The exhibition, co-presented by de Sarthe Gallery and Art Agenda S.E.A., features major new work by Ho Chi Minh City-based contemporary artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran.
Displayed alongside 40 other works by Vietnamese artists of historical significance, the contemporary artist’s work forms a dialogue with modern masterpieces central to the narrative of modern Vietnamese Art from the pre- and post-war era.
“Departures: Intersecting Modern Vietnamese Art with R. Streitmatter-Tran” is on view at de Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong from 26 May to 8 July 2017, and is Ho Chi Minh City-based contemporary artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran’s first major solo presentation in Hong Kong. In the exhibition, his artwork intersects with canonical modern Vietnamese art by artists Lê Phổ, Lê Quang Tinh, Lê Thị Lựu, Lê Văn Đệ, Lương Xuân Nhị, Mai Trung Thứ, Nguyễn Gia Trí, Nguyễn Hồng Linh, Nguyễn Phan Chánh, Tô Ngọc Vân, Trinh Van, Vũ Cao Đàm, and French artists Évariste Jonchère and Victor Tardieu.
Born in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, Richard Streitmatter-Tran grew up in the United States. Following his return to Vietnam in 2003, his works have been exhibited internationally, including at Para Site, Hong Kong; Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong; Singapore Art Museum, Singapore; The 2nd Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale, Indonesia; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Vietnamese Women’s Museum, Hanoi; The Forth Guangzhou Triennial, Guangzhou; Asia Triennial Manchester, United Kingdom; 2nd Singapore Biennale, Singapore; 52nd Venice Biennale, Collateral Events, Venice; and ZKM: Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany.
Art Radar interviews the artist to find out more about his current show and his artistic practice.
Perception and Representation of Vietnam by different cultures
Since you have lived in both the United States and Vietnam, do you think people in the West and people in Vietnam perceive Vietnam differently? If so, what is the difference in terms of their representation of the country?
Unless you have been to Vietnam, I think that one can hardly imagine all of the changes that have occurred in this country since the conflict between the two nations. Some interesting facts that might surprise many Americans is that Vietnam is the 14th largest country by population now approaching 95 million people, surpassing all European and African nations (with the exception of Nigeria and Ethiopia).
While there are well-established Vietnamese communities throughout the world from the diaspora, that influence is now being acknowledged. The Czech Republic has officially recognised its Vietnamese population as of one of its ethnic minorities, currently being its third largest group after the Slovaks and Ukrainians. The Vietnamese surname Nguyen has surpassed Smith to become Australia’s most common family name. But to answer your question more directly, the United States very often has a reflex to frame Vietnam in terms of its own modern history of conflicts. The Vietnam-American war is still a very prominent marker for the United States and those of my parents’ generation that lived through that tumultuous era in the sixties and seventies still remember the hard fought wins (civil and women’s rights) and losses (the many American soldiers that lost their lives in a military and political campaign that failed).
Although the Cold War itself has ended over 25 years ago with the dissolution of communism throughout much of the world, Vietnam remains one of the remaining five countries with this type of governance (along with China, Laos, North Korea and Cuba). The US and Vietnam recently celebrated their twentieth anniversary of normalised relations in 2015 and I believe now as more Americans travel to Southeast Asia, they will see a very different Vietnam than the representations that exist from news footage and Hollywood films. I mean, does any American city look the same as it did in 1967? The question now I suppose is, will America continue to engage the world in the spirit of cooperation or head towards a more xenophobic and insular nation, as the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and lack of enthusiasm for NATO might indicate?
I relocated to Vietnam in 2003, shortly after I finished art school. Primarily, as an American, to see more of the world. Prior to that, I had only travelled abroad as a soldier in the US Army and I knew that I needed to see the world on my own terms rather through the lens of the military. And it is through this military lens that America very often still sees the world, largely through depictions in films. And it is no surprise that the camera has often been equated with a weapon. Of course the relation of media to propaganda are well known, but the camera and the gun share in common a basic vocabulary – the camera doesn’t create images, it aims, shoots and captures.
I suppose that Vietnam will have to create its own representation to the world. If America is going to make any films about Vietnam, it will probably stick to the same period of conflict, perhaps with a more critical or revisionist bent. Vietnam is likely not on the radar of many Americans for what it is doing today. Or Vietnam simply becomes the backdrop for some blockbuster film, such as [the recent] King Kong – Return to Skull Island.
But how does Vietnam represent itself? This is also an issue that confronts many creatives in Vietnam. Representations of everyday life that are not seen as depicting Vietnam in the best possible way are sometimes censored. They need not be overtly critical or political: traffic congestion, pollution, poverty have all been ground for artwork being removed from exhibitions. Women are typically depicted as they are imagined rather than as they exist, and this was also true in many of the modernist paintings you see in this exhibition: in traditional dresses reading the classics, or with child.
And this is why I was so attracted to the work of Nguyễn Phan Chánh, who broke away from his peers at the École des Beaux Arts in his insistence to paint working women performing everyday tasks rather than the imaginary muses of Lê Phổ or Mai Trung Thứ. It will be up to Vietnam’s younger generation of artists to fight for the right to portray their country and lives as they see it. Hopefully the cultural infrastructure will adapt to let this change occur..
History and identity
Sociopolitical factors influence artistic practice. Can you tell us something about how the history of Vietnam informed your art practice, or the art practice of other artists you observe in the Vietnamese art scene?
