| EN

What Is Seen From The Art Awards In Asia

The gel block: The Propeller Group, AK-47 vs M-16 (2015). Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery and The Propeller Group
Text Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran
Asian artPost-colonialSoutheast Asia

As the economic and political balance of the world has lessened the odds between the West + North America and Asia, new cultural and artistic discourses are set for this post-colonized and post-war continent. At art auctions, Chinese elites race to bring back their artifacts back to homeland. On the academic forums and in the cultural debates, people have been increasingly arguing over the need of restitution—to return antiques, artifacts, archives, heritage stolen during colonial times in Asia–Africa–South America back to their origin which created them. Major museums in Europe and North America contend for bringing Asian contemporary art into collections and exhibitions. Candidly, numerous Asian billionaires have won seats in board of trustees of these museums. They contribute to orienting of the museum acquisition by pouring capital into promotion for Asian art at these institutions—the “international art façade.” Yet above all, strengthening the cultural value at homegrown platforms has become focal point and policy of both public and private sector leaders in many countries. Academics, institutions and the media find tactics to bring national and regional art and culture to research and exhibition. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are many biennales and art awards in the region to appreciate the outstanding artists in the last decade. Nevertheless, speaking of art awards, it is considered that the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award hosted by Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, Han Nefkens Foundation-BACC Award for Contemporary Art by BACC in Bangkok and the Signature Art Prize by the Singapore Art Museum are among the three of the most prestigious regional honors. In three years of observing and participating in these two awards, as a panel of judges at Hugo Boss Asia in 2015, and a nominator at Signature Art Prize 2018, I encountered the miracle emergence of Southeast Asian art in general and of Vietnamese in particular. In the year 2015, the Hugo Boss Asia Award with 300,000 Chinese Yuan in prize money was given to Filipino female artist Maria Taniguchi, surpassing the Chinese, Taiwanese or Hong Kong’s best finalists. Vietnamese artist Nguyen Phuong Linh won the sum of 15,000USD Han Nefkens Foundation-BACC Award in 2016. And in June this year, the Grand Prize worth 60,000SGD from Signature Art Prize was named to Vietnamese artist Phan Thao Nguyen. This achievement marks a new milestone for Vietnam on the Asian and global contemporary art map.

The brick painting: Maria TANIGUCHI, Untitled series (2007-) at Hugo Boss Asia Art Award finalist exhibition. Photo courtesy of Rockbund Art Museum

As the economic and political balance of the world has lessened the odds between the West + North America and Asia, new cultural and artistic discourses are set for this post-colonized and post-war continent.

If we consider this prestigious award to NGUYEN Phuong Linh and PHAN Thao Nguyen can cheer the nationalistic celebration of Vietnam on the level of international art, this spirit should also have a more complicated and critical view. Why did international judges choose NGUYEN Phuong Linh’s decade-long practice and PHAN Thao Nguyen’s work Tropical Siesta? And why was that among the more than 140 nominated artists from the Asia-Pacific and Central Asian countries for Signature Art Prize were 15 artworks selected to the final round, Vietnam and Japan each have two finalists respectively? In addition to PHAN Thao Nguyen, Signature Art Prize finalist exhibition also featured AK47 vs. M16 by The Propeller Group – an artist collective based in Saigon with 3 members Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Ha Thuc Phu Nam and Matt LUCERO.

In all of these works, the historical narrative is the backbone of storytelling. In Tropical Siesta—an installation of two-channel video and oil painting on X-ray film backing sheets, PHAN Thao Nguyen creates a fictional world in which there are only children from the countryside. They go to school, play and reenact the scenes in the journey diary of the cleric Alexandre de RHODES, who is widely believed as the father of the Latin alphabet script for Vietnamese language. The actual historic fact is not so. Some other European missionaries transcribed the Vietnamese language in Latin script. But Alexandre de RHODES was the first person to create a scientific identity for Vietnamese Latin script with the Viet–Portuguese–Latin dictionary. The history implied in PHAN Thao Nguyen’s video and painting installation is also fictional. The boundary between the seen, the dogmatic, and the reality is the vague gray zone.

The video installation: PHAN Thao Nguyen, Tropical Siesta (2017) at Signature Art Prize finalist exhibition. Photo courtesy of PHAN Thao Nguyen

The Propeller’s AK47 vs. M16 is another installation of video and sculpture. The sculpture piece is transparent like see-through gel. It simulates flesh to be used to test the damage in ballistics. In that gel block were two bullets fired from two legendary AK-47 rifles, invented by the Soviet, and M16 by the US Army. Right next to it, the slow motion video, which shows the ballistic test, is stretched out, causing us to lose the sense of time. The work is a profound epitome of ‘confrontation’: between two bullets, between two design mindsets of rifle, between the two armies escalating the Cold War weaponry, between the two front lines using these two guns during the Vietnam War. The stunning physical presence of AK 47 vs. M16 seemingly leads the viewers into a mythic world of history.

