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Art Awards in Pandemic Times: Vietnam

A close-up view of some of the doctored photographs

In the midst of a global pandemic and extreme internal restrictions in Vietnam, contemporary art space The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre has launched a new art award, the Artist Excellence Award. This award is aimed at giving recognition to a single Vietnamese artist who lives in Vietnam, and whose experimental practice embraces unique perspectives – a vision that deepens, explores and nurtures the ideas, people and places that it engages and collaborates with.

The Factory itself has been closed since 30 May, so what gives?

We conducted an email interview with Artistic Director of The Factory, Zoe Butt (ZB) and inaugural award winner artist Nguyễn Thị Thanh Mai (TM) to find out more about the award, the contemporary art scene in Vietnam, and what they think lies ahead.

Here’s how our conversation with Zoe went:

What were some of the key works in Thanh Mai’s practice that spoke to you and the jury?  

ZB: Thanh Mai’s practice is diverse in her choice of media. It is her ability to speak through such materiality with her subject matter that was of particular interest to the jury. Working through issues of trauma, gender issues, displacement and the overlooked histories of war widows (to name but a few); Thanh Mai’s art, particularly speaking as a woman, is particularly powerful. Many of her projects engage community in ways that could be described as journalistic or anthropological in approach – but for her it’s about immersion into places and spaces with lived memory. She is also behind a few dynamic artistic initiatives in Huế – indeed co-founded one – that is rallying artists from across the country to get involved.

Day by Day, 2014-2015
Day by Day, 2014-2015. Installation view of ‘After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History’ at the Asia Society Museum, New York, September 8, 2017–January 21, 2018. Thanh Mai’s work has been exhibited in the Asia Society in New York. This hut, constructed out of bamboo and palm leaves represents the dwellings of refugees in the Tonle Sap and Long An regions. The refugees are stateless, being neither Vietnamese nor Cambodian. The title of the project Day by Day refers to the uncertain existence of these refugees. Inside the hut are photographs commissioned by the artist, featuring the faces of refugees superimposed onto stock photographs of idyllic scenes. The images installed in the walls of the bare hut allude to the refugees’ dreams of a better life. Image by Perry Hu, courtesy of Asia Society.

A close-up view of some of the doctored photographs:

ID Card, 2014
ID Card, 2014. Heat transfer prints on recycled fabric. As part of her field studies for the Day by Day project, the artist gathered old clothes from stateless villagers, took passport-size photos of them, and then made hundreds of ID cards bearing their personal information but with no country of origin. The work interrogates the idea of a government issued “identity” and how this feeds into access to education, residence, employment and a good quality of life. When the work was shown at the Asia Society in New York, visitors were permitted to touch and feel the ID cards. This tactility worked well to underscore the intimacy of the experience.
Victory Generation #2, 2020
Victory Generation #2, 2020. Carbon transfer on paper. Here, Thanh Mai’s drawings depict war victory monuments in Vietnam, presented on sheets of paper taken from a children’s school notebook.

According to this write-up in Ocula the award aims to promote the social function of contemporary art in a country where most art is made for tourists and public expression is tightly controlled. What were you hoping to achieve with this award?

ZB: The award does indeed focus on the relationship between artists and their social worlds. It aims to demonstrate how artists have significant roles to play in our society which is interdisciplinary and interdependent. This aim was conjured as we (The Factory, along with our jury), believe that there is more to contemporary art than just providing what is popular on a tourist market; that artists can share some pretty incredible stories about communities that are truly remarkable.

How was the cash prize funded? Was it hard to find patrons to support this?

ZB: The inaugural award was made possible due to the co-sponsorship of my founder, Tia-Thuy Nguyen; alongside Jun Tirtadji of ROH Projects (Jakarta) and Lawrence Chu of Chu Foundation (Hong Kong); alongside the support of Quynh Nguyen of Nguyen Art Foundation (Ho Chi Minh City). Such collaboration was built through friends and their networks who are like-minded in our desire to support the contemporary art of Vietnam (and more broadly, our region of Southeast Asia). I am blessed to have such friends and colleagues. Was it hard? To be honest, I find it very hard to raise support in Vietnam for contemporary art.

Aside from the winner, were there any other participating artists whose works you and the jury felt deserved special mention, or recognition?

ZB: All of the nominees were truly brilliant. They were all so deserving. It was a very difficult decision.

Why did you feel that 2021 was the right time to launch this award?

ZB: The initiative began as an idea in late 2019. Just before COVID hit Vietnam. At that time, 2021 was not pictured to be anything like what we are facing right now. I was apprehensive about launching it this month, at a time of such COVID anxiety. However, in discussion with my team and jury, we all felt that we needed something to remind ourselves of why we do what we do, and that artists are out there still needing our support.

