I reach the end of Dang Thai Mai and look around. The only thing nearby is a peeling yellow wall snaking its way along the lake. I check my phone again — the blinking blue dot tells me I’m in the right place. I silently curse Google Maps for failing again to navigate me through Hanoi’s streets. I’m definitely lost.
Then, a shiny black four-wheel drive tears around the corner and hurtles towards me. At the last second, it hangs a left, mounting the curve and stopping at the mouth of a secret driveway I didn’t notice before. The door opens and the face of eccentric Hanoi artist Le Quang Ha beckons me to follow him on my motorbike. I follow suit and we disappear off the street.
“Welcome,” he says, as he unlocks a wrought iron gate and gestures me into his secret studio, aptly named the KAMIKAZE Factory. This is after all the place where Ha gives birth to garish contemporary art viewed by some as an outburst within Vietnam’s conservative landscape. But it’s exactly this controversial side to Ha’s work, which often blurs modern and traditional lines and delivers stinging social commentary, which has made it significant.
It’s also the reason why I’ve come to visit: I’m on the hunt for Hanoi’s next generation of avant-garde artists.
Losing its Lustre
Ha is one of many older artists who are adamant that Hanoi’s contemporary art scene is reaching a standstill. The source of the problem, he says, is the strict adherence to classical art norms being taught in Hanoi’s art schools.
“They just learn techniques, methods, classicism,” says the 52-year-old, pouring condensed milk into a cup of piping hot ca phe Viet Nam. “There’s no focus on how to conceptualise or analyse art — and that’s having a big effect on artists today.”
Ha isn’t the only one who believes Hanoi’s institutional approach to teaching art is missing the mark. Nha San Gallery manager Le Tuan Uyen agrees, saying that Hanoi’s younger generation of artists are struggling to push the envelope and regain the golden era of Vietnam’s Gang of Five, a group of five Hanoian artists — Hong Viet Dung, Ha Tri Hieu, Dang Xuan Hoa, Tran Luong and Pham Quang Vinh — who rose to international fame in the 1990s for their neo-classical expressionist work. Artists like Le Quang Ha soon followed suit, along with fellow iconoclasts Tran Trong Vu, Hoang Hong Cam, Nguyen Than and Bui Minh Dung. These artists are credited with laying the foundation for Vietnam’s alternative art movement.
“There are plenty of young artists in Hanoi right now who are adept at technique, but not that many that are creating things that are really capturing the attention of global collectors,” says Uyen. “There is such an oversupply of commercial art in the market right now, as a result of the mass consumption of conventional art."
That oversupply that Uyen is referring to can be readily seen in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. A stroll along Hang Bong, lined with dozens of low-end and upscale galleries, is a steady show of recurring themes: rice fields, willowy maidens in ao dai, old French buildings. Even copies of famous Hanoian and international paintings can be purchased from as low as US$50 (VND1.05 million).
Says Uyen: “Like artists all over the world, many adopt a learn-by-copying approach, rather than experimenting with old conventions and subject matters.”
According to Suzanne Lecht, who manages Art Gallery Vietnam in Hanoi’s bustling Old Quarter, until contemporary art becomes a status symbol in Vietnam, the incentive for artists to push the boundaries will remain limited.
“I think there is definitely a lack of a local collectors’ base in Hanoi, and that means less incentives for artists,” says Lecht, who has been deeply involved in Vietnam’s art scene for two decades. She says that until Hanoi’s nouveau riche develop an interest in contemporary art, many of the city’s best artists will gravitate towards other places with a stronger presence of art-conscious collectors, such as in Ho Chi Minh City and the wealthier parts of Asia.
“There is definitely a lack of appreciation for controversial, contemporary art among Hanoian collectors,” she says. “They want something that’s pretty, that’s easy to look at. That has an effect on what artists produce.”
A Brighter Tomorrow
None of this is to say that we should be pessimistic about the future of Hanoi’s art scene. As Nha San’s Le Tuan Nguyen suggests, overseas art exchange programmes and artist-in-residence initiatives are helping local artists expand their horizons.
“A lot of young artists return with an exposure to the international art scene that challenges the classical conventions that are taught here,” she says, adding that many come back to Hanoi with a broader understanding of experimental art and are sharing those skills with other artists.
“Contemporary art workshops held by returning artists and art graduates are helping to transform the understanding of local artists about contemporary art. They’re also helping them become more analytical in their approach.”
However, artists without direct access to overseas contemporary art are finding other ways to keep themselves informed. For artists like Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Arts graduate Trieu Minh Hai — one of six contemporary fine artists recently featured in Hanoi Grapevine’s Selections Volume 2 — the internet has had a transformative impact on local artists, connecting them with the international contemporary art scene.
“The internet has been an amazing tool for artists in Vietnam, and particularly graduates in Hanoi where the art scene is less international than in Saigon,” says Hai, who trains under the tutelage of Le Quang Ha. “It’s a great way to learn about what’s happening overseas.”
Online sharing platforms such as YouTube and Facebook have also allowed emerging Hanoian artists to keep up with cutting edge artists, who are increasingly archiving their work online. This rise in self-directed online learning has also spurred interest in alternative art forms, according to Hanoi University of Fine Arts professor and contemporary artist Nguyen The Son.
“There’s been a dramatic increase in artists showing interest in installation, performance and video art forms,” says Nguyen, showing me a video of his recent hyperrealist installation of urban slums in Ho Chi Minh City. “Young artists are curious about playing with mediums like photography and video to produce new art forms."
More organisations than ever before are dedicated to teaching young artists about experimental art forms, he says. DocLab, an incubator of experimental film and video art, is one such organisation. Set up by the Goethe-Institut in 2009, it devotes itself to cultivating “a new generation of Vietnamese independent filmmakers and media artists”. According to the centre’s website, it also houses an archive of experimental films and film art theory books, as well as supplying production equipment to students and visiting artists.
As for Le Quang Ha, he thinks that it will take time for Hanoi’s emerging artists to get comfortable with pushing the envelope. While he is frustrated with the lack of artistic freedoms, he remains optimistic.
“Art cannot be suppressed, and the younger emerging generation know this. They’re opening their eyes and really trying to push the boundaries in the hopes of creating new kinds of art. Things are changing slowly, we just have to be patient.”