The painting room: Exhibition view of Trùngmù—endless, sightless—final exhibition of NGUYEN Phuong Linh to conclude Han Nefkens Foundation-BACC Award. Photo courtesy of NGUYEN Phuong Linh

Trùngmù—Endless, Sightless is an exhibition showcasing many forms of aesthetics to tell the history of the country and the artist’s personal history. It is a journey experiencing light, sound, smoke, moving image from video works, static sculpture pieces and paintings of basalt soil taken from the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The works coalesce vaguely through the post-colonial story, the expansion of Christianity in Vietnamese territory, forgotten memories, and indefinable blind spots within time–space–consciousness. Calling herself a “travelling artist” who goes on endless expeditions to learn and make art, NGUYEN Phuong Linh may recall the mobility of “Renaissance artists” in Europe in the sixteenth-century; however, her journeys in fact reflect more the urge to excavate untold histories, where fragmented realities and fictions lie beneath dust, dead generations and ordinary communities.

It can be seen that, apart from the visual appeal of PHAN Thao Nguyen, The Propeller Group, and NGUYEN Phuong Linh, the historical metaphor gives them a long lasting value.

Historical metaphors are not new in art, and not only contemporary art contains it. If we look at Vietnamese art, from folk artworks—pieces created before the establishment of École des Beaux Arts in Hanoi in the 1920s, when the artist’s identity was not present in the work, these unknown artists employed many symbols, folklore, myths and historic stories. Even in the Vietnam War, art in both North and South of the country often featured works with a certain political message, although they may have come from the artist himself or by the authorities. However, after 1975, when the nation was reunified, history in the national art was bent into the direction of the state’s perspective. In terms of style, content and even compassion or emotion, the work still carried the individuality of each artist. However in most cases, most of the works reflected the history of conformist discourse. In the early 1990s and 2000, when contemporary Vietnamese art began to develop, artists started to demand the use of art to create informal historical discourses. Of course, towards this underground stream flowing unaligned to conformist passage of interpretation, the authority/state institutions turned to encourage artists to pursue landscapes, abstractions, or everyday life, which have been criticized for bourgeois in the previous period by the same government. Against such condemnation, the artists had the need to reveal/ create multiple aspects of history. They have the urge to search for buried or forgotten historical slices. In one way or another, Vietnamese artists use aesthetics in both form and discourse as a means to fictionalize the history, connecting historical fragments into narrative sequences.

Such artworks open up many alternative historical approaches, replacing dogmatic reading of history in mainstream books or media. This movement creates an excitement for the artist self—making him or her feel like archaeologists—and for the audience. It attracts significant curiosity from the museums/research institutions from the West, where Vietnam’s history had been largely encapsulated in the Vietnam–American War. Thus, it is time, not only at the international cultural and art platform, but also the national institutions and governmental bodies should recognize and respect the value of criticism and humanity of contemporary art in the role of demonstrating micro-histories through aesthetics. This aesthetics does not mean merely visual magnetism but including the politics of representation and how aesthetics is able to problematize/constitute the political historical discourses.

However, the art that narrates/reveals history should not be the only template for definition of artworks from Vietnam. Were it played as a unique strategy to reach out to the world, Vietnamese art would be nothing more than a substitute propaganda, wrapping itself in an assumedly and exoticized stereotype of peripheral categorization. A diverse ecosystem of art and diverse support for infrastructure, education and funding is now necessary.

Text Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran
Asian artPost-colonialSoutheast Asia
Arlette Quynh-Anh TranArlette Quynh-Anh Tran is a curator, writer and art agent of collective based in Saigon, Vietnam. Since 2016, she is appointed as Curator and Director of Post Vidai – the unique and largest collection of Vietnamese contemporary art with base in Geneva and Saigon. Arlette was Assistant Curator at Sàn Art from 2013 to 2015, and previously Assistant Curator at Saigon Open City in 2006 – the first attempt to realize a substantial manifestation of contemporary art in Vietnam curated by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gridthiya Gaweewong.
Investigating Translation from the Dimension of “Fansub Groups”
Translation is the core activity of fansub groups. From the perspectives of linguistics and anthropology, translation is a “manner of becoming” that represents texts in new social and cultural contexts.
Post-colonialPiracy and Fansub Groups
Monsters and Postcolonial Taiwan Reinvention of Folklore Tradition in the Works of Fevervine Dance Theatre
Folk legends and rumors such as “Sister Lin Tou” and “Mô-sîn-á” eventually became part of the representation in the official context of Taiwanese history. Whereas trends and crazes for monsters prevail in the literary world, few theatrical pieces thematizing monsters and the mythical in folklores are seen in Taiwanese contemporary theater.
Post-colonialdocumentary theatreReconstructing the Paranormal
Beyond Military Legacy: The Multifaceted Heritage of Kinmen
The imprints left on Kinmen represent the values of ordinary residents fighting for survival between periods of war and peace, living by their traditional culture and pursuing peace, shaping a multi-dimensional cultural landscape. It involves not only the military battlefield heritage for which it is widely-known, but also the overlapped Southern Min and returned overseas Chinese cultural memories spanning in time and space.
returned overseas Chinese culturemuseumwartime culturecultural memoryKinmenSouthern Min culture