Monday, January 1st, 2007

From Vietnam: Some Hanoi Artists

In his second dispatch from the Vietnamese capital, Joe Fyfe visits the studios of Vu Dan Tan, Maritta Nurmi, Phuong Nguyen Linh, Pham Ngoc Duong.

Vu Dan Tan in his Hanoi studio. All photos by the author
Vu Dan Tan in his Hanoi studio. All photos by the author

I once visited a famous American painter, getting old by that time, who had spent his formative artistic years in Paris before returning to the U.S. Commenting on another American artist friend who had decided to remain, he said “—— chose to have an elegant life.”  To be an artist in Paris for the last forty-odd years meant staying to one side of the mainstream, though one remained  intellectually stimulated, current on continental philosophy and literature and in direct communication with generations of important painters, despite their marginalization by international market forces.

In addition, Paris, as we know, is a beautiful place. There is a degree of support for artists–one can have a career there—as well as a nice life: good food, cafés, culture, real conversations, etc. There is also an element of bohemian grittiness. I have visited a number of Parisian artists who go through the overcast, damp winters with a lack of adequate heating in their studios or where they live. The streets of Paris are kept clean but there is car smog, dust, and too much traffic surging in between the grand 19th-century architecture. Artists continue to move to Paris. Its art culture can either be reacted against or immersed in. This differs from the antiquarians and traditionalists that move to Florence, but also differs from those on the Berlin-London-New York circuit where there is showier, ambitious energy.

I recently thought of this while listening to the traffic and peering at the drizzle from the window of my chilly hotel room near Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake. December in Hanoi reminded me of so much of Paris; it occasioned a melancholy so strong that I was surprised that I still had the capacity for it. There are certain similarities to Paris, including the weather, the very good food, the abundant trees, the exhaust fumes and the preponderance of elegantly tied scarves on Hanoians, as well as the widespread availability of fresh flowers and strawberries.

There is also something of a Bohemian tradition, which I discovered during my first visit about four years ago. Just like in the novels of Duong Thu Huong, where the poets end up piled on each other, half-passed out, discussing life, after an all night drinking session, I had come across similar scenes. I mention this because of my reaction to it at the time, which was patronizing. After more visits this attitude has disappeared, replaced by an interest in artists that are able to maintain commitment and energy as their work-life progresses in a country that does much to discourage any kind of free expression. At the same time, looking at Vietnam’s art world, in this particular instance, Hanoi’s, one cannot help, as an outsider, but make certain not unironic and perversely envious observations. With the coming of the country’s membership in the WTO, the period of artistic oppression by the government may end. This is only a possibility. If this does take place, the past dozen-odd years of artistic life here may well look like a similar period in Czechoslovakia in the late 70’s and early 80’s that Slavoj Zizek refers to as a time “when people were, in a way, actually happy.” According to Zizek, this was because their material needs were basically satisfied, anything that went wrong they could blame on the all-controlling government, “and there was the Other Place, (the consumerist west) where one could dream about and even visit sometimes.”

This is a very rough comparison, especially since Vietnam is unique in its long struggle and profound success in conquering its invaders and the large degree of consumerism that has been present for a generation. But it is about to enter warp speed, as its topography becomes infused with tall buildings and western cars at an alarming rate. The government of Vietnam has gone as far as to imprison people that discuss democracy on the Internet. But it has also been a place where many of its artists pursued their work while living something of a traditional artist’s life: productive, genteel, rough around the edges, and attractive to the outsider.

I went out around the city on the gray weekend to document what artists I could find in their Hanoi studios. Vu Dan Tan was the easiest to try and visit, as his studio is the front rooms of Salon Natasha, the gallery run by his Russian-born wife Natalia Kraevskaia, a leading art critic. It is open till all hours and anyone can walk in off the street. The gallery is an old building with a wooden façade that is on one of the busiest tourist streets in the old section of Hanoi. Vu Dan Tan was born in Hanoi in 1946, the son of a playwright. Before the breakup of the Communist bloc, the artist benefited from its version of cosmopolitanism by traveling within its confines.  He spent time in Cuba and Russia, where he studied painting.

There is a lot of origami-type work around the studio, made from found junk, cans, and cardboard, as well as some painterly geometric abstractions on canvases, which I have never seen him do before. Vu Dan Tan seems very shy, but I have stopped by any number of times to watch his work progress or to listen as he plays his old piano. I have enjoyed the changes between a few moments of classical piano, to something a little jazzy to some improvisation, all within a few minutes. He always seems more present in the work than in the room, which is probably why he can tolerate working in such a public environment. The playing and the art are casual in a broken-down, old shoe kind of way, and the trafficking between genres also goes on in the visual work, where the origami masks gravitate towards garment-like sculptures and the geometric grid paintings begin to cross with figures and portraits. Everything here seems sure and yet tentative, constructed delicately from fantasy and tinkering.

Maritta Nurmi in her studio
Maritta Nurmi in her studio

I took a motorcycle-taxi down Hai Ba Trung to painter Maritta Nurmi’s house, four kilometers below Hoan Kiem Lake, the southernmost area of the Hai Ba Trung district, well past the expat neighborhoods. It was mostly two-storey buildings after two kilometers, juxtapositions of generically functional modern buildings, Chinese shop-fronts and French colonial houses, mixed up with hovels, barns, and pens. The more expensive, newer housing, is an updated version of the colonial style, but on a bigger scale and very kitschy. This is found mostly in the north of the city.

