Sight Unseen

The artist was spread-eagled against the wall. Dinh Q. Le had been putting up an enormous piece of artwork in the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum when he realized that he was missing his level, one of only two available for the installation of Saigon Open City (SOC), Vietnam's first international art show since 1962. By the time I arrived, he had been teetering on a ladder for 10 minutes, holding up the corners of the piece while assistants scurried around the city to find his equipment.

Le's splayed-out body formed an inadvertent counterpoint to the piece he was installing -- U.S. artist Nancy Spero's intriguing Helicopter, Victim, Astronaut. The work features a looming helicopter, a beheaded Christ figure, and a ghoulish astronaut on an umbilical tether, arms raised in victory or possibly in an attempt to grab Jesus' severed head as it soars like a football. Touchdown and hallelujah!

Le looked far less triumphant on his ladder, where he stayed for another 30 minutes. "I'm doing an endurance piece. You know, creative persistence despite bureaucratic and technical challenges," he said.

SOC is an ambitious two-year art project that was slated to open in November 2006. After months of bureaucratic red tape and organizational infighting, however, SOC never received a license from the Ministry of Culture, and the proposed time frame for the first chapter of the project ended. Designed to present Vietnamese and international artists' work on the concept of "Liberation" in Saigon's museums, the first chapter of SOC was doomed to a twilight of waiting and uncertainty. Museums occasionally granted permission for SOC to hang its works, only to retract it or be overruled by government bodies. (Le hung Helicopter, Victim, Astronaut in the Fine Arts Museum, for example, but no one was allowed to see it.) As Thai cocurator Gridthiya Gaweewong said, "We were closed down without ever opening."

It's a particularly painful irony. Vietnam's first large-scale, private cultural venture was designed to bring art to the public, but instead the art was beaten back underground. Coming on the heels of Vietnam's successful bid to join the World Trade Organization and a historic visit by President Bush last November, the plight of SOC underscores the ways in which the country's official increasing openness seems to extend only toward economics, not art.

"One leg wants to walk forward with the WTO," said Gaweewong, "but the other leg is stuck in ideology. As this goes on, Vietnam will have an internal debate between the wallet and the mind. Saigon Open City raised so many of the questions in this debate and it seems like we have one answer: The wallet is open, but the mind is not."

Iron Pussy was striding toward the SOC offices, a champa flower tucked behind his ear. Iron Pussy is a Thai artist named Michael Shaowanasai, famous for his drag-queen doppelganger, an avenger in white go-go boots who is the star of the films The Adventure of Irony Pussy, 1-4. A few days before Le's "endurance piece" debut, in November, I had spent my first morning in Saigon trying to chase down the "advance press screening" of SOC works in various museums, to no avail. Come back on Tuesday, said one museum. Maybe Wednesday, said another. Saigon what? said the last. Now, like Alice pursuing the White Rabbit, I trotted after Shaowanasai, a good friend of curator Gaweewong: He was a sign I was in the right place.

I ran up the stairs and plunged into a scene of hot, heaving chaos. Artists were racing around with photographs, stringing empty shampoo bottles together, and frantically framing paintings. I followed the champa flower into the curatorial offices, where Shaowanasai grabbed me and hissed, "They're crazy! They want more bribes!"

"They," of course, were Vietnamese officials, for whom the charms of "tea money" are even today hard for officials to resist. According to one SOC staffer, a sizeable portion of the project's budget -- primarily underwritten by the Ford Foundation -- was slated for greasing palms (and was listed in the budget as "service fees").

Although SOC is struggling with Vietnam's still-rampant corruption, the economy is more transparent and open than it used to be. In the 1980s, the Vietnamese government embarked upon financial reform -- the doi moi (renovation, or renewal) policy. Marked by a turn away from collectivization toward a more liberalized, market-based economy, doi moi also signaled a more relaxed stance toward artistic and civil freedoms. Although civil strictures were tightened after the Tiananmen Square protests, there was no way to stop the country's economic momentum. After the United States lifted its trade embargo in 1994 and normalized diplomatic relations a year later, the Vietnamese economy began booming. These days, Vietnam is the second-fastest growing economy in Asia, behind only juggernaut China.

