"Art requires a certain uniqueness and must challenge both the audience and our existing values."
Tường Linh is an independent curator currently living and working in Hanoi. She often collaborates with various art spaces and cultural institutions at home and abroad such as VCCA, Mơ Art Space, Six Space — to name a few. Her research mainly focuses on artistic techniques, conceptual art, and post-colonial theory.
Returning home after receiving her Master’s degree in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from SOAS University of London, Tường Linh holds more than 15 years of experience in the art industry under her belt. We spoke with the experienced curator to hear her thoughts on Vietnam’s contemporary art market.
A curator is the bridge between the artist and the audience
Tường Linh believes that a curator must be able to balance different missions. The first is to help build, nurture, and protect the artist’s idea and the second is to provide the audience with an accessible pathway to the artworks. In doing so, the work can be realized in its most ideal form.
To achieve that balance and to build that bridge, the independent curator finds it necessary to first create platforms for art discussions which may include workshops or art tours. She believes that the internet may allow us to explore different works but without historical context, cultural understanding, or artistic exposure, many would - and do - find it difficult to comprehend such pieces on a deeper level. Through exchanges with other art professionals, curators can continually expand their personal understanding and approaches within the industry.
Tường Linh also believes that curators must be able to have a firm vision on the blocking of any exhibition space they participate in. For example, in a space that places emphasis on artistic experimentation, the artist can completely elevate their personal brand. In such instances, the audience doesn’t need a curator to bridge them to the work as much as if the exhibition is working with open, public spaces.
In terms of their relationship with the artist, a curator must be able to distance themselves from a piece of work to see the figurative bigger picture. This helps the artist from being too negatively impacted by their own ego and ultimately aids the formation of an exhibition.
Differences in art
In her work, Tường Linh notes that no artwork is ever explicitly exclusive, mundane, or distasteful — it will all hold its own value in the perspective of its creator. However, she noted that a work of enduring value and vitality must be ideologically subversive in its function as a challenge to existing laws, traditions, and beliefs.
There will be interesting artworks of high value but not many people will know about them. Similarly, there will be mediocre pieces that become widely celebrated because they were in the right place, at the right time, with the right media attention.
During the artistic process, the economic value of a piece or its performance on the market is not always the only marker of success for an artist. With that being said, the market remains to be an arena where collectors and the public can interact with artworks and stimulate creativity.
Vietnam is a developing country, and its art is no exception. But at the same time, it’s an advantage because our art doesn’t face the threat of being brought into a pre-existing framework. "It has room to grow and can define itself. Although we still follow Western principles and traditions of operation, Vietnamese art has been able to maintain its distinctiveness. After all, there must be differences in art".
Commercial and non-commercial art
Art has always always been divided into commercial and non-commercial. Commercial art includes works such as illustrations, logos, or advertisements, whereas the latter — sometimes referred to as fine art — are works that can be more commonly seen in galleries and museums. When you define yourself as a nonprofit curator, learn to separate the two and assess them individually from a different lens.
In recent times, the Vietnamese public has become more interested in works from the Indochina period. Some notable mentions include paintings by Lê Phổ or Mai Trung Thứ that continue to be auctioned at high prices on the international market, with bids of up to millions of dollars.
Tường Linh asserts that we need a diverse set of perspectives when assessing what should be recognized or celebrated within Vietnamese art circles. Whether an artwork is popular or not within its early years, its long-term value depends on a variety of factors.
The first assessment lies upon the piece’s artistic quality. Then, there is the more nuanced aspect of its standing in pop culture and media. If you look at the history of art globally, it becomes evident that it is common for artworks to go through periods of ups and downs — as a result of public opinion. Sometimes they are widely welcome, whereas there are times when they are forgotten. For Tường Linh, a piece’s peaks and troughs contribute little to the discussion on its artistic value. The value of an exhibition or artwork is measured by a combination of public reception, the art community, and art professionals.
Vietnamese art is an open playground for young artists
With the development of contemporary art and online platforms, artists now have a variety of mediums to reach the public and art professionals with their work. In the past, a curator or an artist would only be able to host exhibitions either at a museum or a designated space. But today, through social media platforms such as Instagram or Behance, artists can reach a much wider and younger audience while being able to showcase their work on a bigger scale.
Tường Linh has witnessed that this approach is widely popular not only in Vietnam but globally as well and especially so since the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic may have limited artists’ ability to use creative spaces and host exhibitions, but it shouldn’t and has not been a barrier preventing the public from accessing art.
Today, the visual arts host a variety of art professionals and curators specializing in different mediums beyond traditional paintings. The art scene has begun to make space for specialists in photography, cinema, theater, architecture, etc… - space that had not previously existed before.
Curators must select works with a clear vision in mind
In order to present a piece of art to the public, you have to have a powerful idea or manifesto that underlies it. “What do the work and its context mean for the modern age?” This is the question that Tường Linh feels that a curator must ask, and prioritize, before anything else.
Because the Vietnamese art market is still in its infancy of defining itself, Tường Linh then places a secondary emphasis on how the artist shapes himself — and how that impacts the art scene.
During transition periods, art finds itself going through the most changes — from opening up doors to new artists to new artworks entering the international arena — the art professional must be able to know and understand where they stand during these times.
Finally, according to Tường Linh, a curator should always be aware of who their audience is. Once you have a firm understanding of who will be viewing your work, you will be able to choose suitable pieces and create lasting value.
Translated by Nina Pham