Hanoi, incidentally, is made up of numerous lakes of various sizes that have a cooling effect in the hot months and are always surrounded by people exercising, playing badminton, and socializing. The lakes are a by-product of the redirecting of the Red River, (Hanoi means “city of the bend in the river”) and areas of it date from times when barriers were erected to keep check on the overflow. I was heading beyond the third circumference, which is less than one hundred years old. The first, where I was staying, is one thousand years old.

All recent houses in Vietnam have tile floors and concrete walls. Shoes are removed at the entrance. Maritta Nurmi served extraordinary bread from a French bakery, and ham, cheese, and coffee. The house is of an unusually articulate modernist design (“All the windows line up from floor to floor,” she said more than once) and had a short deep swimming pool on the ground floor that hadn’t been filled for a long time. “None of the plumbing for it works,” she said. Behind the aqua tile of the pool, on the far wall, she had temporarily installed three large vertical paintings done in copper leaf and paint.

Nurmi came to Hanoi thirteen years ago from Finland, five years after her brother, who opened one of the first expat bars. This was at the beginning of doi moi, the Vietnamese government’s policy of restoration. Nurmi had studied biology in Finland and later attended European art schools. Upon arrival, she enrolled in Hanoi Fine Arts University in order to study lacquer painting, a technique that is a mainstay of traditional Vietnamese painting, though it was only a technique used for decoration until the French crossbred it with pictorial art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts during the late colonial period.

We walked up two floors to Nurmi’s studio, a space that was like the upper region of a light-filled country church. I looked at works in preparation for a spring exhibition. Most of the large verticals were covered in silver leaf and were in the process of oxidizing, one large vertical was finished, with an abstracted stupa-like shape in the center and a few spare marks. It was a very beautiful painting that managed to combine the abundant light of a Western abstraction with a more local painting space of quietly reflective surfaces and detail. Other works that had a more severe horizontal format utilized a funeral urn shape that was applied in close stacks of horizontal black lines. A branch of red berries entered some of the pictures as an additional decorative element. This series reminded me of Edward Gorey’s draftsmanship without the campy overtones.

In general, one does not find a lot of irony in Vietnamese contemporary art; in fact, its outside-the-mainstream genuineness can be a very welcome quality.

A drawing by Phuong Nguyen Linh. Cover image shows Phuong with her portrait by Nguyen Manh Hung.
A drawing by Phuong Nguyen Linh. Cover image shows Phuong with her portrait by Nguyen Manh Hung.

I took another motorbike taxi, in Vietnamese a xe om, from Maritta’s in the south up to the Ba Dinh section, north of Hoan Kiem. It was midday on Sunday and the traffic was relatively light. I passed by the Air Force Museum with its front yard chock-full of battered American planes of all sizes. I went to 50 Group 5, Vinh Phuc, the site of the Nhasan studio, a wooden structure that was built according to the plans of a traditional Vietnamese stilt house. Its ground floor is locally famous for being where the first installations and performances by Hanoi’s more advanced artists took place. I lectured there last month on my work. This is also where the young artist Phuong Nguyen Linh has lived for most of her life. Her father is a well-known Hanoi artist who also deals in Vietnamese antiquities upstairs. Linh grew up surrounded by art and artists. She was rejected twice from Hanoi Fine Arts University. But when a large competition, sponsored by the Italian government, was held there that was open to young artists, Linh won first prize: a year’s residency in Rome.

Her room contained some of the props, including a large set of transparent lungs, from a performance she did last year called “Allergy”, which was about her severe asthma. There were two portraits of her by the young artist Nguyen Manh Hung. We then looked at her recent abstract drawings, a number of which were included, along with a large sculpture made from accumulations of tape, in a satellite show at Ho Chi Minh City’s Fine Art Association of young artists from Hanoi that was part of Saigon Open City, Vietnam’s first international exhibition. The drawings were either ballpoint or pencil on what she called “cheap paper” and were reminiscent of the “obsessive school” of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, except these works seemed relaxed and kind of spare. “When do you stop?” I asked her. “Just when it feels right.” Linh said.

Pham Ngoc Duong in his studio
Pham Ngoc Duong in his studio

The following late morning Pham Ngoc Duong picked me up on his antique motorcycle and we went to have lunch at Nguyen Sinh, a charcuterie that had been in a neighborhood near the cathedral and in operation since 1950. We had paté, and he had the rabbit with mushrooms and I had the steak. Without much prompting he began talking about how in Hanoi there is still a strong cultural tie to the French. And in sensibility: Duong said that he had been “In artist residencies in Berlin, in Japan, in the U.S., but I felt comfortable in Paris and in Lyons. The other places were too different, too clean. The apartments in France are disorganized, you know, stuff is spread around like here, I understand it. In France the toilet stalls are narrow like here, and the living conditions–you put up a curtain and someone works below, and above, behind the curtain, someone else is with his girlfriend, I understand that.” I mention to him that I was writing a piece about how the Hanoi art environment is somewhat French, and how I was slightly considering living here.

Duong’s fiancé is French. He met her in France. We walked through a narrow alley to reach his apartment, in the middle of the old city, which is very busy and noisy. It has assorted rooms on three floors, two of them roof levels, around a staircase. Duong’s place is very quiet. “There is an antique house next door and a pagoda behind me, so they will never put up a big building and it will stay quiet.” I looked at some recent paintings of faces done in an intense monochrome blue. “This is my blue series, it’s for the people of Vietnam. I feel sad for them. You shouldn’t live here, Joe. You like information too much. You will get more information about Vietnam if you live in New York than if you live here.