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6 asian art PHOTOGRAPHY

From Landscapes series (1998), Saigon. Courtesy of Bui Xuan Huy

By Zhuang Wubin

REVIEWING COLONIAL and post-colonial scholarship, art historian Nora A. Taylor observes that art history in Vietnam has been written with political agendas in mind: ‘Vietnam as a nation has been imagined through art; making art history has served a political project’. In the post-1975 era, the project is essentially a nationalistic and reconciliatory one. In terms of photography, the ‘official’ history states that Dang Huy Tru, a senior official in the Nguyen Dynasty, was the founding father of Vietnamese photography. In 1867, Dang bought his first camera in Guangdong, China. By 1869, he had opened the first Vietnamese photo studio Cam Hieu Duong in Hanoi. In 1878, Truong Van San, who learnt the craft from France, opened Vietnam’s second photo lab in Hue. ere is no mention of Saigon until 1924 when Khanh Ky opened his studio in the city. Not surprisingly, this account differs from that provided by Jerome Ghesquiere, who is in charge of the photographic archives at the Guimet Museum in Paris. e French brought photography to Saigon in the beginning of 1850 and the first professional photographer to be based in the city was Emile Gsell in 1866, states Ghesquiere. Clearly, in the historiography of photography, as in the history of the nation, Vietnam is divided. However, this divisiveness is not necessarily an issue. Taylor remains hopeful that ‘once disputes over terminology are settled, what remains is not one history of Vietnamese art but several histories, which could be geographic or topographic. In the last five years, many writers and parachute curators have added to NOVEMBER 2010

Nguyen Xuan Khanh and Bui Xuan Huy
the discourse by heralding the contribution of Viet Kieu (Overseas Vietnamese) artists on the contemporary art scene in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). However, some of these essays are based on hasty generalisations. In fact, the return of Viet Kieu artists back to Vietnam is just one of the factors that has led to a more vibrant art scene. Often ignored is the movement in the other direction. Since liberalisation, even artists in Hanoi have had many opportunities to visit other countries and connect with foreign curators and artists through fellowship or exchange programmes, thinks photographer Bui Xuan Huy (b. 1953; Ha Toy Province, North Vietnam). ‘ e Vermont Studio Center (VSC), for instance, invites two Vietnamese artists each year to the US. Even if the Viet Kieu do not bring new ideas back to Vietnam, local artists are now able to see contemporary art outside of the country’. In his case, Bui was first invited in 1996 to do a six-month course at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in NYC. In 1998, he did a sixmonth fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and, in

Post-Doi Moi Photography in Saigon

From Cambodians Before and After series. Courtesy of Nguyen Xuan Khanh

PHOTOGRAPHY asian art 7
2000,Bui received the VSC fellowship. Similarly, curator and photographer Nguyen Xuan Khanh (b. 1948; Phnom Penh, Cambodia) has had the opportunity in 2002 to do a fivemonth course on photographic education at the National Superior School of Photography in Arles, France. Although they are less famous than the Viet Kieu, Bui Xuan Huy and Nguyen Xuan Khan represent the first generation of ‘local’ contemporary photographers to have emerged in HCMC since 1986 when the government adopted the Doi Moi (Renewal) policy. Even though Bui is a member of the Vietnamese Association of Photographic Artists (VAPA) and Nguyen is part of Ho Chi Minh City Photography Association (HOPA), their relationships with the two governmentcontrolled organisations remain ambiguous. Bui’s artistic practice is definitely atypical of VAPA members’ preference for romantic and nostalgic images. Meanwhile, Nguyen continues to be uneasy over his designation as a contributing curator for the Frenchrun ‘Month of Images’ in HCMC because the association has not endorsed his position. Despite the constraints, Bui and Nguyen have made modestbut tangible contributions to photography in HCMC. It is here that Bui’s path overlapped, very briefly, with that of Nguyen. In 1997, the late Lam Tan Tai (1935-2001), HOPA Secretary General and VAPA Deputy Secretary General, established the Photographic Research and Development Centre where Nguyen worked as a researcher. Lam was one of the most important Viet Minh photographers in South Vietnam during the American War. In 1998, the centre founded the first Department of Photography in Vietnam at the Academy of the Arts and Culture, which is administered by the municipal government. Based on the course structure provided by the authorities, Nguyen and his colleagues designed the content for the BA programme. Broadly speaking, it included: history of photography, language of images, photographic project, curatorial work, fine art history, visual art and photojournalism. Nguyen taught the first four parts. A VAPA-endorsed lecturer would teach the history of Vietnamese photography. In 2001, Lam invited Bui to teach at the academy and allowed him the freedom to do what he wanted. Bui’s course was ‘Ways of Approaching Photography’. He explains: ‘Before the academy, there was no photographic education. In the post1975 era, all photographers were selftaught, including teachers at that school. e students follow the same routine. Since I had the chance to study in America, I taught my students differently. I would ask them to go out and take pictures.When they returned, we would critique the images and answer some of the questions raised. More importantly, I told them photography is just around us. It is not in some faraway place.’ Unfortunately, Bui only stayed for a semester. He left because he found the curriculum outdated. He was perhaps too progressive. He gave them names of artists and critics to invite but they did not act on it. More importantly, he could not feed his family with his salary. Teaching took away time from his commercial practice and the school only paid him US$1 per hour. At times, he even had to buy negatives for his students. He had no choice. But his brief stint did leave a strong enough impression on