Saigon saw much of this explosive growth. These days, the city's streets swarm with motorcycles and its sidewalks with the sleek boutiques and restaurants popular with the growing middle-class and with the well-off Viet kieu (foreign-born or returnee Vietnamese) who are making the city their home in increasing numbers. The city has a bristling, fierce, at times desperate energy -- the kind of propulsion that people put on display when they are exiting a room with a bad smell. The smell of grinding poverty, war, and foreign oppression, perhaps -- "A thousand years of Chinese rule, a hundred years of French subjugation, and ten years of American domination, but we survive, unified," goes a famous Vietnamese saying.

The air smells of consumption: choking exhaust fumes from countless Honda Dreams, and smoky-sweet odors of food sold at all hours, the haystack scent of boiled peanuts, the lush sweatiness of fruit veering into rot. Shoeshine boys plead for a crack at unpolishable plastic flip-flops while nouveau-riche kids trawl the streets, hip-hop music pumping out of their cars' tinted windows. The city has a Wild West feeling of dirty opportunity -- the chance, perhaps illusory, to remake oneself through gritted teeth and some wheedling, and to reap the money the first two could bring.

Saigon's art is similarly marked, at least in the minds of those outside the city. The capital of Hanoi has long prided itself on being Vietnam's artistic center, packed with galleries, museums, and local cultural institutions -- the refined, traditional, and more well-established older sister to Saigon's brash, cash-obsessed teen, a reputation that was cemented after the North's victory in the war. "Hanoi thought that Saigon's artistic community was too design-oriented, commercial, individualistic," said Michael DiGregorio, Ford Foundation's Vietnam program officer. While Hanoi artists earned a reputation for traditional objects and tasteful modernist painting, Saigon was supposedly fed by a tourist demand for what Gaweewong wryly calls "Ms. Water Market" -- pastoral scenes of women in traditional clothing -- and branded by outsiders as too scattered, materialistic, and Western-oriented.

It is largely an unfair image. The small but active art scene in Saigon hosts a plethora of artistic initiatives started by young expatriates, Viet kieu, and Vietnamese artists -- galleries and projects such as Galerie Quynh, Blue Space Gallery, Himiko, A Little Blah Blah, Atelier Wonderful, and Mogas Station, featuring shows, guest-artist residencies, impromptu workshops and screenings, and even an art criticism magazine. Vietnamese art has a long history of foreign influence (Chinese lacquerware and silk-painting techniques, French oil painting, Russian social realism, Cuban animation styles), and Saigon's exposure during the Vietnam War to the abstract works popular in the United States at the time led to the development of more conceptual, nonrepresentational art than the type of art that flourished in Hanoi.

SOC was designed to tap into that energy. It began as an initiative of the Ford Foundation as conceived by DiGregorio and Do Thi Tuyet Mai, a commercial-gallery owner in Saigon. But it struggled to hold on to curators, who were daunted by the scale of the project, the bureaucratic obstacles, and conflict with Do, who has a reputation for confrontational behavior. In 2005, Do and Le, who is on the SOC board, asked Gaweewong to curate SOC. In November of that year, after recruiting Thai conceptual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija as codirector, she agreed. Both Thai artists are renowned for creating and curating unconventional and broad-spirited works. Gaweewong has coordinated everything from experimental-film festivals in Bangkok to an exhibition on the politics of fun in Berlin. Tiravanija, winner of a 2004 Hugo Boss prize, has a reputation for making works of creative chaos. According to a New Yorker profile, Tiravanija installed a facsimile of his apartment in a New York gallery, invited the exhibit visitors to draw on the walls and sleep, and allowed a gay men's magazine to use the space to do a pornography photo shoot.

Gaweewong and Tiravanija crafted a plan for a two-year project that would be split into three chapters: Liberation, Unification, and Reconstruction, each focusing on a different period and theoretical concept in local, national, and world history. SOC wasn't supposed to be a show: It was meant to generate what the curators called "sustainable art." By embedding the project into the city's often glaringly propagandistic museums and building long-term artistic infrastructure, the curators hoped SOC would yield opportunities for what Tiravanija termed "subversive use."

