A street sweeper pauses his broom in the middle of the night. From the shadows of the empty asphalt, he looks at two people sleeping in a glowing-red shop window. A ceiling of crimson roses and red velvet walls cradle the sleepers nested in vermillion satin. One night, 500 people gathered to see the softly lit red bed. How many of those just passing by would be surprised to hear that the sleeping beauties were making art?
The 12-night-long performance was the first street-view art exhibition of its kind in Vietnam. The artist Sue Hadju created Magma: we’re not counting sheep in 2006, and it remains one of the highlights of Galerie Quynh’s first decade of existence. The project is testament to the gallery’s mission: to bring innovative art to the Vietnamese public. “We didn’t get sponsorship, we had nothing for sale,” says Quynh Pham, the gallery founder. “We wanted to support it. We never really thought about sales.”
Naturally, the event didn’t generate any revenue, but it did put Galerie Quynh on the international radar. Publications like Art In America and the London-based Contemporary magazine featured the show.
Getting famous international artists to come and show in Vietnam is about as easy as getting Madonna to sing at your wedding, yet as a result of the publicity, the gallery was soon able to exhibit the work of renowned Japanese-American artist Bruce Yonemoto.
Worldwide, Galerie Quynh is still probably the best known — if not the only known — Vietnamese gallery. When art historian Quynh Pham left her job in a well-known museum in California to found the gallery — finally setting up in 2003 — Vietnam had very little in terms of an art scene.
In the 1990s, Salon Natasha and Nhasan Studio, two artist-run spaces in Hanoi, opened the doors to contemporary art in Vietnam. At the turn of the millenium, international backing provided more cultural spaces in Hanoi, such as the Göethe Institut, the Ford Foundation, Alliance Francaise’s L’Espace, the British Council and the Danish Cultural Development and Exchange Foundation. Private galleries started popping up on Vietnam’s high streets, but most were just shops that sold paintings. They were not galleries that worked with artists to develop their careers and raise public awareness of contemporary practices.
Many commercial painting shops remain, but a lot of the important galleries have now closed, such as Blue Space, Ryllega and Bui Gallery, while the renowned Art Vietnam gallery in Hanoi is now run from home by its owner Suzanne Lecht, with viewings only by appointment. Galerie Quynh has survived despite the difficulties, even opening a second gallery in 2013. It plans to open a third space shortly — a non-commercial, experimental venue in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts courtyard.
“We’ve been knocked down so many times, it [would be] easy to give up,” says Quynh. Disaster moments included the all-too-common situation of having to move location, for the second time, because after renovating the venue, the landlord wanted it back.
But grit, and plenty of hard work, can solve most problems. “We all know that success does not come overnight,” Hoang Duong Cam, one of the gallery artists confirms. “Together we shed a lot of sweat and tears to get to where we are right now.”
When things seem hard, they usually get worse. The financial crisis slowed down global business, even in then-buzzing Vietnam. “2009, 2010 were very hard years for us,” Quynh says. Her clients, many of them westerners, mostly live outside of Vietnam. Most gallerists in Vietnam are working hard to develop a collector base among the local population, and Quynh is no exception in trying to build relationships with wealthy Vietnamese business people — who, for now, show little interest in art as a monetary and cultural investment.
It’s not easy for a gallery to survive in a country where the majority of people don’t even think of looking at art, let alone buying it. “I would say for about eight years,” Quynh recalls, “it was running like an art centre.” Not quite like a non-profit, but only just managing to sell enough to continue their programming and fund their exhibition catalogues. Galerie Quynh has printed over a dozen publications on their artists.
The biggest challenge happened recently. Contemporary art takes many forms and mediums, and as any cinema-goer knows — screen size, quality and resolution change the viewing experience. Hanging an exhibition for Tiffany Chung, an artist of worldwide fame, led to near breakdown on all sides. Tiffany’s multichannel video art requires sophisticated technology. “We don’t have the infrastructure here in Vietnam,” says Quynh. “In the future we will have to hire specialist people and bring in certain equipment.”
Technology is not the only obstacle. Carpenters have been known to frame pictures upside down. Printers can run late with catalogue production, and Quynh has had to oversee completion until the early hours of the morning. “In Vietnam we always have lots of production issues. Everything just takes time.”