The return of Viet Kieu artists to Vietnam has led to a much more vibrant art scene

five students with whom he has remained in touch over the years. It would take the likes of Bui Huu Phuoc and Lam Hieu uan another two to three years after graduation before producing their first noncommissioned projects. Since then, the department has not produced any photographer who does art or independent work. Or else, it is reasonable to assume that Nguyen Xuan Khanh would have featured them during the Month of Images. A possible reason why subsequent graduates are reluctant to pursue independent art projects is that the academy curriculum is geared towards technical training, says Australian curator Sue Hajdu. As he is partly responsible for the programme, Nguyen Xuan Khanh is slightly defensive about it. But he remains realistic about the situation: ‘Most Vietnamese people study for the sake of having a career. It is very hard to expect them to be artists. ey have to be practical. In this sense, censorship is less an issue than the need to survive. At the same time, even though I have many books, the students do not have a good command of English or French to understand the ideas. Furthermore, in other countries, they support young artists. In Vietnam, we also have a lot of sponsors but they prefer to support

beauty contests. ey give very little to education.’ ere is also a cultural dimension to the issue – a rationale favoured by the more conservative art practitioners in Vietnam. ey see the culture of Hanoi as more sophisticated than that of Saigon. In this case, the whole notion of ‘culture’ refers specifically to traditional Viet culture. Such an observation is haphazard but it allows some art practitioners, Nguyen included, to say things like: ‘HCMC photographers prefer technical things and are not concerned about ideas’. Even without dissecting the whole construction of Viet culture, such a comment ignores the possibility that photography simply does not have the capacity to contain such a concept of culture and ideology. Furthermore, it ignores the presence of Viet Kieu artists in Saigon, even though their influence may not be decisive. Strictly speaking, Nguyen is also a Viet Kieu, even though he now holds a Vietnamese passport.After spending the first 22 years of his life in Cambodia, Nguyen fled to Saigon in 1970 when Lon Nol started prosecuting the Vietnamese in Cambodia. According to Nguyen, the Viet Kieu artists are an exclusive group of people who do not even reach out to people like him, let alone the locals. As the understanding of contemporary art is very low in Vietnam, there is no meeting point. It is hard to justify Nguyen’s comments because several of the Viet Kieu-run art venues are partners of the Month of Images. However, his observation is not entirely wrong. If we look at the new generation of photo artists who have emerged in recent years, none of them, with the exception of Mai Tung

(b. 1985; HCMC, South Vietnam), has been overtly inspired by the Viet Kieu to pursue an art career. On the other hand, Bui’s wariness stems from his initial contact with Dinh Q. Le (b. 1968; Ha-Tien, South Vietnam). Vietnam’s leading artist, Le was amongst the first to move back to HCMC in 1996. When he met Bui in 1997, Le asked him why he did not go underground with his art. Bui repeated the same question to Le and the Viet Kieu kept quiet. ‘If Le did it, the most he would get was deportation. If I did it, I would be jailed,’ states Bui matter-of-factly. ‘Le then told me he would start a public space or café with art books. It took him 10 years to start San Art and the space is not even funded by his own pocket. We have to remember that he was quite famous and his work was already selling well before moving back to Vietnam.’ If anything, the accounts of Bui and Nguyen show that there is a sense of misgiving between the various groups of photo artists in HCMC. Hopefully, the younger photographers will bridge the gap. ‘When I finished my course at Arles, my professor reminded me to seek out the young people and transfer my knowledge to them. is is why I spend more time with young people than the Viet Kieu or the local professional photographers. e young generation is like a piece of blank paper. We can write new things onto the paper,’ says Nguyen Xuan Khanh, who has been teaching at the College of Stage and Cinema in HCMC since 2006. e main problem with the local practitioners is that the influence of Salon Photography is still strong, adds Nguyen.‘Instead of using photography as a medium of investigation, they
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NOVEMBER 2010