We note that select nominators from across Vietnam were to nominate two artists each. Why did you and the jury choose to go about things this way? As opposed to, say, a public open call for submissions?

ZB: The Artist Excellence Award is about identifying, supporting and building a local ecology for contemporary art. Who are the people out there who are currently committed to and supporting (contemporary art)? Our nominators, jury, sponsors and supporters were all invited to collaborate with us on this initiative so as to demonstrate to our broader community, how ideas of ‘excellence’ can be generated – that they come from expertise, experience and the networking of that intelligence with local and global know-how.

From Thanh Mai’s perspective:

What is special to you about your contemporary art practice? If you had to pick one message to share about your practice, to a regional audience, what would it be?

TM: I have worked with different communities: the war veterans who fought in the Vietnamese-Cambodian war, the illegal workers in South Korea, the Vietnamese-Cambodians living in Tonle Sap (Cambodia) and near the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, and the widows of the Northern soldiers. In all of their stories, either from the past or from the present, I always see the human condition lurking in the shadow of history. My work is to document these stories and their voices and then to analyse, investigate and reflect on them through the language of art.

Tell us a bit about how you were approached to enter this competition, and how you felt about participating in it?

TM: I am very happy to be participating in this award, being on the nominee list of friends that I truly adore and admire. I remember back in 2011, when I realised that I really wanted to pursue an art career but didn’t know how to start. There was not as much support or information as there is right now. I wrote to Nguyễn Phương Linh, who is also on the list of nominees of this award. She was a really young, confident and talented artist, one with experience in participating in exhibitions and residencies. I told her that I wanted to exhibit outside Huế, but I didn’t know where to find support, or how to submit a good application.

Phương Linh explained to me very thoroughly, how to write an application and also sent me her own successful application for a CDEF (Cultural Development Exchange Fund ) grant, awarded by the Embassy of Denmark in Vietnam. I did as she advised and received a grant from the CDEF in 2012. Later, I applied for a San Art Laboratory residency, and undertook a residency with Tuấn Mami, who taught me a lot in that 6-month period, together with consultations with Zoe Butt. Now that I can stand on the same nominee list as all of my friends, I am reminded of my own journey that had begun when I knew next to nothing, with those whom I met, who taught me about art and life. This gives me some hope that I too will be able to do something to encourage and support other artists.

We ended this email conversation with a couple of  questions for both Zoe and Thanh Mai:

What do you think needs to happen in contemporary art in Vietnam, for the scene to flourish and grow? What is your wishlist for the industry?

TM: There are many things that need to happen for contemporary art in Vietnam to flourish and grow. We need an environment with dynamic and diverse art spaces, and a more balanced relationship between artists and audiences so that there can be more discussions and exchanges. Currently, art spaces and cultural funds play a key role in art education and the distribution of information and knowledge to audiences, while the role of the official educational system remains small.

The censorship system also causes difficulty in the organisation of art events. I also wish that there was a healthier market for contemporary art. I have many friends who are talented artists, but their lives are pretty hard in terms of making a living to raise their families. There are not many long-lasting resources from organisations. The most important thing however, is the potential of the art community. Only when the artists are strong, networked and supportive of one another, will we be able to achieve a more sustainable environment.

ZB: For contemporary art in Vietnam to flourish we need to widen and deepen the experience of contemporary art in Vietnam. Until you have seen an opera, or visited a truly incredible restaurant with delectable service and cuisine, or visited that football stadium with the roar of a crowd – until you experience these things you don’t know what you are missing. Similarly, Vietnamese contemporary art needs exposure. And how best to begin? Via equal investment in spaces for art between display (i.e. museums and galleries) and education (i.e. schools and universities).

We need to know and understand why we need these experiences. We have to invest and demonstrate why learning (about art) should be a part of our everyday. This question of learning, of getting critical with how we assume the world should be – this is unfortunately a difficult conversation in Vietnam, particularly when it comes to art and culture, which is still perceived as a propagandist arm of the State. We have very poor educational curricula for the arts with next to no resources here. My wish list for Vietnam begins with its educational system being able to teach contemporary art, and to invite international expertise to contribute to its curricula.

Is there a particular contemporary artist in  Vietnam (or Southeast Asia) right now whose practice you are personally excited by? 

TM: In Vietnam I find practices of Nguyễn Trinh Thi, Phan Thảo Nguyên, and Nguyễn Huy An, very interesting. I cannot name just one.

ZB: There are too many to name. Too many. If you want to learn more about Vietnamese contemporary art, feel free to peruse the website of The Factory Contemporary Art Centre to see the list of so many artists who have done, and continue to do, critically powerful work.

All images courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise stated. 

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