(Part two of my posts about Sophie’s Art Tour in Ho Chi Minh).
The two dates that really matter to understanding Vietnam in the past 40 years are 1975 and 1986. 1975 (40 years ago this year) was when the American war ended and “reunionification” of the north and south happened (the image of the Fall of Saigon, a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates of the President’s palace is the most iconic). 1986 was when Vietnam “opened up” to western trade and travel, still communist but more porous and entrepreneurial.
One of the women on my tour yesterday was telling me about a young guide she and her husband had had. “You know, I think he was a communist,” she said, surprised. “Well, it is a communist country,” I said. But I knew what she meant. HCMC doesn’t “feel” communist — it feels full of life, enterprising, stuffed with people flogging goods and neon and banks and electronics. The occasional late model audi or BMW, and apple products, and european wine stores. Complete absence of creepy soviet bloc style architecture. People are “well behaved” and gentle on the street, but not overlaid with regimentation. You see a few people in uniforms, government and military, but not many, and almost no public propaganda. On the flight from Beijing to HCM, I discovered that you can’t use a phone in Chinese airspace at all, even to listen to music on airplane mode. That’s not a Vietnam-brand style of communism.
Touring through the last 40 years in art opened up a little understanding of the threads that aren’t visible at first glance. Post-war was at time of famine, fear, oppression. That was the time we know through the experiences of the “boat people” migration, tight controls that were supposed to be aimed at rebuilding the country but without any real relationship with the west. People starved, informed on each other, and there were controls on everything, including art. Artists were permitted to produce three kinds of images: art that glorified the pre-colonial past; the strength of the people; the rebuilding of the country.
When Vietnam opened up in 1986 and people were able to express themselves more freely, what emerged out of the years of constraint was astonishing. The first show of Vietnamese art in the west included these images:
Complex, stunning abstracts, just waiting to be part of a global conversation.
Fascinating; and the tussle between open expression by artists and the government’s continuing disquiet with art is written in these images’ placement. The government run Gallery of Fine Arts is a kind of indifferent yard sale, with rooms filled with randomly assorted images (“modern art”), zero interpretation of any of its collection, and no preservation (it’s open to the air). One end of the building, hallways and all, is randomly painted with a mural of the myth of the birth of vietnam, all dragons and fairies, apparently the pet project of a former curator.
Against this official ambivalence, the three or four independent galleries in HCMC feel like outposts gingerly testing the soil on a new planet. The show Some Things Remain, featuring about a dozen of Nguyen Thi Hien’s early pieces, is almost a memoir of an artist trying to grapple with the constraints on expression.
This is an early self portrait of the artist (I think; I seem to be blocked from accessing images of this artist from the airport wifi). Soldier, and artist who also produced this during those war years.
The critique of the fusion between state/culture and the west continues today.
The words mean something like “remember your culture.”
This one doesn’t even need words.
Almost everything contemporary we looked at had some element of grappling with identity, history, memory. Collage of family members against newspaper clippings. Dark abstracts meant to convey the fragmentation of truth overlaid over painful images of the past 50 years, figures that it becomes easier to see from further away.
One gallery had a show of more conceptual pieces, provoking questions about the meaning of utilitarian items when they are rendered useless. A mailbox made of barbed wire. A rain poncho made of water-soaking canvas. A security gate set off on its own. The kind of contemporary art that wouldn’t be out of place in Toronto. This kind of work seems to be rare, but it punctuates the story for me. Technically, all art shown in public venues needs to be approved by the government; “step out of line and you feel it,” affirmed the guide. But the lines seem relatively porous, with room to manoeuvre and create and stretch, like Ho Chi Minh itself.