Anything Can Happen between Now and Then…

By Veronika Radulovic i

Amanda Heng at University of Fine Arts Hanoi. December 1995
Photo: Ngyuen Quang Huy

Amanda Heng glues a piece of paper onto the long wooden desk in the director’s office at the University of Arts in Hanoi. Then she divides a Chinese cabbage into pieces and places the leaves on dark brown plastic chairs. She says: “Everything can happen between now and then”, which is translated into Vietnamese for his fellow students by Nguyen Minh Thanh. Amanda then signals to the students to climb onto the chairs and starts to tear up various Vietnamese newspapers: Lao Dong, Van nghe tre, The Thao Van Hoa and Ha Noi Moi, among others. She hands out the pieces randomly to the students. Some of them start reading, others giggle. A mélange of sounds takes shape. What happens then? Eight students stand on the chairs, a piece of newspaper in their hands, a cabbage leaf in front of them. Two girls suppress their laughter. Amanda Heng disappears under a blanket with a black and white flower pattern. Slowly, the ghostly looking blanket creeps across the director’s desk. It gets up and collects the newspaper fragments. Amanda’s hands clutch at thin air when suddenly, the black-and-white blanket rises. The scene ends. There is applause.

What is all this? Is this a performance? For a while this question remained unanswered. Many years later, we will laugh about the fact that the first art performance at the University of Arts in Hanoi took place in the director’s office. It was the best-equipped room at the university. It had a television set, which was at my disposal for video presentations. “I was really afraid he would enter” says Anh Mai. “Me too”, was my response. What remained was a feeling of having experienced something extraordinary, something that differed from everything else. And it had not been carried out secretly but in the presence of witnesses: a couple of students and a videotape that recorded exactly 12 minutes and thus became a small ironical relic of itself.

Participants: Truong Tan and students from HFAU. Photo: Ngyuen Quang Huy
participants: Truong Tan and students from HFAU. Photo: Ngyuen Quang Huy

Questions about whether this performance made sense or not, questions which should have been asked and answered, remained unasked.

This gentle and doubtlessly unspectacular performance on 8 December 1995 initiated one of a series of endless whispering and private exercises that helped Vietnamese artists to understand each other and to remain creative beyond the officially ordered and controlled forms of art.

Truong Tan
International Container Art Project 1996
Kopenhagen / Denmark
Photo: Niko Ewers
Truong Tan
International Container Art Project 1996
Kopenhagen / Denmark
Photo: Niko Ewers

One of the most popular private places of that time was Salon Natasha, the apartment of Natalia Kraevskaia and the studio of her husband, the artist Vu Dan Tan. There, the most varied forms of art thrived, regardless of what was officially expected. There, artists developed freely, without regard for rules or regulations and without fear of being classified by what was internationally understood as “performance art”.

But now, through this performance at the University of Arts, an art form was truly entering new territory. It was precisely the location of this unauthorised happening, the director’s office, which underlined the fact for those present that something had happened beyond the function of art and its doctrine, and beyond all the endeavours for reform which the academy stood for in a special and singular way. It was simply breathtaking.

The only artist and teacher of the University of Arts who had taken part in the performance was Truong Tan. In the years to come, he would increasingly experiment with this new medium. Maybe the word ‘experiment’ sounds too academic. He simply took pleasure in doing things spontaneously and acting according to the situation. He was narcissistic; he wanted to be the centre of attention. His personality fulfilled in a special way one of the basic requirements of performance art, that the artist does not give form to something abstract but to himself.

In the following years, many different performances took place in several areas, mainly in the relative safety of rural areas (Mong Cai and Moc Chau) but also in private homes (Hang Chuoi and Pho Yen Thai). Nguyen Van Cuong, with Til Schönherr, discovered and performed, on the first floor of Quyen Van Minh’s jazz club on Lake Hoan Kiem, the diverse sounds that a motorbike could possibly make. In 1995, Truong Tan used an empty bottle of La vie for an “Army Performance”, as he called it, on the beach of Mong Cai. A first series of photographs was made there as well. However, the attention raised by the photo documentation could not protect the performance from its innate transitory nature. Performances continued to live on in stories that were told, and the most bizarre versions of seen and unseen works became the topics of conversation. Myths were created, and it became crystal clear that a performance was neither a static affair nor could it be repeated. It was unique. Like the weather or a football match, a performance emerged as a non-linear chaotic system, and incidentally, put Vietnam’s monopolistic cultural policy offside.

