Works in Vietnamese artist Phan Quang’s exhibition exploring the constraints of modern living were censored by the Vietnamese government.
“Space/ Limit”, an exhibition of photographs and installations by Phan Quang, opened in February 2013 at Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City. However, only two of the nine intended artworks were exhibited; an installation and six photographs were denied approval for exhibition by the Vietnamese government.
Sàn Art had applied for an approval licence from the Vietnamese government (as is required by law), but two days before the exhibition was due to open, the gallery received notification from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism that only one image and one installation could be shown. The Ministry did not provide any explanation for its decision to disallow exhibition of the works.
Given the amount of work already undertaken for the show, Sàn Art decided to install the exhibition and document it photographically. They placed the restricted works in storage just hours before the exhibition was due to open. “Not allowed to exhibit” signs were installed in place of the removed photographs, quoting from the Ministry’s licence to the gallery.
Arlette Quỳnh-Anh Trần, Assistant Curator at Sàn Art, explained that the gallery set up an information table with photos of the installed exhibition and hoped that by providing these documentary photographs, the public could not only get a sense of how the show should have looked, but also experience Phan Quang’s works, even if indirectly.
Bamboo cage metaphor for space, limitation
Quang’s photographs depict people and objects carefully staged within oversized bamboo cages. Throughout Vietnam, bamboo cages are used extensively in rural life to transport poultry and other small animals. The artist juxtaposes this rustic container with imagery of modern living. The bamboo cage is open and spacious, yet it contains and limits. Quang’s work raises questions about how to live as part of a collective, a community, a nation. How can an individual maintain integrity within a community while seeking innovation beyond what is already practiced or believed?
Quang says of his work, in a media release produced by Sàn Art,
My idea of ‘limit’ is a story of an individual, examining the limits that I have set for myself in my habits and daily behaviour. How can I improve these limits to be able to live a better life? For this exhibition, I have created bamboo cages that look similar to those made for birds and poultry. Such objects are a metaphor for me to visually challenge understanding of my personal space, my home, where I belong and feel most confident. This kind of structure I use to refer my own social self, a self affected and influenced by mass media, material greed, the myths, illusions and dreams in my mind that counteract with the community in which I live and work, with the places I visit and the various social rituals that I keep repeating. This meeting of desire and reality can affect the worldview and awareness of anyone; it may be beneficial but can also create subjective isolation. I want to awaken the consciousness of myself and the way I communicate with the world, perhaps the cages surrounding me could be removed and become a hollow porous material that is easily overcome.
Approach to space echoes political climate
The entrance to the gallery was transformed by a bamboo structure so that the viewer would experience the limiting space of the gallery upon entering. Nguyen-vo Thu-huong, a writer and professor of Asian Languages and Cultures, and Asian American Studies, at the University of California, Los Angles writes in the essay “Strange Nation: Phan Quang in Space/Limit”, that the art gallery is restricted by social and political pressure.
In Vietnam, that limit is not so subtly exerted by the state with its direct censorship in giving or refusing permits for each exhibition. The art gallery, viewers, and here we must conclude, the artists themselves, some trained abroad, all must operate in these bamboo cages of the international art market, the West-dominated field of art history, and the state.
Phan Quang also developed works which were not made available for broad public viewing due to the strong themes of the subject matter and nudity. These are shown below.
About Phan Quang
Phan Quang was born in 1976 and grew up on a farm in Binh Dinh province. He now lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. In 1999, he graduated from the University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City and later began working in photography, starting his own commercial photographic studio, named Stop & Go, in 2004. His first solo exhibition was held at Galerie Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010. He has also exhibited in group exhibitions hosted by the Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum in 2012, the Institute Francais of Cambodia and Kumho Museum of Art, South Korea in 2011.
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