8 asian art SEPTEMBER AUCTIONS

From Landscapes series (1996-). Courtesy of Bui Xuan Huy

From One Rainy Day series (2008). Courtesy of Nguyen Xuan Khanh

usually take pictures to join competitions. ey do not reach out to the cultures and lives in Vietnam.’ If it is possible, according to Taylor, for art historiography to encourage the production of nationalistic art, it is reasonable to assume that the government’s definition of ‘national Vietnamese cultural identity’ must have also influenced the local photographers. What is its definition of ‘culture’? ‘We must preserve traditional character as well as acquire more essential features from others to enrich our cultural background,’ explains Vice Minister Le Tien o from the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism. ‘A stable country means a stable culture background’. How then do the photographic work of Nguyen and Bui measure against this idea of cultural identity? How does their work differ from their peers? In the first place, Nguyen’s sense of ‘national’ identity is still in flux. As a science undergraduate in Cambodia from 1968 to 1970, Nguyen would study in French and Khmer. Escaping to Vietnam before finishing the course, Nguyen studied French Literature in Saigon because his Vietnamese was not good enough to pursue the same degree.Meanwhile, he studied photography through a distance-learning programme with Eurelec in Paris. After the American War, he had a stroke of luck. Because he could speak French, Nguyen was employed by the government in 1976 to work in the transport unit. He quit his literature degree and travelled within Vietnam for his work. As always, he brought along his camera. At that time, the political situation was still unstable NOVEMBER 2010

and people were afraid of being photographed. As a member since 1976, Nguyen had a HOPA letter that gave him access to many things. In 1985, he left the job to become a freelance commercial photographer, shooting everything from calendars to events. And in 1994, Nguyen started his French restaurant. During the Vietnamese New Year in 2008, Nguyen was taking photos at the junction of Le Loi and Pasteur in HCMC. To celebrate Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organisation a year earlier, young people were parading through the junction with flags of countries around the world. When he reviewed his pictures back home, only three images meant anything to him – one of which showed the Cambodian flag, the other was with the Vietnamese flag, and the last one contained the French flag. He does not know why. In terms of his personal practice, Nguyen’s interest is in the Indochina region an area that refers back to its colonial origins. In Cambodians Before and After (2007-09), the photographer assembles his images of Angkor

statues and Cambodian portraits into a series of diptychs, thereby toying with the idea of a real and virtual Angkor. Even though he grew up in Cambodia, Nguyen’s first trip to Angkor was in 2001. Since then, he has made around 10 trips there. e idea of the diptychs did not come immediately. ‘I enjoy going to the villages, away from the cities, to experience traditional Khmer culture,’ explains Nguyen Xuan Khanh. ‘It is not possible to do so in the cities where cultures are more mixed. When I sit and talk to the villagers in Khmer, I feel very close to them. at is when I take a picture.’ Reviewing the portraits, he noticed that many Cambodians have deep eyes and thick lips. ey look exactly like the Angkor statues. is is the rationale for his presentation. e problem, however, with Cambodians Before and After is the same as most ethnographic work, which typecast identities onto bodily or facial features. With the diptychs, the ethnic identity of the Khmers is seen to be ‘pure’ and immovable over a period of some 1,200 years, ignoring the infusion, for

‘When Vietnam changes, the first things to go are the wardrobe and the lifestyle ...’

