a means to interrogate the cultural traditions of his home country.
Vu Dan Tan. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
Vietnamese contemporary artist Vũ Dân Tân had a reputation as the alternative face of Vietnamese contemporary art, pushing his artistic expressions as a counter-mainstream artist since the 1970s. This latest solo exhibition, “Vu Dan Tan and the Music”, organised by Goethe Institute to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth and running from 8 to 28 October 2016, explores Vũ Dân Tân’s experimental terrain in his later life, combining sound and music in his innovative creative visual practice. The solo show features music and art series, music compositions and abstraction previously not exhibited.
The article is titled after the curatorial essay by Iola Lenzi. Lenzi has advanced new art historical ideas about the relevance of Vũ Dân Tân to Vietnamese contemporary art. The exhibition forms a basis of understanding these new art historical insights about how music helped open the way to a multi-disciplinary practice for Vũ Dân Tân.
Vũ Dân Tân, “Record-sleeves” Series, 1995 – 1999, transformed LP record-sleeves, gouache, acrylic and ink on paper, approx 29 x 29 cm. Image courtesy Paramita Leertouwer-Gupta.
During the height of the American War (the Vietnam War), Vũ Dân Tân entertained in the street playing sonatas on his baby-grand piano from his home located at 30 Hang Bong Street in Hanoi. For Vũ Dân Tân, music and piano came to symbolise the idea of liberty and freedom through the possibilities of music. Eventually, this ideology would evolve into the interdisciplinary experimentation of music and visual art. The art historian and curator of the show, Iola Lenzi, states in her curatorial essay “Music as Freedom: sound in the visual art practice of Vietnam’s Vũ Dân Tân”:
Vũ Dân Tân’s pioneering amalgamation of audio and visual components in a single work is characteristic of the formal emancipation and sophisticated conceptual layerings of emerging contemporary art in Vietnam and wider Southeast Asia.
Japanese TV Production performance, Salon 2000, Vu Dan Tan, Hanoi Artists and friends at Salon Natasha. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
Vũ Dân Tân: The Artist
Vũ Dân Tân (1946-2009) (known as “Tân”) mainly lived and worked in his beloved Hanoi, 30 Hang Bong Street, for most of his life. Married to the Russian linguist Natalia Kraevskaia, they co-founded Salon Natasha in the 1990s, which became a communal art space for local artists to discuss and practise their creativity. At one point, Tân crammed four pianos into their small space and enjoyed playing to the street. Music was a source of freedom, inspiration and joy to Tân.
Tân came from an intellectual family and he was well versed in architecture, classical Greek mythology, Western philosophy, music, literature, global current events and history. He used his intellect as references, and took, among others, Icarus, Paganini Venus, Napoleon and Don Quixote as iconography in his artistic expressions to create humour and new narratives.
Vu Dan Tan, “Record-Sleeve Series”, , 1995-1999, transformed LP record-sleeves, gouache, acrylic on paper, approx. 29 x 29 cm. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
His artistic practice began from 1975. Tân was a self-taught artist and not part of the Vietnamese official academia, which was founded on French style high art and oil painting traditions. Instead in the early 1970s, Tân’s artistic process pushed the boundaries of Vietnamese art to create innovative and experimental three-dimensional forms and multimedia installations and later progressed to performance and sound.
Lenzi’s curatorial essay mentions that in an interview with Ian Were, art writer, entitled “Vũ Dân Tân’s Front Window View”, Tân stated:
I have been working in this front window studio since 1980, and the street is with me same as the music, the sounds of the street give me a very good feeling and I prefer to work with the street than in silence […] the streets, the people and those sounds give me joy and my work is part of the street, with a constant audience and ambivalence […] it provides me with ideas.