The lack of a clear definition of the term, and its imprecise and poorly definable form, allowed us to call our occasional actions simply as a

Nguyen Van Cuong (in cooperation with Til Schönherr), Motorbike Sound-performance. Jazz Club Quyen, Hanoi 1998. Photo: Veronika Radulovic

“performance”. This term was very soon used in an inflationary way among artists and students. Suddenly, carrying a painting through the crowded streets of the ancient quarter of Hanoi, or a simple lunch, was a performance. A new ease and joy accompanied the new experience, and it seemed as if art had at last broken free of its rigidity and become a living process.

This is one side of the story. Performance art was and remains a slap in the face of official state art. Perhaps this was the reason it received so much attention and became a constant topic of discussion, in spite of the fact that some performances were of low quality and would have passed unnoticed had they not happened in Vietnam. This became clear with Nguyen Minh Thanh’s installation in the state gallery at 29 Hang Bai Street. This was where on 9 November 1996, Nguyen Van Cuong and Truong Tan did their performance Mother and Son, which radically called into question the claim of the cultural administration (associations, universities, museums) to be sole arbiters of the concept of beauty in the arts. In the performance, a supine body on the floor was painted with blood (in fact, it was only red paint!) What followed was a range of very different reactions — from disapproval to admiration. But such questions as ‘How will you make a living if you do something like that?’ raised, for the first time, the issue of support for art beyond official state art and the commercial market. Most people regarded the new tendencies with suspicion, and distrust towards my teaching assignment increased.

Nonetheless I continued my work as a DAAD lecturer at the University of Arts. Among other things, I intensively conveyed the knowledge of this controversial art form. Videotapes of Yves Klein, Yoko Ono, Abramovic/Ulay, Roman Signer and last but not least, of Joseph Beuys sweeping out the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, were received with astonishment and were highly debated. The same was true of Polish and Hungarian performance art of the eighties, and of Fluxus artists and their happenings. It clearly showed how in the sixties, performance art in Europe had developed parallel to a dissatisfaction with politics and its approach to art.

Later, I also showed video performances. The students and artists in Hanoi should learn and know as much as possible. I showed What is the Difference between a Hong Kong-produced Violent Pornographic Video and a Performance Showing a Clothed Man Beating an Unclothed Woman?, a video which had been produced for the documenta 8 in Kassel. Where is it possible to raise such questions? And where is it possible to see a “real” performance? A performance by artist Man Bui was staged in 1997 at the Tran An Gallery, but to see it was, however, only possible with a personal invitation and it was very difficult to receive one.

Sometimes, we were lucky. In 1999, the American-Vietnamese artist Nguyen Cao Hung did a performance — open to everyone — in the art gallery of a French gallerist in Trang Tien Street. On 17 November 2000, in Gia Lam, many students and artists witnessed Universal Harmony, an impressive performance put up by Dao Anh Khanh to welcome the new millennium. This dance-performance, reminiscent of a huge theatrical open-air production, clearly demonstrated the artist’s strive for harmony between state and society. Anh Khanh used fire, sound, light, objects, the rigid and the transitory. He showed himself in slow motion. The public participated and was enthusiastic. People were proud to have been there, to have experienced the event. It was regrettable that for students and artists there were few opportunities for comparison, so that for many, Anh Khanh’s performance came to define performance art. Some students, though, began to use the expression ‘body-art performance’. I was happy that they had learnt to differentiate the performances.