"Maybe it will be like Suvarnabhumi," he said, two months before SOC's slated opening. Suvarnabhumi, Thailand's new airport and now one of the largest in the world, opened in September 2006 with great pomp and circumstance. On opening day, tens of thousands of people showed up, not only to catch flights but to picnic, shop, and jubilantly clog the toilets. "The picture of modernity the Thai government wanted to project was violated by how people used [Suvarnabhumi]. ... Maybe the same thing can happen with SOC. We know the government wants to attract tourists, but hopefully we can leave something behind that people in Saigon can use to make their own meaning."

By November, however, it was unclear how much of SOC would ever be seen, let alone left behind for others to appreciate. SOC staff had spent months locked in negotiations with government and museum authorities, to little avail. SOC was supposed to open at the end of November, but without a license, was barred from opening its shows, advertising its activities, or even hanging a sign to announce its forthcoming unofficial opening. But word of mouth still drew throngs of curious viewers to the offices on "opening day," November 26. A giant rocket made from empty shampoo bottles loomed in one corner, and one room was devoted to an intricate timeline of international and domestic events and cultural trends.

Performance pieces broke out periodically, including a pointed act by a real-life father and son: The father was lying on top of his son while reading aloud from the Kieu, a legendary poem every Vietnamese schoolchild has spent hours reciting. The poem centers on a young woman, celebrated for her filial piety, who becomes a prostitute to save her family. At the end of the performance, the son squirmed out from under his complacently reading father: He was finished with all of it, his face seemed to say -- the tradition, his oblivious father, this debased survival. He wanted his own damn life. The crowd murmured in agreement and then squeezed on through the other rooms that were still dirty from the SOC staff's orgy of framing and full of volunteers slumped everywhere, exhausted.

From there, SOC visitors raced around to view whatever the museums had allowed to be displayed, and could still detect some of the frisson between SOC pieces and their surrounds that the curators had intended. The Southern Women's Museum, for instance, devoted most of its space to women who had lost their sons during what the Vietnamese call the American War, to exceptional cardiac surgeons, and to textile workers -- in other words, to woman as Communist hero, victim, worker, opponent of colonization.

The top floor of the museum is emblazoned with a decades-old glowing mural dedicated to Ho Chi Minh -- and here stood Nguyen Quang Huy's astounding SOC piece Unknown Woman. The work is a marvelous inversion of Vietnam's political and religious symbolism: Three Buddhas whose cut-off heads have been replaced by typical moonshine and ginseng jars, filled instead with market vegetables and fruits. On a screen behind the Buddha statues, Nguyen played footage of endlessly toiling women vendors and workers accompanied by a voiceover of a poem by fellow artist Nguyen Minh Thanh. "Mothers who trade in everything ... chased by policemen .... Sweet or shrewish ... dear mother, we are kneeling down to extol you ... we can never be orphaned." By placing Nguyen's work in the room dedicated to the Ho cult of personality, SOC was pitting one type of iconography against another, the unknown woman against the beatified man.

Much of the blame for SOC's disheveled state can be laid on the endless censorship and bureaucratic buck-passing dished out by three sets of authorities: the individual museums, the Communist Party organization known as the People's Committee, and the Ministry of Culture in Hanoi. According to Gaweewong, SOC became something of a monkey in the middle, asking permission from one institution only to be told to get permission from another, which would bounce the staff back to the first. During the negotiations, 50 percent of SOC's works were cut, all without official explanation, including works by pre-1975 artists from the South, the video works, snippets from various other Vietnamese works, and entire works by selected foreign artists.

The endless delays and the mysterious decisions by unseen figures are in keeping with Vietnam's history of tight control over the media, the Internet, and the arts. The country has no independent news media, and although one can easily access personal e-mail accounts and Western media sites, numerous Vietnamese-language Web sites that mention democracy, religious issues, or the names of political dissidents are blocked. In addition, cyber-dissidents who have written critical e-mails about the government or circulated articles about democracy have served jail time. Prior to President Bush's visit to Vietnam in November, a number of prominent dissidents were arrested and beaten in order to dissuade them from mounting demonstrations or from talking to foreign journalists, and after a brief period of allowing journalists to report on corruption, the government suspended two papers from publishing in October in an attempt to put a check on criticism. Art openings also haven't escaped the government's control and are disrupted by rounds of censorship, withholding of permits, and even electrical outages that leave galleries or performance spaces dark while lights glow just next door.

