Contemporary Art And Its Ability To Inspire Empathy | Vietcetera
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Aug 06, 2021

Contemporary Art And Its Ability To Inspire Empathy

An eye-opening conversation with Jun Tirtadji and Zoe Butt prompts us to think deeper about our preconceptions of contemporary art.

Contemporary Art And Its Ability To Inspire Empathy

From top left and clockwise: Luong Trinh, Nguyen Phuong Linh, Mai Nguyen Anh, Tuan Mami, Vu Ngoc Duc, Huy An, Tuan Then, Thanh Mai

During these difficult times, the voice of contemporary art has become increasingly necessary to comfort the difficulties facing human life and to help us reckon with our place in the world.

Contemporary art isn’t only limited to being beautiful and conforming to aesthetic standards, artists’ decisions can also contain emotions or views on social issues that comment on identity, the environment, inequality or discrimination.

However, a common criticism towards contemporary art is that it’s too ‘unrealistic’, this is just incorrect. Contemporary artists dissect current stories, viewing them through an emotional lens, and communicate their commentary through the artistic techniques they have at hand. We are all creatures of emotion, so to really understand a problem on a deeper level, what better way to do this than to create a work that invokes empathy to really resonate these ideas to the viewer?

Tran Tuan’s “Mây biến thể" (Mutated cloud), Tinh Tam lake, Hue, 2013

David Lynch, a renowned director, once said that “intuition is the perfect combination between knowledge and emotion.” Enjoying contemporary art is actually the process by which we intuitively perceive reality. 

If books and media can present the truth, then art can arouse the deepest queries within each viewer. It can prompt us to reassess our intuitions. In an art space, intuition becomes a compass that we use to locate our views, concerns, and beliefs that we have on social issues. Within these spaces, there is no concept of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only the personal opinions of each person. 

The spirit of Vietnam is often conveyed by Vietnamese artists. They understand the social reality of that experience, understand the abstraction of emotions, and are subsequently able to visualize that abstraction enough to share with others. They express this in every method, medium, and technique that they bring to their works.

Luong Trinh’s “Hậu cung" (Harem), in the series Chuyển Mây (Shifting Cloud), 2019

The role of an artist doesn’t stop at only beauty but also involves reflecting life through an artistic medium. The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre has organized, with the co-sponsorship of ROH Projects, Chu Foundation, and the support of Nguyen Art Foundation, the Artist Excellence Award (AEA). The AEA not only celebrates artistic skill but also evaluates how artists empathize with common issues pervasive within society.

To better understand contemporary art and its landscape in Vietnam, Vietcetera had the chance to talk to Ms. Zoe Butt, Artistic Director at The Factory. We were also joined by one of AEA’s co-sponsor, Mr. Jun Tirtadji, founder of ROH Projects, who also shared his support of contemporary art in Indonesia and the Southeast Asian region.

Zoe Butt and Jun Tirtadji. | Source: Le Thanh Tien/Davy Linggar

Through our conversation, we were able to become acquainted with contemporary art as an audience, enlightened about art’s ability to understand and breakthrough our preconceived notions of what ‘art’ can be. 

Part 1: What is Contemporary Art and what can it do?

Is art a means of empathizing with others?

Jun: Empathy is a good way to see art. Through art, we can connect and understand the experiences of others - perhaps even help them. Especially in this COVID period, in-person interactions are no longer as easy as before. But despite these limitations, through digital platforms, we can still support each other across different communities.

Many young people in Vietnam have little exposure to the arts. Perhaps this is because as a society we haven’t reached the point where we can contemplate art as our worries surrounding food and security dominate our minds. Promoting contemporary art must be a difficult business, at least for the time being. What fuels you to do this work?

Jun: I think the great thing about art is that it doesn’t really recognize and judge something’s relevance. For me, excellent artwork will always remain relevant, no matter the era. So the hope that artists hold, especially in the most difficult times, is that art can illuminate certain aspects of life that other forms of communication cannot. That art can help us overcome these difficult events and trying times.

Zoe: I  think about what I want to do on a Friday night. Imagine, after a long week, that you have the ability to escape reality through art: from seeing a dance performance, or a play, or an art exhibition - it all helps me to understand the times in which I live.

Music, literature, visual art… all provide us with valuable inner experiences and profound knowledge about life - all of which cannot be measured by the value of money. With art that responds to our lived reality, we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and about the world around us.

That’s why I pursue what I do, I want to bring these experiences to the people around me. Because I think without these things, we would become two-dimensional robots that revolve around money and profit - that, to me, is extremely sad.

So where does contemporary art’s power lie?

Zoe: To me, contemporary art has to reflect the times in which we live, otherwise they are just decorations. 

For example, during the 1960s in America, Basquiat was one of the great contemporary artists - operating within a period where counterculture movements were on the rise. 

At the same time, in the art world there was also a major shift towards abstract art: how should we understand portraits without human figures? What is the role of the artist within the museum? This was also the time where the art world was called out for being elitist with well-funded institutions favoring artists who were more profitable, leaving many others neglected. 

Basquiat was a rebel during this period. He was the one that incorporated ‘the streets’ into his art, believing that art should also represent everyday people. Ironically, he gained popularity with the elites and became one of the pioneering voices that called out inequality and racism. Informed by his Black background to call out the classism pervasive in society, his art became incredibly iconic that one of his paintings today has become among the most expensive ever purchased. 

