Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Report from Hanoi

Rienke Enghardt and Tran Trung Tin at Art Vietnam, Hanoi

Rienke Enghardt Portrait of Tin III 2005, 140 cm x 100cm acrylic on photopaper,
Rienke Enghardt, Portrait of Tin III 2005, 140 cm x 100cm acrylic on photopaper. Courtesy Art Vietnam Gallery
Tran Trung Tin Untitled III 1972, 55cm x 39 cm oil on newspaper, Courtesy Art Vietnam Gallery
Tran Trung Tin, Untitled III 1972, 55cm x 39 cm oil on newspaper, Courtesy Art Vietnam Gallery

HANOI–Areas of the city feature numerous art galleries aimed primarily at the tourist business. Hundreds of insipid decorative paintings are for sale. Oddly, there is more than an occasional almost interesting one. Some of the more adventurous Hanoi artists also produce for the commercial painting market. They adapt (read: sweeten) existing traditional genres, such as happy Vietnamese women in traditional garments under palette-knifed foliage or semi-abstract city churches. In other cases artists who paint for this market seem to have their heart in it. This is a challenge, as one cannot dismiss a painting categorically. One’s critical or ironic distance feels like an impediment, like useless cultural conditioning.

Of the Hanoi artists who participate in the newer forms–socially engaged and politically critical performances and installations–their work is most often and most safely seen in such spaces as the Goethe Institute or l’Espace, part of the French Cultural Center. The Vietnamese government has not been friendly to this work and the artists have felt more comfortable with the extra ring of protection that an international organization provides. The independent Ryllega gallery is devoted to experimental art and operates from funds from The British Council. It was easier for Ryllega to apply to the Ministry of Culture for a license to be a commercial gallery than to try getting approval for an experimental one. That is just how things go here.

One factor that has for the moment taken the heat off controversial local artists is the Vietnamese government’s interest in getting in the WTO. The contemporary art that has received official recognition remains Socialist Realism, a genre that has been combined with a regional technique of lacquer painting that was originally encouraged by the French. Examples adorn the walls of the moribund rooms devoted to contemporary art in the Museums of Fine Arts in Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City.

Several Hanoi galleries have shown a commitment to more spirited painting, drawing, sculpture and various mixed media. Salon Natasha is run by a Russian émigré Natalia Kraevskaia and her husband, the artist Vu Dân Tân. Ms. Kraevskaia, who has a PhD in linguistics, recently published From Nostalgia towards Exploration, Essays on Contemporary Art in Vietnam.

Mai Gallery featured many of the Gang of Five painters, a group of neo-expressionists who had a meteoric career. It fizzled with the Asian Financial crisis of 1997. Mai Gallery shows a mixture of commercial paintings along with works by some of the first generation of Vietnamese modernists, including the well-known Nguyen Tu Nghiem, who is in his seventies. His lively work seems to prove (pace Jerry Saltz) that there is still some life in the School of Paris. Art Vietnam gallery is run by the Texan Suzanne Lecht, who has continued to exhibit a multi-generational range of Vietnamese artists as well as some international artists who live in or visit Vietnam.


“Hope Box Art Event”, the current exhibition at Art Vietnam features the recent work of Rienke Enghardt of the Netherlands, who has been visiting Vietnam regularly since 1991. Also on exhibit are ten works on paper by the artist Tran Trung Tin. Engehardt’s contribution consists of mixed-media portraits of Tin in homage to the artist, a longstanding friend and mentor. There is also an ensemble from Enghardt’s Weather Report series that assemble, within a single composition, her own drawings in concert with those contributed from a varied assortment of artists she has met in her global travels.

Tran Trung Tin is a self-taught Vietnamese artist who, after serving his country’s revolutionary army in its defeat of the French in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, attended Hanoi’s documentary film school and briefly became a film star. As the American war expanded, Tin found himself in personal crisis and turned to painting as a way of channeling his feelings of rage and frustration. Stuck in Hanoi as the American bombings continued and in social and official isolation as a result of his making what were considered counterrevolutionary abstract paintings and nudes, he was completely ostracized. He continued to make hundreds of works at this time, mostly on newspaper that reported current events.

The present examples of these works, ‘70-’73, are almost all abstract. Though it is generally held that Tin’s improvisational style is completely original, one suspects that he might have come across copies of Cahiers d’Art or perhaps seen a few of Serge Poliakoff’s works among the remnants of the French occupation. If this were true, it would not at all subtract from Tin’s paintings’ considerable power.  Tin’s very simple, brushy abstractions are comprised of crudely marked lines, dots and dashes in somber but provocatively rich colors. The foregrounded brushwork sometimes plays off the reflected light, text, and imagery of the newsprint. A very basic vocabulary evokes an extraordinarily imaginative spirit enduring a purgatory. There is no sentimentality or self-pity. Their pitch-dark lyricism is reminiscent of the still-lifes that Picasso painted in Nazi-occupied Paris. The paintings speak directly to the present, almost as if they were made for it.

Despite a monograph by the English independent scholar Sherry Buchanan and an exhibition in The Singapore Art Museum, Tin has no international stature. His artistic and historical significance has yet to be recognized by his own government. Tin’s works were loaned for the exhibition by his wife’s gallery in Ho Chi Minh City, where the artist has lived since 1975. The artist has continued to paint.

There are interesting points of comparison between the works of the two artists. Both Enghardt and Tin evidence a shared belief in the expressive qualities the accompany the free use of the hand, evidenced in the brusque swipes that appear, for example, in Tin’s Untitled 1972, an oil on newspaper work the interrupts a web of red ochre and brown lines with bare spaces partially covered with splotchy dots. This same penchant for headlong, handmade materiality is evidenced in Enghardt’sPortrait of Tin, 2005 a collage of acrylic on photo-paper that builds up layers of disparate imagery from cartoons, appropriated photographic imagery from the internet or elsewhere and various handwritten statements that lend a veil of text over some of the picture and, in other places, insinuates itself into existing forms.

Additional similarities include the layering of passages of gestural brushstrokes in Tin’s work and the layering of written texts and imagery in Enghardt’s. Tin is an aesthete, he knows precisely when to stop. Enghardt insists on a material and artistic excess, as if there must be so much going on that we lose track of authorship. Tin’s work dramatizes the centrality of individual experience under extreme duress. It is the work of a romantic attempting self-preservation, at odds with the aims of a collective in desperate defense against an outsized foreign invader.

Enghardt, by contrast, is from the world’s most permissive, and until quite recently, most confidently open society. She exhibits work that reflects her life as a global nomad; a politically aware cosmopolitan. In doing so, Enghardt spills the disorder of a multiplicity of competing versions of the world into her artworks, overwhelming, disrupting and displacing any sense of the individual through her wild mix of influence, collaboration and quotation that overwhelms interpretation.

Though the exhibition honors an artist who struggled to assert his individuality, Enghardt, in praxis, renders the modern ideal of the individual to the periphery. Still, one cannot help but admire the toughness of these works in their articulation of our present cultural and historical situation.