Nguyen Nhu Huy on curating a new path for Vietnamese contemporary art

Tired of being misrepresented by well-meaning but ill-informed western curators, Vietnamese video artist Nguyen Nhu Huy took curating into his own hands.

Nguyen Nhu Huy, one of the 27 curators of the Singapore Biennale 2013, began his career as a video-installation artist soon after graduating from Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art University in 1997. As an artist, he felt that his work and that of his compatriots was being misinterpreted by western curators with limited understanding of the local context, both culturally and politically. It was this frustration, as well as the desire to tell the world about local narratives, that prompted him to become an art curator.

Artist curator Nguyen Nhu Huy. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale.

Artist curator Nguyen Nhu Huy. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale.

“It seems everything is difficult!” Nguyen Nhu Huy asserts as he discusses the challenges of working as a curator in Vietnam. He cites the absence of arts infrastructure, the lack of understanding in contemporary art and government censorship as some of the more pressing issues in the development of Vietnam’s contemporary art scene.

As the artistic director of ZeroStation, an independent art space in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen says the most critical challenge for the arts community is the lack of funding: “In Vietnam, the government does not provide funding to independent arts organisations. We also have very few resources from grant-making foundations or NGOs.”

Lam Hieu Thuan, 'The Aesthetics of Disappearing|Apart-ment 727 Tran Hung Dao', 2004–2006, single channel video, duration 2 min. 38 sec., artist collection. Image courtesy the artist.

Lam Hieu Thuan, ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearing|Apart-ment 727 Tran Hung Dao’, 2004–2006, single channel video, duration 2 min. 38 sec., artist collection. Image courtesy the artist.

A breakthrough in Vietnam’s contemporary art scene

According to Nguyen, one of the most significant changes in Vietnam’s contemporary art scene occurred around 2005 at a time when many artists from Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City started to take their artistic practices from studio spaces to public spaces. The works they made ranged from performance art pieces to more complex public art projects that not only involved the audience, but materialised in and with the audience, in what French philosopher Nicolas Bourriaud called Relational Art.

“These kinds of art projects demanded new skills from curators who were organising them,” says Nguyen. Not only do they not fit into the mould of the white cube, they also tend to take place over longer periods of time, bringing about the possibility of more immediate and random encounters between the audience and the artwork.

Because of this, Nguyen explains, the role of a curator has been transformed from putting together avant-garde and experimental events in confined spaces for selective audiences, to interpreting art in public spaces, accessible to everyday audiences. The result is a more open relationship between curators and local audiences – a breakthrough in Vietnam’s curatorial practice.

This paradigm shift also created greater awareness for Vietnamese artists and curators of their discursive relationship with local audiences. “Today, the audience has been transformed into more active participants, to the extent that they become an organic part of art projects and can co-produce knowledge and discourse with the curators and artists, and together [they can] start to build the first communities for contemporary art in Vietnam,” says Nguyen.

Le Brothers, 'Into the Sea', 2011, three-channel video, duration 21 min., artists collection. Image courtesy the artists.

Le Brothers, ‘Into the Sea’, 2011, three-channel video, duration 21 min., artists collection. Image courtesy the artists.

Creating a new discourse for Vietnamese contemporary art

The 2013 Singapore Biennale features 82 artists and artist collectives, nine of which hail from Vietnam. Through this international platform, Nguyen wants to create a new discourse for Vietnamese contemporary art. He wants to introduce the audience to a new breed of artists who are creating new discursive subject matter for Vietnamese contemporary art in a post-colonial context, a subject matter that is more analytical than propagandistic and more critical than ideological.

In keeping with the curator’s grassroots approach, many of the Vietnamese artists featuring at the Singapore Biennale this year are little known and have never exhibited before. Vietnamese twin brothers and artist duo Le Brothers make their debut with video installation Into The Sea, a melancholic and poetic reflection on Vietnam’s conflict-laden history. Through this work, the artists explore the relationship between past and present, memories and reality, fantasy and everyday life. Nguyen points out that many contemporary Vietnamese artists are just beginning to experiment with moving images, diverging from the performance and installation art that Vietnamese contemporary art has often been associated with.

Nguyen Oanh Phi Phi, 'Specula', 2009, installation of Vietnamese lacquer on epoxy and fibreglass composite with iron frame, dimensions variable, artist collection. Image courtesy the artist and Matthew Dakin.

Nguyen Oanh Phi Phi, ‘Specula’, 2009, installation of Vietnamese lacquer on epoxy and fibreglass composite with iron frame, dimensions variable, artist collection. Image courtesy the artist and Matthew Dakin.

Also presented at the Singapore Biennale is Specula, a lacquer-based installation by Vietnamese-American artist Nguyen Oanh Phi Phi. A multi-layered creation process, Vietnamese lacquer is a labour-intensive medium that embodies the country’s complex history. “Specula” is Latin for “mirror” and the work serves as a mirror through which the artist examines her own transnational identity as a Vietnamese living overseas.

Nguyen Nhu Huy reveals that the artwork functions as a ritualistic space. Specula consists of a corridor with a curved apse, lit through frosted glass from beneath. The entire interior of the architectural space is painted in lacquer, which stands in sharp contrast with the industrial iron frame exterior. As the viewers move through the passageway, they can see how their own shadows and movements are reflected on the lacquer panels.

UuDam Tran Nguyen, 'Waltz of the Machine Equestrians – The Machine Equestrians', 2012, single channel video, duration 3 min., artist collection. Image courtesy the artist.

UuDam Tran Nguyen, ‘Waltz of the Machine Equestrians – The Machine Equestrians’, 2012, single channel video, duration 3 min., artist collection. Image courtesy the artist.

Reflecting on the lack of international recognition of Vietnamese contemporary art, Nguyen Nhu Huy says, “Contrary to what some may believe, I don’t think Vietnamese contemporary artists are weak in terms of art-making.”

He argues that many Vietnamese contemporary artists are in fact amongst the very best in Asia in terms of their audaciousness, but what they lack is knowledge of the art world in terms of how it functions. This lack of understanding, in his opinion, is the main obstacle for Vietnamese artists wanting to break into the international art scene.

“For Vietnamese artists to succeed internationally, they need to tell their own stories,” he says.

Other Vietnamese artists being showcased at this year’s Biennale include:

 Yvonne Wang

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Related Topics: Vietnamese art, biennales, interviews, curatorial practice, events in Singapore

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