I am typically not as concerned with the history of Vietnam as the starting point for most of my works. However, this exhibition is an exception. I started with some basic research about the establishment of the art school in Hanoi and tried to develop some broad observations about the artists as a group: women as muses, derivative from many of the popular emerging European artists of the time such as Chagal and Modigliani, impressionist techniques, and by and large a nostalgic look towards a Vietnam that had not existed for some time. Many of the works were painted on silk instead of canvas, so I proposed to the gallery to create a series of silk paintings, despite not being too familiar with this medium myself.
For me, it was less an attempt to recreate works that were done 80 years earlier but rather a material challenge. Without the proposition from De Sarthe Gallery and Art Agenda S.E.A, I would not have likely gone in this direction naturally, and I’m really pleased to have learned quite a lot historically about that special time in Vietnamese art and added a few new skills to my practice along the way.
Many of my works over the last several years seem to oscillate between the use of very traditional materials in a classic studio setting (working with live models and water based clay for example) to non-traditional everyday materials (sugar and edible rice paper). I forced myself within two months to become as familiar as possible with various media on silk.
I started with dyes that would have to be chemically set and washed, and with some research and observations of the silk works of others, I decided to try watercolour. However, I found that to achieve the desired effects on silk, I adapted an older traditional Chinese method of working known as Gongbi, which requires the silk to be properly sized with glue and alum, after which a tonal underpainting in black and white on the reverse side of the silk is completed before moving to the pigmented facing surface. To my knowledge, none of the Vietnamese masters were working in this technique. So, in a roundabout way, the works were informed by history but not executed to be faithful to any particular school or philosophy.
It goes without saying that every artist should work in the way they see fit and with the issues and content they are interested in. Unlike some of my peers, I now prefer to work with the material becoming the starting point as opposed to concepts coming first. As much as possible, all the work is done by my own hand, from painting to sculpture. This guiding principle forces me to regularly learn new things and improve my skills. I rarely have works fabricated for me by other artists or artisans. In the case of the work The Gates of Hell, a two-metre iron gate, I sketched out the design and worked with a blacksmith to weld as I do not yet have the proper welding skills. I then did the patina myself after all the pieces were in place.
I’m finding this mode of working extremely satisfying and the slowness of coming to terms with new materials and techniques allows me to remain with each challenge until I have some mastery. It feels like a more healthy way of working, whereas earlier in my career I would constantly be searching for the next new idea. I’m not saying that external fabrication or having a studio of artists working on your pieces isn’t a valid model, but it’s not really the model that works for me.
And as far as my own personal history is concerned, I rarely do works that are autobiographical, whether it deals with being a naturalised immigrant or an expat in the country of my birth, or as a veteran dealing with war or trauma. I feel the biggest challenges are within me and as such I struggle in the studio to produce works that provide meaningful experiences for me. And those experiences change. I used to believe years ago as a student that all artwork should be somehow a comment on the external conditions under which we perceive to live (politics, community). I was primarily a performance artist at that time, where social interaction was primary and essential. Now I’m somewhat of a studio hermit, preferring to discover new things in my own space through doing, or through independent research. I rarely do community-based artwork, although I strongly support the community engaged work that other artists do.
As I said earlier, this exhibition was a bit different. The framework required that I respond to other works in the exhibition, although I was given complete freedom to create and comment as I saw fit. I wanted to dig further into the history of the nation by acknowledging the Cham kingdom that existed before the Đại Việt people arrived, and I felt it was necessary to comment on the darker side of colonialism.
Canons and materials
In the show, your work is shown alongside some ‘masterpieces’ from Vietnam that depict the traditional side of the country. Can you tell us more about your choice of materials and how you seek to challenge those established depictions of Vietnamese culture?
Yes, the cake and spraying water. I can’t really say there was a really compelling reason to use these materials or effects other than they seemed both the right form for the idea. Many of the ancient architectures were built in stone or brick and as such, they rely largely on compression forces as opposed to tensile forces. The effect is that the buildings were largely stacked in layers and it occurred to me that cakes were also constructed in similar ways. I’m interested in testing out different materials for sculpture. Basically anything that is malleable in one state and firm in another is potential material.
As for challenging depictions of Vietnamese culture, it really was not my intent to do so here. I had originally set out to do a work in stained glass or semi-transparent acrylic for The Lady of La Vang. I wanted to create a work that had connections to the history of Catholicism in Vietnam, of course, another import of French colonialism. I was not satisfied with the look for the stained glass paints, and painting directly on acrylic looked terrible. I decided to try to do a composition using construction paper informed by the work of Matisse, and I was happy with how it looked. I then cut pieces of coloured acrylic based on those paper cutouts. It looks like a critique when placed among the other two works featuring mother and child, but it is more a revelation about my own process of making than it is a direct comment on the modernist works.
- “The Game | Viet Nam”: the LE Brothers at Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok – January 2017 – the LE Brothers have placed themselves between the north and south of Vietnam in order to explore the challenges and opportunities after the reunification
- AIA Vietnam Eye: Vietnamese contemporary artists in focus – in pictures – December 2016 – Parallel Contemporary Art and the Saatchi Gallery team up with AIA Vietnam Life Insurance to present the major exhibition “AIA Vietnam Eye”and a book on contemporary Vietnamese art
- “Flat Sunlight”: Vietnamese artist Lena Bui at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City – in pictures – November 2016 – the new Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City holds exhibition organised by Oxford Clinical Research Unit, Ho Chi Minh City
- The plight of Ho Chi Minh City’s independent art space Sàn Art – February 2016 – censorship increases hold on local cultural initiative, forcing new decision to cut successful artist residency programme
- Living ‘day by day’ between Cambodia and Vietnam: Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai – interview – April 2015 – Art Radar caught up with Sovereign Asian Art Prize 2015 finalist Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai to hear about her latest project in the Vietnamese migrant communities
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