Truong Tan / Nguyen Quang Huy, Water-Buffalo. Moc Chau Village 1996
Foto: Veronika Radulovic

But all the time I have the feeling that apart from conveying knowledge, something new was under way. Very cautiously we discussed many different detailed questions, and I constantly referred to international art history. It was, however, of little use to rely on current and established terms such as ‘body-art’, theatrical elements, entertainment, sound or Fluxus, thus calling for their legitimacy, as it helped neither the progressive nor the critical student. Of what use can there be to tell them that in the beginning of the last century some artists in Europe, mainly the Dadaists, had declared chance to be the principle of their action and themselves to be the art? Chance and the negation of academic rules, and the perspective of the suspension of time and space, were clearly non-academic aspects. Why then, should they find their way to the University of Arts in Hanoi? It seemed that performance could not be taught.

My teaching of international art in Vietnam initiated a process that clearly showed that some artists were ready to protest and to call for a new freedom of art, and their art in particular, even if it was a risk. There was also some opposition against the production of art for the state and the newly developing Western art market. All these movements favoured and drove the desire for change and reform, and although they were indefinable, these movements constituted a breach of aesthetic rules. Imposed ideologies and stories, state images and state roles were no longer the focus of attention; regard was given to individual actions and chance occurrences that contributed to the initiation of a process of self-discovery and a new international orientation.

Little wonder then that, in the beginning, Vietnamese performance art mainly took place abroad. This was true of Truong Tan’s performances. He participated in the International Container Project in Copenhagen (1996), in a performance in the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany (1996), in Singapore, and in an internal school project at the Städel Art School in Frankfurt/Main (1996), to name a few. There was also talk that Tran Luong staged performances in New York. As a result, many young artists wrongly assumed that international contemporary art had to be a performance.

This misunderstanding seemed to be confirmed by Truong Tan’s performance at the exhibition, Cultural Representation in Transition — New Vietnamese Painting, organised in Thailand in 1997 by The Siam Society Bangkok. On 30 January 1997, the Bangkok Post published a large-format photograph of Truong Tan. This publication turned his performance, which was staged in collaboration with the Thai artist Suraphol Panyawachira, into an official statement. Phataranawik writes: “Entitled Flower, this piece of live theatrical art comments on censorship in my country.” In the performance, the petals of a marigold are scattered on the floor amid 12 boxes. While Suraphol tries slowly to arrange the mass of flowers into a big petal, the Vietnamese artist, clad in black, angrily puts the flowers into each box and tapes them shut. This action is repeated again and again to represent the frustration of artists in Vietnam. “Our creativity is limited”, Tan explains to a Thai artist. Phataranawik’s article ends: “With Vietnam opening to the world after almost five decades of isolation, it is clear that an artistic renaissance has begun, unparalleled in the country since the French started the first fine arts school in Southeast Asia in 1925.”

Although I continued my efforts to explain fundamentals in my teaching programme, a major renaissance did not take place immediately. A dadaistic poster claims: “Dada is everything — dada will win” and “Art is dead, long live the artist”. What can art achieve? On 28 January 1997, I hung the Vietnamese translation of this sentence by Marcel Duchamp (I took great care in pointing out that Duchamp had lived from 1887 to 1968) on the walls of my seminar room at the University of Arts. Nghe thuat da chet! Nghe sy muon nam! Yes, this was radical. Immediately, one of the students took a picture of the poster. Where did it lead to? Is it really important to learn that everything surrounding us can be art? I was learning too. And I never knew for whom the student had taken the picture.

Shortly afterwards, an “incident” occurred, which raised a great deal of attention and led to a public discussion, that was clearly attributed to my/our bad influence. Two young men whom I did not know had, among other things, spilt blood (this too was only red paint!) on a gauze-bandaged body. The commotion that arose was less about the spilling of blood than that having been an unauthorised performance, as the incident was called. Again, this happened in a place where desecration would not be tolerated, that was Van Mieu, the Temple of Literature. Like Amanda Heng before them, Nguyen Van Tien and Tran Anh Quan had chosen a “more-than-wrong” place for their performance. But in contrast to Amanda Heng’s earlier performance, which only left small traces probably because it took place in the framework of one of my lectures, this performance provoked a major heated and ostentatious public discussion about the beauty and social values of art and its teachings, and not least of which the harmful and detrimental influence of the international art world.

The provocation incited by the two artists succeeded and had a beneficial result: question upon question was raised and new speculations arose.