The government's decision to continue to clamp down on culture even while opening up the economy is revealing, according to Hoang Hung, a longtime art and culture journalist and one of the editors of the vibrant politics and culture Web site www.talawas.org, which is blocked by a firewall in Vietnam. In an effort to counterbalance the country's rapid transition to a globalized economy, "suppressing culture is [the government's] brake on the system -- use the ideological system to slow the vehicle," says Hoang.

For a government with this type of attitude toward culture, the avant-garde and international art presented by SOC causes the worst kind of discomfort: It is nontraditional and fiercely ambiguous, in contrast to the government's fondness for, as Hoang put it, "traditional culture and 'the Vietnamese way of life' that can counteract the changes [in] economics, the U.S. style of life." Conceptual art is particularly suspect for its foreign flavor, for its flouting of social-realist demands to convey revolutionary messages, and for its encouragement of the bourgeois individualism of open interpretation. Hoang explained that "in the past, ambiguous work was counterrevolutionary. [The government] hates this kind of work, and ambivalence, too." Hoang spent more than three years in jail in the 1980s for writing what the Communist government said was "ambiguous, reactionary" poetry.

The reasons for some of the SOC cuts, however, were not ambiguous at all. One of the censored pieces was Jean-Luc Godard's Far From Vietnam -- a particularly resonant decision given that the director had been denied permission by the Vietnamese to film his pro–North Vietnam film during the war. "They can't accept that events during that period are narrated by anyone other than them," said Gaweewong. Also cut were works by pre-war Southern artists or by those seen as sympathetic to [South Vietnam's] cause, including art by Sue Hajdu, cofounder of the Saigon artists' initiative A Little Blah Blah and a former codirector of the SOC project. "Two million dead soldiers are cut out," she said. "The South is not allowed to represent itself. You're not allowed to remember it was a civil war."

Irreverent conceptual works such as Hoang's were tossed; pictures of female nudes were clipped from Ly Hoang Ly's giant installation outside the Southern Women's Museum; and Nguyen Quang Huy's Unknown Women piece, initially approved, seemed to run afoul of the authorities for the "disrespect" shown to the Buddha statues and for mentioning police harassment. In perhaps its most telling cut, the government censored Yoko Ono's interactive work My Mother Is Beautiful, in which she encouraged spectators to draw and write about their mothers on a giant scroll of paper. "The government is afraid of what people will write," said Gaweewong. "They won't be able to control it."

Gaweewong is uncertain about the likelihood of holding the second and third chapters of SOC, which were to focus on public art and community-oriented processes of creating art. "This word 'liberation' -- that's the real question now. The Vietnamese say they've liberated themselves from the Chinese, the French, the Americans, but now the government is oppressing its own people even as [it] seek[s] economic 'openness.' Is that what 'liberation' means in Vietnam?"

SOC also faces the distrust of artists over its nonprofit status. Because there is no way to register a nonprofit organization in Vietnam, SOC registered as a private company and immediately inherited all of the enmity artists have traditionally felt toward corrupt business interests. "We came into a place where people have no idea about NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]," said Gaweewong. "They think it is a money-laundering thing" for shadowy business or government interests. Artists began to whisper about financial accountability and whether the SOC staff was making money off the art somehow.

Do, in charge of negotiating with the government and connecting with the Vietnamese arts community, was openly criticized by artists and critics at SOC open sessions. "No one wants to work with me," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "But ... [n]ow everyone talks about us all over the world and we have a show. What do people want from me?" Perhaps they would have wanted her to be more of an advocate against the government, but Do did not see this as her role. "The government manages the country, and has to guide the country according to the government's philosophy. Artists should have their freedom, but ... artists need to follow society -- they are also citizens."

For Do, SOC seemed less an innovative art project than a piece of PR. "Four years ago, no one talked about our scene -- they went to Hanoi for art. On Monday, we were all over the news," said Do. "I sold several lacquerwares yesterday. More people are coming to buy art, and that's the point of SOC. More people coming, spending on art, that's how Vietnamese art can survive." That's a vision -- art as capitalism -- that the government would probably approve.

Noy Thrupkaew is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.

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