After a complicated period, the Vietnamese conceptual art scene in Ho Chi Minh City is gaining more traction and support. Last month, Nguyen Art Foundation, San Art, and Mot+++ jointly launched A. Farm in District 12. This new artist residency program offers spaces to work and educational opportunities with three expenses-paid spots reserved for Southeast Asian artists.
Positive developments for Vietnamese conceptual art are not limited to A. Farm. Brian Curtin has been hired as the new curator for San Art Center and is helping to bring the gallery back to the forefront of the industry.
In October 2017, Mot+++ went through a rebranding which reflects an expanded focus. They also started a six-month program of shows in March focused on performance art that concludes this month. And the end of 2017 witnessed the arrival of a new gallery—Arts-Ventures—located in District 2.
Earlier this year A. Farm hosted an exhibition to celebrate its soft opening. The show was open-invitation and diverse in both form and content with the work of recent art school graduates on display alongside pieces by famous Vietnamese artists. This DIY, equal-opportunity show was the perfect opportunity for us to track down four innovative Vietnamese conceptual artists worth watching with the help of Mot+++’s David Willis.
Truong Cong Tung’s work takes major influence from his childhood in the Central Highlands, where he was surrounded by nature and animal life. Much of his work reckons with the changes that have transformed this part of the country, namely the spread of plantations.
But the focal point of all his art isn’t the Central Highlands. Pushing against the idea of absolute truth is another dominant theme throughout much of his Vietnamese conceptual art.
“I like ambiguities,” Tung explains. “I don’t think a lot about the distinction between reality and fiction. Fiction is a rich space to have understanding.”
Some of his work also deals with the spread of information and the internet. Because I don’t speak English fluently, much of the information I receive is non-textual. And that always leaves me hungry for more,” he says. One piece inspired by this yearning is called “Circle of Maya.” It is a collection of drawings created by tracing images found on Google and then layering them on top of one other.
#2 Bao Vuong
“Art should be engaged,” says Bao Vuong. “In all respects, art is powerful.”
Bao was born in Vietnam in 1978, but his family left the country by boat shortly after and he spent most of his life in France. He remembers that during his time, he connected with his homeland in small ways—by burning incense, for example—which he now incorporates into the imagery and themes of his art.
He attended art school in the south of France. The school was nontraditional—instead of teaching a curriculum that focused on specific technical skills, professors encouraged the artists to explore their own interests. This experience ensured Bao felt no ties to any particular medium. Instead, he mixes techniques to create his own version of Vietnamese conceptual art. “When you’re an artist, you have to create a new language,” he explains.
This eclectic training and those childhood experiences paid off in “The Crossing,” Bao’s solo exhibition at Arts-Ventures.
One painting recalled dark waves, with the horizon unclear. Bao says that he used trial and error to create the painting technique. He ended up layering the paint so thick that the painting almost broke in half during its installation because of its massive weight.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was a collection of water-filled jars with pictures floating inside. Some of the pictures were family photos, but viewed from above, the collective design resembled a human shape.
Bao says the piece comments on how state actors can rob tragedy victims of their individuality—how he fears he could have become a statistic if he had perished when his family was on the boat.
But his primary audience is closer to home. “Maybe it’s naive, but it’s a letter to my mother. I want to tell her how courageous she was and that I understand how difficult it must have been—I can relate.”
#3 Nguyen Kim Duy
Nguyen Kim Duy is an experimental visual artist from Hanoi. He is also one of the first group of residents at A. Farm, where he will be based for the next six months.
Kim Duy’s father and grandfather were both artists, but it was only at 22 that his own love for art materialized and he decided to pursue a career in Vietnamese conceptual art. He studied at the Vietnam University of Fine Art and then left for Nuremberg, Germany, where he lived for six years.
One of Kim Duy’s recent works is “Field of Shredded Paper,” in which he shredded over 2000 war photographs and spread them over the gallery floor. It is a commentary on the impossibility of ever telling a complete story. “Every author can just see a part of the world or event,” he says.
“I don’t try to be directly political in my work, but art is tied to politics nonetheless,” he explains. “Mostly, I just want to do art as art.”
He says he is excited by the state of the art scene today. The younger generations, he thinks, have more information available and spaces to practice in than ever before.
Kim Duy will be showing the work he produces at A. Farm in December, alongside other works of Vietnamese conceptual art.
#4 Nguyen Huynh Phuong An
Nguyen Huynh Phuong An is a freelance fashion and commercial photographer, but she caught the eyes of the curators at A. Farm for her mixed-media work at the exhibition. She is at the beginning of her journey with Vietnamese conceptual art and is the only person on this list who is not a full-time artist.
The piece at the exhibition used wax, photography, and traditional medicines as its materials—it protruded out from the wall almost like an altar. It also played with the audience’s sense of smell, expelling both unsettling and calming aromas.
Phuong An says that this piece was meant to highlight the juxtaposition between humanity and nature. “We should live together with nature to understand natural remedies and their benefits—to be wiser in choosing what goes into our bodies,” she says. “Nowadays, humans think we’re the center of the universe. But we’re developing quickly, which brings many consequences to the environment. We need to be mindful of that.”
“Photography defines who I am and gives me freedom of expression,” she says. “Each image encapsulates my own personality, emotion, and how I really perceive things.”