But were these heated and very emotional discussions of any importance to a new artistic approach? How did red paint “blood” find its way into the Vietnamese art scene? Was it modelled on the Vienna Activists? It is a fact that Truong Tan had met the action artist and Professor Hermann Nitsch at the Academy of Art in Frankfurt am Main. But Nitsch had used real blood in his happenings. Did the Vietnamese artists lack courage? One could investigate this case like a detective ... and follow the clues ... and so on and so forth.

Without a doubt, the most important performance artists of the first generation were Truong Tan, Nguyen Minh Thanh, Nguyen Quang Huy and Nguyen Van Cuong. They were influenced by the works of international artists of the 20th century (in the beginning only through videos and catalogues shown in my seminars) and by the artists whom they were later able to meet personally. However, the great renaissance of performance art in Vietnam only started a few years ago. Further developed and integrated into teaching processes and international congresses, symposia and biennials, what were once private and spontaneous performances became artistic forms and strong political statements, full of power, energy and imagination. Some Hanoi artists gained support from international cultural institutes, such as the Alliance Francaise/L´Espace, the British Council, and since 1998, the Goethe Institute Hanoi. Scholarships to study abroad financed by the DAAD or grants from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) helped various artists, like the sound performers Vu Nhat Than and Kim Ngoc, to create new facets and forms of performance art in Vietnam. Vu Nhat Tan collaborated frequently with Tran Hau Yen The who spent four years at the Peking Academy of Arts. Further collaborations have occurred, among others, between Kim Ngoc and the Canadian video artist Brian Ring who lives in Hanoi.

At the end of the nineties, the still insufficient educational situation brought some young artists into the private home of artist and antique collector Nguyen Manh Duc. Thanks to the initiative of Tran Luong, Nha San Duc became a place for artistic experiments. Within a very short time, it became a meeting point for all who sought answers to their questions. At Nha San Duc, one could behave confidently, have a good meal with others and feel happy. There was a concentration of experiments with new artistic possibilities, including performance art. Later, artists also worked with video performances, digital images, and sound and noise performances. The audience grew. Tran Luong, who with Nhat Tan had created a full-fledged multimedia film and sound performance, was the main initiator of many of the events. International curators arrived, showed films and gave lectures, and every young artist who was prepared, for whatever reason, to meet the new international art world in Hanoi showed up. Everybody wanted to be part of the new wave. And sometimes it seemed as if the artist wanted to state by his presence: “Look, although I paint what is required of me, I do belong to the others, the international artists!” Slowly and almost imperceptibly, these young artists acquired a kind of monopolistic position. They admitted some and excluded others, allotted leading positions to some and looked down on others: the official and commercial artists, and the large number of indecisive ones. “We are the artists. Only we are international.” A group of artists was established which represented the exact opposite of the official Association of Artists. A free art scene had developed.

I do not view this attitude as laughable; in fact, it is far from it. That attitude was and still is a necessity. Vietnamese artists are right to position themselves in new and different ways, to dissociate themselves from the official line and in particular to make use of performance art. It is, finally, the only way to overcome the common view, not only in Vietnam, that only those objects created to last forever, to be valuable, beautiful, decorative and saleable can qualify as relevant art for the nation.

Tran Luong, the most important initiator of performance artists in the artists’ house Nha San Duc, that is, the second generation, was also the curator of the exhibition, Red-Green-Yellow, held at the Goethe Institute in Hanoi. This multimedia exhibition opened on 3 November 2003, and it was there that the artist Nguyen Minh Phuoc showed a previously unseen combination of video, installation and performance. He even went one step further, initiating a dialogue between the participants (in his video documents) and the spectators (visitors to the exhibition). His theme was the life of a certain social group, the labourer or migrant worker, a group living on the fringe of Vietnamese society. Migrant workers reveal the negative aspects of a booming city like Hanoi and it is a very risky to draw attention to this fact. Minh Phuoc observed these workers with his video camera, but this was of no importance as long as he established no relationship with them. At this point, his original idea changed. He felt that it was no longer possible to simply show videos in the Goethe Institute. He invited these workers to come to the Institute and write their wishes and dreams directly on the walls — to become performance artists before the eyes of the public. Another important signal was set.