The intensity of Basquiat and his work comes from the fact that he was a contemporary artist that reflected the period in which he lived.

Jean Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled”, 1982. | Source: AP

Jun: There is a phrase that people often use in relation to contemporary art’s function: Zeitgeist. It means our time or the spirit of our time. 

But works of art created in the contemporary world can only be truly clairvoyant when everything is over and we have the benefit of hindsight to look back, reflect, and learn. Only then will we truly realize how successful the artists were in conveying the spirit of their times.

So what separates wisdom learned from art and that from textbooks or the media?

Jun: Perhaps its artistic, aesthetic touch, which isn’t exactly a conscious experience. Art and its wisdom have their way of piercing through the layers of our mind.

Zoe: Art is something that we can see, hear, touch and smell. Those are all sensory experiences.

Art can also raise the question of “What do you think about this message?” to its audience without expecting a right or wrong answer, because there really isn’t one. I think art is the embodiment of the saying, “Culture is the only open space left in the world, which humans are free to interact with; an opportunity to confront what we don’t know or don’t like.”

With art, the audience can take a look at a piece and be allowed the liberty to just say, “I love this even though I don't quite understand it”. Art lets us have such conversations, the kind that we absolutely need in the world right now.

Tuan Mami’s photo from his project Trong từng hơi thở - Không gì đứng yên (In one’s breath – Nothing stands still)

Part 2: What drives the development of contemporary art in Vietnam and Southeast Asia?

In your opinion, what position does Vietnam hold in the global art world?

Jun: From a geopolitical perspective, Vietnam has always been very important in Southeast Asia. This is because of Vietnam’s special socio-political history, or the fact that it represents a crossroads between cultures. Plus, you always get to see very interesting artists and movements throughout all periods of history. I really look forward to the opportunity to learn more about the country’s art background.

From what I see now, the contemporary art scene in Vietnam has been shaped by people like Zoe who have pioneered to share what is happening here with the world. It is also through institutions like The Factory and their efforts that people like me can begin to see the full picture of Vietnam’s art scene. 

So do you see the potential of Vietnamese art in spreading inspiration to the world?

Jun: This has already happened and hopefully will continue to develop further. Like other art communities, the contemporary art world in Vietnam is also very diverse. You have very skilled artists who understand many forms of communication, skilled at forming a bridge between ideas and reality, and fully equipped to convey them beautifully.

What are the differences or similarities between Indonesian and Vietnamese art circles?

Jun: In Indonesia, we have an older and more solid support system for artists. The art collection has been strong since half a century ago, perhaps since the early 20th century or even before that.

So from an economic point of view, collectors and artists have had a long-standing supportive relationship. This makes many things possible because at least there is a stable economic base.

From my more limited perspective, the situation in Vietnam is still in its infancy with regards to socio-economic factors and that is perhaps one of the reasons why we want to foster this AEA relationship with Indonesia: to create networks and creative flows within the industry.

Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, Cucumis Musa Elaeis, 2020. | Source: Artist/ROH Projects

Zoe: One thing that has always impressed me with Indonesia is that it has consistently placed a strong emphasis on culture. Therefore, traditional art has always been under innovation. 

Since the early 70s, they have had artists who began to set foot in the realm of contemporary art.  They incorporated traditional elements into their works such as puppetry, sculpture, and batik motifs - to name a few. These traditions instantly became part of the contemporary wave, inheriting and advancing the progress of art.

This is a journey supported by collectors and this has made the language of art easier to move forward. That means there are many exhibitions, art fairs, festivals, et cetera - that were formed. But this journey is just beginning in Vietnam.

Part of the reason is that Vietnam’s understanding of art has been mostly molded by the French, through their creation of this country’s art schools. Of course, Indonesia has its own problems too. As Jun mentioned, both he and I want to build a sustainable bridge between the art worlds of our two countries.

Why does ROH want to sponsor the AEA?

Jun: We love what Zoe and The Factory are doing, and we feel the need to support one another when the chance arises. When Zoe came up with the idea for the AEA, we felt it was very much in line with what we were trying to achieve in Indonesia. We just want to support this program as much as we can.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s work from the collection Thế hệ của chiến thắng #3 (Generation of victory #3), 2020-ongoing

What do you expect from the artists you support?

Jun: Nothing specifically, my support comes from intuition and trust in these artists.

Zoe: In addition to building the arts community in Indonesia, Jun, with ROH, also supports other art communities in Southeast Asia. Although we are divided into many different cultures, we all have similar limitations when it comes to engaging and working in the art world.

Bui Cong Khanh’s “Lạc Chốn” (Dislocate), 2016

This is mainly because Southeast Asia does not really have as strong a position in the international market as China, Japan, or Korea. The Southeast Asian region has traditional art practices that are extremely unique but usually aren’t really understood by the broader international art community.

I believe that Jun and I are on the same page: we see our work as a way to challenge how the West understands Southeast Asia. Vietnam needs a diverse art ecosystem like Indonesia. The AEA aims to recognize that artists need their own community and that broader society can support them with mutual benefits for both parties. 

Jun: Artists need more than just financial support, but also emotional support through communication and conversation - especially during times when they most doubt themselves within the community.