Vũ Dân Tân, ‘Vũ Dân Tân and his Piano’, 1977, guache on paper. The painting includes himself and references his earlier aesthetics; miniature masks series and the function of music in his visual arts. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
Artistic expression: Site, Sound and Intellect
The clue to Tân’s engagement of music and art can be traced to the “Basket Mask” series in 1975. His use of craft material and iconographic elements of cheo theatre in the “Basket Mask” series is [was] not limited to a symbolic representation of traditional culture. In this early experiment with installation, Tân wanted the viewer to consider the performative nature of cheo theatre. By using the concept of ‘series’, like a musical bar, he continuously interchanges and opens new narratives over and over again, looking beyond the cultural practices and reflecting on contemporary issues such as changing identity, movement and music.
Vũ Dân Tân, inscription “Dr Amadeus Vu Dan Tan (Scientist)”, detail of site-specific installation, ‘Being Minorities’, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 1997. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
According to Iola Lenzi, Tân’s strategy of using installation and series was quite remarkable, unique and avant-garde at that time. Vietnam was still impacted by the effects of the American War and access to global trends was limited. Mainstream artists continued to feature official narrative and representational painting such as landscape, portraits and figures. Tân, through his own innovative process, became a counter-mainstream artist challenging perceptions of nationalism and identity through his unconventional intellectual art practice, by using everyday materials, iconography, humour and discourse rather than direct subversion.
It makes sense that the strategic concepts and multi-disciplinary practice he used over the three decades of his career would eventually evolve into the eclectic ensemble of sound and performance, music and visual art and grand-scale compositions of music and geometric abstraction featured in the current exhibition.
Vũ Dân Tân, sound installation, piano improvisations of a single day in Hanoi – originally produced for “Out of Context”, a 2005 group exhibition at Huntington Beach Art Centre, California, USA. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
Vu Dan Tan’s final works: Music, Freedom and Grand compositions
The exhibition features works by Tân from the 1990s and shows how music became part of his expressive language. The 1990s was a more relaxed time in Vietnam. The country became more open from 1986, embracing economic reforms and consumerism with a policy known as Doi moi. Post-Doi moi, Natalia Kraevskaia noted in her essay “Society and Art after Doi Moi”:
The late 1990s has introduced to the viewer works where the artists were no longer shy to speak about their inner and spiritual search, in general, their individual values.
Vũ Dân Tân, musical score ‘Moscow My Love’, 2007. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
Post-Doi moi for Tân was about creating unhindered grand scale compositions combining Vietnamese folk and classical western music. Jun Zubillaga-Pow, a musical scholar writes in “Between Classical and Folk” that
His [Tân’s] musical creativity did not blossom until the final decade of his life. […] Yet, when the creative sparks are triggered, we get monumental ambitions in composing concerti, symphonies and songs.
The exhibition’s eclectic collection includes music and sound installation as well as works by Vũ Dân Tân, the composer.
Vũ Dân Tân, ‘Hands’, performance of cut-out cardboard hands on piano keyboard, colour film, cinematography Nguyen Quang Huy, 2:46 min, for FAIRY TALE SOUP exhibition in Hanoi, 2000. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
Sound and Performance
Tân’s work Hands, a sound and performance installation, captures changes in Hanoi life through observing the changes to noise on the streets in Hanoi. Movement, repetition of scales and clunking sounds record noise from official public address changing to blasting of pop-music from Salon Natasha’s neighbouring shops, and the sound of continuous horns and beeps from cars and motorcycles.
Vũ Dân Tân, “Transformed & Deformed Record” Series, 1993-1999, transformed including heat-transformed, vinyl-LP records, acrylic and paper on vinyl records, D-30 cm. Image courtesy Paramita Leertouwer-Gupta.
Vũ Dân Tân, part of “Transformed & Deformed Record” Series, 1993-1999. Image courtesy Paramita Leertouwer-Gupta.
Tân enjoyed Long Play (LP) records, buying them from overseas at every opportunity. He began collecting LPs and turntable record players. Although he adulterated the records and turntables with abstract shapes and motifs, the images reconveyed the essence of the music in abstract form. Iola Lenzi, in her curatorial essay explains:
Yet, the concept of music, embedded in the object however deformed, survives as the record is re-incarnated as a thing of material rather than intangible beauty. Tân is thus using the power of music-as-idea to create visual art that is both formally accomplished and underpinned by concept.