Finally, on 1 March 2004, Nguyen Minh Phuoc and Vu Huu Thuy opened the first self-administered and non-commercial gallery for experimental art in the centre of Hanoi — Ryllega Hanoi (sponsored by Dong Son Today Foundation Hanoi). Apart from Nguyen Minh Thanh, the artists Nguyen Manh Hung, Nguyen Quang Huy, Pham Ngoc Duong, Nguyen Phuong Linh, Tran Anh Tuan, Nguyen Anh Tuan, Truong Tan, Nguyen Tri Manh and Le Vu belonged to this gallery. Events, installations and performances were organised at Ryllega Hanoi at irregular intervals. International artists came and showed their works in the new gallery, for example, Antonia Perez from New York, Vietnamese-American artist Kelly Le Lan Phuong, Varsha Nair from Thailand, Magne Furuholmen from Oslo, Stefan Kurr and Juliane Heise from Berlin and Singapore performance artist Lee Wen who lives in Tokyo. Earlier, Lee Wen had done a water performance at the Hanoi University of Arts in the presence of hundreds of visitors and which I had organised in the framework of a thematic exhibition. This was another important, new and singular event but another story.

The development of performance art in Vietnam reached its most recent peak in 2004 when Tran Luong organised the first International Performance Festival Lim Dim (sponsored by Denmark/Vietnam: CDEF), where 30 artists from Japan, Great Britain, France, Germany and Singapore, as well as many of the abovementioned Vietnamese artists participated. Lim Dim (Half-closed Eyes) describes the state between dream and waking and thus hints at the early days of whispered tones in countless hidden corners, but it also shows a new self-assurance. The festival was widely covered in the press and fostered new networks. Another festival, Snaky, held in Hanoi, Hue and Saigon, and organised by Pham Duc Tung (sponsored by Art Network Asia (ANA)) followed in 2007. In the same way, Vietnamese artists participated in various performance festivals in China, Cambodia, France and New York in the United States, as well as Ket Noi in Singapore in May/June 2008.

In August 2008, Ryllega Hanoi abandoned its fixed location in Hanoi and is now active in various places and cities. Contacts were and are intensified and extended, but not only within Southeast Asia. For example, the project Ryllega Berlin curated and organised by Veronika Radulovic and Stephanie von Spreter (sponsored by ifa-Stuttgart, Eurasia Culture Exchange gGmbH and Dong Son Today Foundation Hanoi) with the performance artists Truong Tan, Nguyen Quang Huy, Nguyen Tuan Anh and Nguyen Minh Phuoc, as well as other international artists took place in the glass pavilion of the Volksbühne Berlin in September 2008. The slogan is: “Talk to each other, express yourself. And do not repeat yourself!” At last it has arrived — performance art in Vietnam!

As many people may know, my story in Vietnam is a very personal one. I apologise to all the Vietnamese artists whom I have not mentioned. The international artists in Saigon, like Jun Nguyen-Hatshushiba, Dinh Q Le, Rick Streitmatter-Tran, my friend Hoang Duong Cam and many others — I have not forgotten. Also, I have to mention Ly Hoang Ly, the Saigon artist whose performances I have never seen, but whom I consider to be one of Vietnam’s most important female performance artists. My view of this unwritten piece of Vietnamese art history is that of a friend and an artist from Germany. Everyone has only one story to tell and that is his or her own. Like a performance, it cannot be repeated. And it is neither right nor wrong.

Veronika Radulovic – Berlin, August 2008-08-09


Note: Amanda Heng’s performance took place during one of my authorised tutorial courses which had been contractually agreed upon between the University of Arts in Hanoi and the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). For me, it constituted the best alternative to all the videos on contemporary art that I was allowed to show in my courses, and I hope the directorate forgives me for having “desecrated” its office for twelve minutes.

i This essay was excerpted from original by kind permission of Veronika Radulovic, first published in “Essays On Modern And Contemporary Vietnamese Art”, 2009 Singapore Art Museum, Lee, Sarah; Nguyen Nhu Huy (Eds.)