Vietnamese artists in Singapore exhibition ‘No Country: Contemporary Art in South and Southeast Asia’
Words by Sadie Christie
Travelling art exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art in South and Southeast Asia came to the Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore on May 13 after months of occupying the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre. The title of the exhibition juxtaposes the concept of art created within the bordered region of Asia, with the idea that no such boundaries actually exist, thus confronting the fallacy of a fixed cultural ‘Asian’ identity within the region. The exhibition reflects this concept, challenging the preconceived concept of ‘Asian-ness’, presenting artists’ cultures and identities across South and Southeast Asia as distinct from one another. At the same time there are uniting themes. Curator June Yap, says the exhibition explores the “similar relationships of intermingling and mutual influence of the past and present” that have affected areas and artists of the vast region which have been grouped under four main themes; reflection and encounter, intersections and dualities, diversities and divisions, and the desire for unity and community. As a result, representations of South and Southeast Asia in No Country emerge that create a dialogue about the assumptions of absolute identity fixed by boundaries in order to challenge and transcend them.
The exhibition will feature three artists from Vietnam with pieces that deal mainly with the issues of community. Community is the cornerstone of communist belief, the unification of individuals in the pursuit of the collective good. In Vietnam however, this ideology has been complicated by a history of colonialism, capitalism and violence, themes with which these artists grapple with in their work.
Trần Lương gained notoriety for his painting, installations and performance art as part of the Gang of Five, a collective of artists that emerged after the formalisation of socialist economic reforms. Trần Lương has been integral to the development of performance art in Hanoi and in Vietnam through the influence of his own work, through the space he gave to artists at Nhà Sàn Studio and through his active ongoing support of artists involved in the scene. No Country will feature his video installation Lập Lòe (2012), which documents one of his performance pieces that focuses on the symbol of the red scarf—from the Young Pioneer Movement and an emblem of communism—being snapped across the artist’s body by the audience. Community is created in the coming together of the audience, and inevitably causes a variety of emotions and reactions to a symbol so well engrained in the history of Vietnam, yet the artist leaves the image of the scarf and its movements open to interpretation.
The Propeller Group is made up of artists Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam, and Mat Lucero. Based in both Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles and hailing from various areas of artistic expertise, the Propeller Group itself seems to challenge the idea of borders and fixed cultural identities, embracing the differences and outside influences that broaden the possibilities of identity in individuals and art. Their included work, Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC) (2012), is a one-minute commercial made in collaboration with advertising company TBWA\Vietnam. The video begins with the advertising company discussing ways to ‘rebrand’ communism to make it more marketable to contemporary society, and ends with a fully produced television spot. By ‘selling’ communism back to the people, the Propeller Group creates a striking discussion about the impact on and intermingling of capitalism and communism, while also commenting on the influence of television on political and public opinion.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen, in an individual piece, transforms the traditional Vietnamese craft of woodcarving into a powerful contemporary art device, with his carving into a baseball bat in Enemy’s Enemy: Monument to a Monument. On its forefront, Nguyen uses an icon of popular culture and carves into its shaft the figure of venerated monk Thích Quang Đuc, in order to muse on the paradoxical influences that both organised religion and sports can have on community—their ability to simultaneously unite one group while alienating and condemning another—while on another level speaking of Vietnam’s history of war with the US, by using an American bat made by the same company that produced shells for the US during the American War.
Trương Tân deals with simple yet beautiful colour, lines and materials in his painting, What Do We Want (1993-94). Trương Tân is known for his erotic references to his sexuality in his art, he is an openly homosexual man who grew up in the traditional culture of Hanoi and much of his work addresses questions of identity and freedom and the conflicts within this society. The simplicity of his form is at once powerful and vulnerable, seeming to suggest his desire for and struggle within the idea of community, for what curator June Yap calls the “basic truths of power, society and life” to which we are seemingly inextricably tied.
No Country: Contemporary Art in South and Southeast Asia will be at the CCA in Singapore from May 13-July 20 and also includes artists and collectives from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and the United Kingdom, and presents works of an array of media, spanning from sculpture and photography to painting and video installations. No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia has been organised by the Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore, in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, and is a cultural engagement of UBS.