Urgently seeking V….. Vitamin, Visibility, Vitality

- Performance Art in Vietnam

by Tran Luong

In 1993, German artist Veronika Radulovic came to Viet Nam. She took a position at Hanoi Fine Arts University (HFAU) as a long-term lecturer of Avant-garde western art. During her teaching program, Performance Art was introduced as a kind of the avant-garde movement of Western. From 1994, Truong Tan (artist, lecture of HFAU at that time) and his student group: Nguyen Van Cuong, Nguyen Quang Huy, Nguyen Minh Thanh began to practice performance.i
For me, it was in 1993, at Holland, that I saw Performance Art for the first time. A local artist presented this performance work. Then, I started to think and research about Performance Art. I did my first performance work during my installation show titled “Khoi Thuy” / “Beginning”, at Nha San, Hanoi in 2000.
In terms of history and society of Vietnam, Performance Art is an important means of therapy for me, to treat the physical and psychological barriers, to create and state the highly creative states of my inspiration - not only in Performance Art work but also for my practice in the forms of experimental art in general. 

During 45 years, since 1945, Vietnamese art was pressed into a functional framework and for illustrating only. "The truth" is always just a luxury concept. Even today it is dangerous for anyone if they want to touch the truth. Self-censorship syndrome is a status quo that also remains until today. Most artists in Vietnam will close themselves into the works that are not prohibited. There are only few honest and brave artists, but they either are isolated, living in poverty, or even face threats to be arrested or imprisoned. The academic art forms, especially fine-arts, as sculpture and painting, are easy to be censored, because they are clear objects/ artifacts. This situation make us say "never write what you dare not sign !"

Since the period of "Open door", the Vietnamese art scene seem to develop into a “distressed situation”. On one side is the market oriented art serving tourism, a characteristic “insensitive yet flamboyant” kind of art, and on the other side, something dry and strange made by order from the government. ii

The appearance of Performance Art in Vietnam clearly has provided an alternative way to somewhat providing the artist’s desire to be liberated, to be soaring and to create honestly so that art may reflect the mood of citizens (but perhaps only of a small number of avant garde artists). Also, it can somewhat also overcome the difficulties for local artists when they have not enough material resources or facilities for their art pratice.

Along with the role of an organizer for contemporary art event, and just as an artist, I noticed that Performance Art has useful features that fit my circumstances and living condition in Vietnam. Performance Art meets the requirements to pass through barriers that the other forms of visual arts are facing, such as censorship, lack of funding, lack of professional facilities for art, lack of consulting and technical supports.

In terms of form, Performance Art can be practiced widely in all circumstances; there is always opportunity for dialogue (interaction) with the masses of any classes. Performance Art is conceptual art, so its language should be diverse and highly metaphorical, that to give them an opportunity to access the art in both the five senses which contributes and addresses the severe shortage of educational knowledge, information and academic knowledge about art in Vietnam even today. 

So far, Performance Art has not been taught in art schools; it has not received funding from the state/goverment and did not have any legal corridor/law in the State culture management system that refer or support the Performance Art. Even, all atist’s applications for permission (to show) still has to send to the Department of Theatre (instead sent to the Department of Fine arts and Photography), and most applications are not approved!

Until 2007, Performance Art has always been forbidden; It was regarded as an "extrinsic art form" of ”underground art”. At the National Youth Arts Festival in late 2007, performance arts was officially accepte to be performed in public for the first time, but the young artist’s works had to be presented to a Council of censorship before allowing it to be presented. The performance art works may be flexible but may even be forced to adjust, as a result these works become very bad (the top performance artists do not participate in any events organized by the state/goverment, which is expressed in a boycott, and actually, they also know that their performance works would never to be approved, even though they are accepted for showing at all).

Although the social conditions in Vietnam are more difficult as mentioned above, the number of students and young artists who like Performance Art is still growing. The study of performance art is still entirely in the form of self-education or through the experiences of the senior artists, through exchanges with international artists, through books and information, and largely through the internet. The young performers in Vietnam now consider Performance Art as an attractive infinite and expressive potential practice area. Performance Art is also stimulated artists self discovery by challenging psychological barriers as a result of several decades of living in a society of artificially enclosed introversion.

The greatest advantage of Performance Art when compared to other forms of visual art practices are its diverse possibilities as a language of metaphorical expressions. Performance Art not only allows the explanation of history, the human condition and plight, the attitude and desire in forms that can be flexible, insinuating, profound and subtle but also could be in very direct ways that may be shocking and provocative.

As the current trend shows performance art in Vietnam seem to manifest in two possibilities:

i In e-mail conversation, Veronika Radulovic commented that the official post she held was a DAAD lecturer of modern art” there was no word for contemporary art and she introduced Performance Art as one aspect of Western/international Art. She invited Amanda Heng, from Singapore to visit the HFAU during her trip to Hanoi in December 1995.  After participating at Amanda Heng's performance Truong Tan (artist, lecturer of HFAU at that time) and some students began to practice performance. All the performances took place in private areas. Except the performance “Mother and Child” by Truong Tan and Nguyen van Cuong, which was held during the exhibition of Nguyen Minh Thanh at 29 Hang Bai (which is a governmental art space) and the first one at an official place. - In this program I also invited Nezaket Ekici later… I was the first international guest lecturer there... performance art was not "allowed" there at this time. So, everything was a bit "undercover"... but for sure, the interest in performance art was high and really funny: the first "official permitted performance" there, was your (Lee Wen) water performance … I introduced performance art in my lectures by Videos. (Abramovic/Ulay - Signer - all the polish and Hungarian friends... fluxus artists and more...) which was a good program on basics, especially Abramovic and also Signers performances like really interesting video-art- (I mean, more than only a document) ... this is a difficulty ... but there was no other way to introduce performance art in Vietnam (within the art academy) (And for Amanda, they accepted it, but there was no permission for her (performance) at all) you understand”

ii Editor’s note: In 1986 economic reform were initiated to encourage "socialist-oriented market economy" under a program name of Doi Moi (Renovation) often seen as the beginning of open door policy in Vietnam.