The turntables rendered with motifs, names and destination are no longer objects. They represent motion and movement. Music can be disseminated and permeated with no boundaries and became a platform for Tân’s ideology of freedom and liberty through the expression of music.
Vũ Dân Tân, ‘Mefisto and Arlekino’ , 1998, transformed portable LP record-players, gouache and acrylic on unvarnished wooden case (inside and outside) and on inside metal fittings, 46 x 34 x 19 cm. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
Along with the record series, the geometric abstraction works have not been exhibited before. Interestingly, abstraction as a medium was only officially authorised in 1992. It was before unauthorised due to its capitalist associations.
Abstraction was therefore something new for Tân, and his geometric abstract compositions mostly appear as grid-like, checker board formations that have repeated variations in vibrant colours.
Vũ Dân Tân, ‘Geometric abstraction’, mid 2000s, mixed, oil or acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
It is an oddity that in the last years of his life Tân took to painting on canvas. His wife, Natalia Kraevskaia, speaking to Art Radar, suggested that “perhaps he wanted to return or seek solace to something classical whether it be art or music”. The bright colours of classical, geometric abstraction dominate one side of the exhibition. It is difficult to imagine how Tân would have worked on such large canvas in the small space of Salon Natasha, which was his studio as well.
Jun Zubillaga-Pow, musical scholar, adds that in his later life the artist was driven by bigger ambitions to create monumental works such as his compositions; and in parallel, he wanted to create large-scale paintings to create monumental forms of expression and adding more elements to repeat the geometric shapes in numerous forms like different musical scales.
Natalia Kraevskaia, Co-founder of Salon Natasha and Iola Lenzi, art historian and curator, seated next to Vũ Dân Tân’s piano in Salon Natasha, Hanoi. Image courtesy Paramita Leertouwer-Gupta.
Vu Dan Tan: Legacy of the alternative artist
The exhibition brings together an eclectic array of exhibits of new sound and music, music and art and older works that were a key facet of Vũ Dân Tân’s unconventional media. The exhibition is significant from an art historical perspective, for the innovation that Tân brought to Vietnamese contemporary art practice.
Over the years, the Goethe-Institut has exhibited Vũ Dân Tân in group and solo shows. Speaking to Art Radar, Dr Almuth Meyer-Zollitsch, Director, Goethe institute felt it was only fitting to hold a special and hitherto unseen works from Vũ Dân Tân’s oeuvre to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth.
Dr Almuth Meyer-Zollitsch, Director, Goethe Institute, Hanoi. Image courtesy Paramita Leertouwer-Gupta.
Dr Almuth Meyer-Zollitsch is the outgoing Director in Hanoi and is relocating to Hong Kong. Speaking to Art Radar, she reveals that she regarded Vũ Dân Tân as one of the prolific avant-garde artists who had no boundaries. She had the pleasure to organise an exhibition to mark the one-year anniversary of his death.
Over the years, she has visited Salon Natasha and realised more and more how unique and avant-garde his art was at that time. He worked with readymade materials – poor materials such as cardboard and cigarette packs – to create his own visual language without any connection to international sources. She felt the younger generation in Vietnam should have the opportunity to see and read about his works so they could learn from it.
Vũ Dân Tân, ‘Spring’, multi-object installation, part of the exhibition “GAP VIET NAM”, House of World Cultures – Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 1999. Image courtesy Salon Natasha.
Finally, she felt that it was important to continue the relationship between Vũ Dân Tân and Germany through Goethe because he had first installed his multi-object installation featuring his pianos in Berlin.
Iola Lenzi, art historian and curator of the show adds:
Vietnamese experimental art formed part of the larger Southeast Asia picture. However, in the 1990s, Vũ Dân Tân’s persistent incorporation of music or music’s features into his visual practice, and the way in which Tân mined sound’s formlessness and conceptual properties was unknown in Southeast Asia […] to show Vũ Dân Tân and Vietnamese art’s is an important contribution to recent Southeast Asian art history.
Related topics: Vietnamese artist, sound art, installation, mixed media, Vietnam
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