Bui Cong Khanh was one of the first Vietnamese conceptual artists to gain an international reputation. Once described as “one of Vietnam’s most intriguing young artists” by 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Hong Kong, his work has been exhibited across Vietnam, as well as in France, Thailand, Cambodia, the US, and at The Singapore Biennale in 2016.
He is known for installation and performance pieces that explore themes of family, identity, and immigration. His most ambitious project to date was his 2016 work “Dislocate” which features a traditional wooden structure carved with contemporary motifs.
We visited Khanh at his new gallery in Hoi An where we spoke about his work, the growth of contemporary art in Vietnam, and why he chose Hoi An as the location for Go Fish Studio, his new art gallery dedicated to showcasing contemporary work.
Which artists inspired you to pursue your art career?
My favorite artists are Van Gogh and Lucian Freud. From the beginning, and even after I graduated in 1998, I was working in oil paint and I still love painting. Later, I went on to work in performance art and installations. A major inspiration for those works was my love of Joseph Beuys, a German artist whose work touches upon political, and cultural topics.
Although you’re back in Hoi An now, you lived and worked in Saigon for a long time. What motivated you to move there?
I first went to Saigon to study at the University of Fine Art. In 2003, Saigon had some professional galleries that began to show contemporary art, places like San Art and Galerie Quynh, which were a big inspiration for me and my friends. After graduation, I moved home to Hoi An to live with my parents but I missed the community of artists that existed in Saigon. I couldn’t find artists in Hoi An with the same perspective and passion that I had for art. I had to return to Saigon to be with other artists and be part of the growing art community.
Saigon is the most active city in Vietnam for art, there are established galleries and an exciting underground scene. That’s attractive to art students and gives them a chance to exchange ideas with international artists and connect with buyers.
How has contemporary art in Vietnam developed over recent years?
When I started out, galleries would only show paintings and traditional sculptures. The generation of galleries that opened in the early 2000s were run by people who had lived abroad and brought back international skills and experience. Places like Blue Space Gallery strongly supported young artists. And they showed contemporary work like installations and performance art. They also understood how to present work in a professional way. This made a big difference to how art was perceived in Vietnam.
My generation studied inside Vietnam so we had no experience of contemporary art abroad. We were only exposed to traditional arts like oil painting. That meant we had to explore by ourselves and learn from foreigners and Viet Kieu. Now there are more opportunities for young artists to study and have exhibitions outside of Vietnam, which gives them valuable experience. Seeing exhibitions in Paris or New York means they will see how to present work in a professional and contemporary style.
Last year photographer Hao Nhien held Vietnam’s first licensed nude photography exhibition. Do you think it’s becoming easier for artists to produce provocative work?
Compared with 15 or even 10 years ago, it is easier. But it can still be difficult to produce work when the message is too obvious. Artists need to find ways to talk about topics indirectly—it makes the artwork more interesting as well. Also, artists have become better at explaining their work to inspectors, to help them understand that the work and show does constitute art.
What defines contemporary art in Vietnam?
I don’t think there is a style yet…it is still developing. A lot of contemporary art comments on social life, something that has been changing quickly here ever since the country opened up in the 1980s. It’s similar to other countries in the region. So perhaps there is an emerging Southeast Asia style where artists are making work that talks about similar social and political problems.
I’m confident that a distinct style of contemporary art in Vietnam will develop over the next 10 years. It takes time, but as an older artist I hope to help the new generation. They have a lot of energy and passion and I want to help them focus that passion rather than waste time like I did. It was very hard for me but I can now help to introduce young artists to galleries and overseas collectors to make their art careers progress faster.
Your 2014 work “Chicken rice in the border” references a Hoi An dish that represents your Vietnamese-Chinese heritage. Where is the best chicken rice in Hoi An?
The best com ga is the one I make at home! I cooked it for the audience wherever we held the exhibition as it is an important symbol of the immigration issues I was talking about. If you are in Hoi An, don’t follow TripAdvisor. Watch out for places where local people are eating.
You are originally from Hoi An and returned here to create “Dislocate”— your most ambitious work to date. Why was it important to make the work in Hoi An?
This work talks about my family history, and my identity, so I had to come back to my hometown. It was important to spend time talking with my parents and putting the story together with my family.
I’m very happy that the work was exhibited in Vietnam first and then traveled abroad to be shown. My dream is to exhibit this work in Hoi An but there is no space that could show it here because it is too big. Perhaps I will find somewhere in the future.
Your latest project is a gallery. Why did you choose to open the Go Fish Studio in Hoi An?
To produce contemporary art in Vietnam, connect with the the art community, and get work seen, young Vietnamese artists usually need to move to Saigon as I did. But this doesn’t have to be the case any more—the cultural community is growing in Hoi An, with people moving here from Hanoi and Saigon. But there have been few activities for them to engage with. The focus has always been on the commercial market and producing paintings for tourists.
We opened this space to present contemporary art through curated shows of quality work. We want to make a space for local people to experience art, to put on talks and events that inspire people—especially for art students to collaborate, discuss, and learn.
With the art market in Hoi An centered around tourists, how do you plan to encourage more experimental ideas and approaches?
Artists in Hoi An often produce paintings they think that tourists will want. The subject matter can be repetitive showing stereotypical scenes of Vietnam. Through our exhibitions and workshops, we want to present something different to the audience and to those more traditional artists themselves.
The handicrafts we produce will be more unique than mass-produced tourist handicrafts. We are working with local craftspeople to create special designs, using traditional materials to produce high-quality contemporary designs. Soon we will have a workshop space and will be offering artist residencies. These will help young artists to create new work and to develop their creativity and style.
Can you tell us more about Go Fish Studio’s current show?
I created new work for this exhibition and selected two young artists to exhibit with me—Nguyen Hai Dang and Nguyen Dinh Hoang Viet. One is still at art school in Saigon and one lives in Hue. The artist from Hue is unusually serious about his work. He can spend one month on a single painting, thinking very carefully about its concept. Both artists produce work that references history, family, and identity. Their work contains very interesting concepts and questions with themes that are reflected in my own work.