Of course, their teachers got it wrong. “The teachers in my art college were really stupid,” says sculptor Dinh Cong Dat. “You can write that. It was like when they became teachers they gave up on learning. They lost their drive. If they taught badly nothing happened to them, there were no repercussions. The teaching model used came from France a hundred years before. It was completely irrelevant to modern Vietnamese art-making.”
Dat — aka ‘Crazy Dad’, aka ‘Dad Ant’ — has been a visible character on the Vietnamese art scene for over 25 years. His work is instantly recognisable — giant fibreglass praying mantises and stainless steel figures of his signature creature, The Ant.
First impressions of Dat are of a charming, personable artist with a wealth of knowledge supporting his work. Though famous for his sculpture, the most ubiquitous and visible example of his work is probably the luxurious India-inspired window displays he has created for luxury brands Hermès, Dior and Gucci.
Paying the Bills
In Hanoi, Dat feels, art is commercialised. For high-salary earners or high-end fashion houses, it’s a means of showing just how much money or influence you have.
“In Saigon,” he says, “artists come from everywhere to make art. It’s a big city but the market is small. In Hanoi, there are foreign companies like Coca Cola and Piaggio. There are embassies, the UN, NGOs. There is lots of money. People with large salaries create the demand for art as something expensive to buy and put in their offices and homes.
“In Hanoi, artists are motivated by the desire to create, but they’re also motivated by money.”
Dat understands that corporate art pays the bills, but he maintains a balance between moneymaking projects and altruistic ones. In the past he has run social projects that taught skills to ex-addicts fresh out of rehab. “I want to give them the means to create saleable works to support themselves. Anything they can learn [will help] — papier maché, ceramics so they can make and sell souvenirs.”
In 2014 he will implement a Recycling-as-Art project in six provinces across the centre of Vietnam, encouraging young people to recycle rubbish into art. He plans to pick the best works created and hold an exhibition with a prize for the best work. Through his social projects Dat is giving disenfranchised or simply unaware people the tools to make their future a positive one.
Redefining the Map
Fresh from a residency in Japan’s Mino Paper Art Village, Vu Kim Thu’s recent work reflects her Hanoian background and the delicacy of Japanese paper sculpture in equal parts.
Thu’s work is detailed to the nth degree, and her process is paramount. She says her brain is in her hands — the concept reveals itself through the work, rather than vice versa. The use of light renders the paper almost skin-like, scored with unknowable detail like an encrypted map.
“I love maps,” Thu says. “When you travel, the first thing you ask for when you come to a new city or new town is a map of the area. Also when you are in a plane, looking at the ground as you come into land — the local landscape from above reveals so much of the character of a place.”
When asked about Hanoi and its influence on her work Thu says, “More or less, an artist’s work reflects the society they live in or what they see in the society they live in. That’s the same in every country. It’s a local issue that’s also global.
“My life is not about a specific place; it is a visual diary of my personal relationship with line and space. Every destination I travel through features in my diary and Hanoi is one of those destinations. When I’m in Hanoi I find my work becomes smaller and smaller to the point of being tiny. There is such a feeling of compressed space in this city. When I leave Hanoi I feel like I need to expand or grow bigger.”
A Human Side
If Thu’s reaction to Hanoi is to retreat into the intricacies of line drawing and miniature landscapes, Pham Ngoc Duong’s is to show a literal translation of what happens to people exposed to relentless pressure. His paintings Cold and Sleeping show figures deformed by the oppression of modern life, cultural change or a lack of basic human rights.
Duong says that Hanoi doesn’t come into account in the creation of his works. “I don’t focus on Hanoi. For me, everywhere is the same. It’s just all names.
“But sometimes Hanoi does make me feel uncomfortable. My exhibition People in the City discusses the negatives [of] globalisation and social issues. But my human beings are in the same environment as everyone else. Everyone is being forcibly reshaped. My paintings reflect this.”
Duong’s paintings show an eroticism that’s lacking from Dat and Thu’s work. His use of the human figure is plenteous, while Dat continues to explore insects and animals and Thu looks at the world with a cartographer’s eye. All three artists are graduates of Vietnam University of Fine Arts but had vastly different experiences.
Today, Dat tries to create change through information and social form. Thu avoids the representational teaching she was exposed to, but believes the traditional education she experienced was worthwhile. Duong sees his time there as something of value thanks to the contacts he made and the opportunity to network.
As independent artists, each is known for a particular branch of art — Dat for sculpture, Thu for drawing and Duong for painting. But each artist is prolific in other fields. Thu’s light boxes are miniature sculptures of wood and paper that look like tiny domestic scenes. Dat’s window displays use costume, life-size animals and colours reminiscent of Frida Kahlo. Duong’s next piece is a dramatic shift away from his eroticised, crushed figures towards sculpture, using LED lights and lacquered wooden board.
Whatever their relationship with the city, the diversity of their work is facilitated by Hanoi. The availability of any component, from bronze to petrified wood to steel, has helped these artists expand their repertoire to an extent and with an ease they couldn’t have done anywhere else in the world. As Dat says, “Come on, you can get anything you want here, just go out onto the street. This is Vietnam.”