One of the biggest challenges is in the details — art, serious art, must be of the best quality. “We don’t have archival materials in Vietnam, so we have to bring them over from the United States or elsewhere,” Quynh notes, somehow with no exasperation in her voice.
A Room of Vietnam’s Own
Despite all this “we’ve never had a meltdown,” she smiles. “The key to our success is the relationship we have with our artists.” Passion for art is Galerie Quynh’s driving force. “I don’t have an MBA. I come from an art history, theoretical background,” which the artists respect. Instead of giving guidelines on how artists can make their work more saleable, Quynh critiques their work (very bluntly, she admits) and motivates them to push their ideas further. “I really care about them as professional artists,” she says.
In turn, the gallery’s artists stood by even during the low points. Many international galleries are wary of taking on Vietnamese artists, because some sell their art behind the gallery’s back after the gallery has invested heavily in promoting them. Quynh is proud to say that her gallery has only lost two artists in all of these years. “We’ve worked with 17 artists on different projects,” she says. The younger generation have built strong careers thanks to that partnership.
The invitation to the gallery’s walls isn’t open to all comers. The art has to resonate with her. As a curator, her career depends on making choices she can defend with heart and soul. “I do feel that we are the leading gallery in the nation,” Quynh says. “We have solid programming. We have vision.”
The aim is not just to sell, but to make contemporary art from Vietnam more visible to the general public. Galerie Quynh has endorsed events and artists’ talks, and worked with organisations such as A little blah blah (albb), Wonderful District, San Art, Zero Station and Dia Projects. International collaborations with various museums and artistic projects are significant. The gallery supported a fundraising event for Japan’s Red Cross, following the 2011 tsunami. From 2010 to 2012 Galerie Quynh was the first and only gallery from Vietnam invited to participate in the prestigious ART HK international art fair.
Galerie Quynh expanded in 2013, and now has two art spaces in Ho Chi Minh City. But the future of the gallery doesn’t only take place within the walls of these spaces — or even within the space of Vietnam. When Quynh thinks about the future, she’s thinking about the global conversation that she came to Vietnam to start. The next step? “We need to start a dialogue with museums.”
She’s doing just that. In the courtyard of the Museum of Fine Arts, her new space has just been renovated. Sao La, Galerie Quynh’s newest initiative, is not going to be a commercial space. There are plans for something a bit more experimental, like educational programmes and opportunities for emerging artists who may feel intimidated by the traditional route, which sees shows planned at least a year in advance.
One thing seems certain, failure will not be a deterrent to making it work. “I’m really excited about our future,” glows Quynh — a future that has quite a precedent to work from.
Galerie Quynh is at 65 De Tham, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City and Level 2, 151/3 Dong Khoi, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City
French artist Thierry Bernard-Gotteland is quite blasé about exhibiting his artwork. He works as a lecturer and would make the art anyway, he shrugs. Since his focus is on sound art, it costs him nothing to create it on his computer, and he doesn’t need a physical place to store it.
Yet he has chosen to work with Galerie Quynh because it keeps him in contact with other art professionals. It has also allowed him to expand his creative practice into, in his own words, more “traditional” materials. Leather sofas in chains and self-playing music machines may not be your idea of traditional art, but he assures us, with solid philosophic reasoning, that it is.
Hoang Duong Cam
Any artist that titles his work Square Eggs and Things Under Shells is going to either fail instantly or ooze enough creativity for at least two lifetimes. Hoang Duong Cam, one of Vietnam’s most playful artists, began his career in Hanoi, where Square Eggs was projected at the Göethe Institut in 2001. 10 years later, at Galerie Quynh — which represents him since he moved to Saigon — Cam exhibited his favourite show to date.
Ideal Fall, shown in 2011, was a big challenge for him and the gallery. Preparation took nearly three years. The work included activities such as throwing sculptures off rooftops and shredding worker’s uniforms to make a hanging, upside-down monument.
Drawings of bandaged heads, fat cats, dead birds and evil sheep could mislead you into thinking that Stephen King has taken up art. Sandrine Llouquet’s works are disquieting renderings of human turmoil, with characters from childhood nightmares.
They are surprisingly captivating, though, because of the freshness of the line and watercolour strokes. Sandrine has worked with Galerie Quynh since moving to Vietnam in 2005. She has been very active with collaborative projects that have shaken up Ho Chi Minh City’s sleepy art world. She occasionally works as a VJ.