instance, of Cham or Chinese blood. ese are issues that pass Nguyen by. Despite its shortfalls, Cambodians Before and After represents a tentative attempt by Nguyen to use photography to put across his ideas. It does not aim to reaffirm the beauty of Angkor, a starting point that some of his HOPA colleagues continue to adopt. However, in Angkor of my Dreams (2007-09), Nguyen Xuan Khanh appears to do precisely that with a series of pseudo-infrared images of the Cambodian monuments. But his explanation quickly dispels the idea. Before his first trip to Angkor, Nguyen only knew it though images and books. In this sense, Angkor of my Dreams becomes autobiographical – it is an attempt by the photographer to re-create his ‘memory’ of Angkor. Aesthetically speaking, his images do not differ from a more traditional approach. However, his work remains arresting due to his starting point. With the exception of a few locals, most of the images are devoid of foreign tourists. He speaks of the need to ‘return Angkor to the Cambodians’. In a rather clumsy way, Nguyen has tainted the project with nostalgia. If the work is a rally against the French for looting Angkor, the nostalgia becomes irrelevant. In his case, it is not. Slightly better is Nguyen’s One Rainy Day (2008), which celebrates the labourers of a brick factory at Vinh Long Province in Vietnam without resorting to an iconography of heroism. Instead, Nguyen focuses on the energy and movements of the workers while transporting the rice husks to the kilns. Apart from conveying a sense of action, the blurred images allow him to sidestep the pitfall of over-romanticising the workers who actually lead harsh lives. He adds: ‘Many Vietnamese photographers like to take pictures of models and singers. Why not labourers? Even people from a lower status have the right to be photographed.’ With these three projects, Nguyen Xuan Khanh is trying to use photography to address things that are close at heart. His images display a greater depth than some of his peers who continue to be shackled by Salon Photography. However, when compared to Bui Xuan Huy, Nguyen seems to have drawn the line too short. At his age, Bui continues to exude reckless energy, even though he has more or less given up his artistic practice as a photographer. Disillusion has driven him into the routine of commercial work. Moving to Saigon in 1954, Bui’s father was an army major for the South Vietnamese government during the American War. After reunification, he spent five years in the re-education camp. In 1984, Bui decided to pick up photography to earn a living. When the American GIs left Vietnam after losing the war,

they left behind a lot of books, including some on photography. Bui’s Vietnamese friends bought him some and taught him the basics. In order to practise photography, Bui sold two gold rings to buy his first camera – a second-hand Pentax SP. Over the years, he shot everything from advertisements to events. When he studied at SVA, Bui had a classmate from Hong Kong who worked primarily in Holga. Naturally, it was not considered a ‘professional’ camera by photographers in Vietnam but Bui was drawn to the off-focus quality of the images. Initially, Bui did not know the way to wind the film. When he developed the rolls, his images of America turned out to be truncated and dense panoramas. e accident became the first part of Landscapes (1996- ). ‘ e images looked exactly what I had dreamt of, like the way your eyes would see things after waking up from a midday nap,’ explains Bui, who has just received his green card. ‘Before the trip, I read a lot about America. And yet, my feeling of the country was still blurred and confused.’ Back in Vietnam, Bui continued working with the Holga but he altered his approach, choosing to present his images in diptychs. His intention was to mimic the tradition of putting couplets or paintings of deities on both sides of the doorway. In other words, Bui is using a ‘foreign’ and modern medium to replicate a decorative artform, which is seen as part of the traditional ‘Vietnamese’ art. At the same time, by presenting his work in diptychs, Bui is toying with the structure of photographic narrative. Nevertheless, he remains critical of Landscapes. As far as Bui is concerned, the project is incomplete, even though he has already put it aside for several years. e same applies for Mannequin (1999-), a project that he is also reluctant to claim as completed. e investigative process is ongoing, says a defensive Bui. In this case, Bui does not use the mannequins to project his personal plight as an urbanite. Instead, they serve as metaphors of the urbanization process in Vietnam. ‘When Vietnam changes, the first things to go are the wardrobe and the lifestyle,’ Bui explains. ‘As a photographer, I want to reflect that. Whether it is good or bad, it is not for me to say.’ In the current euphoria over the contemporary art scene in Vietnam, the past struggles of Nguyen Xuan Khanh and Bui Xuan Huy remain obscured. Clearly, their artistic practices indicate a break from their peers at HOPA and VAPA. As such, it is not hyperbolic to see their works as forays into contemporary art, while totally mindful of the fact that the idea of ‘conceptual art’ has yet to be articulated in Vietnam. Perhaps we will see a plethora of definitions, as envisioned by Nora Taylor.