Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Power and Politics in the Paintings of Nguyen Manh Hung

Nguyen Manh Hung: Farmers Got Power at Galerie Quynh

March 18 to April 23, 2016
2, 151/3 Đồng Khởi
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, +84 8 3824 8284

Nguyen Manh Hung, The King Roaming, 2016. Oil on canvas, 100 x 200 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Nguyen Manh Hung, The King Roaming, 2016. Oil on canvas, 100 x 200 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

For his second show at Saigon’s Galerie Quynh, Hanoi-born, Saigon-based artist Nguyen Manh Hung chose the title “Farmers Got Power,” inspired by the TV show America’s Got Talent. This title sounds strikingly similar to a communist slogan, suggesting the possibility that the artist might be making of a veiled parody of the party line (i.e. a straight faced assertion that the farmers of Vietnam really do hold the power, which would be a laughable claim, unfortunately). But if questioned by a censor, it would be possible to insist on a non-ironic interpretation of the title; in this manner, Hung deploys a cryptic language of doublespeak that makes room for subversive thought with plausible deniability built in.

As the pervasive censorship of artists in Vietnam generally causes many to self-censor for survival, the delicate dance with authorities has become an art unto itself. As Hung explained in a 2011 Independent Curators International interview with curator Zoe Butt: “Censorship has now become one of the mediums for art making. In a way it forces artists to push themselves further and requires them to look for other ways to express their artistic languages and viewpoints.” Hung could be seen doing this in his recent show, which featured paintings, sculptures, and photo-collages that transplant cultural symbols from Vietnam’s past into contemporary contexts. This is a bold thing to do, given that the Communist Party likes to maintain a monopoly on the visual representation of Vietnamese culture, but Hung is able to pull it off brilliantly through his own sly brand of surrealism that resists fixed definitions through sheer open-endedness.

Nguyen Manh Hung, Le petit tirailleur, 2016. Oil on canvas, 60 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Nguyen Manh Hung, Le petit tirailleur, 2016. Oil on canvas, 60 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

The show is anchored by five trompe l’oeil paintings, all of which feature images of people and animals out of place. In the painting Guard at Night (2016) we see a bored looking man dressed in a bright red uniform of the sort once worn by palace guards at the royal city of Hue. In one hand he holds a halberd, while in the other he holds a chicken on a leash. The bright image of this guard and his bird is flatly overlaid onto a night scene of an airport runway, with the blurry silhouette of a jet preparing for take-off in the middle distance. Similarly, in Le Petit Tirailleur, (2016) a barefoot boy of about 10 casually holds the reins to a giant snail, while bearing in his other hand the five-colored flag of Vietnam, a traditional standard representing the five elements from Chinese medicine and philosophy. As in Guard at Night, the figure and animal are unnaturally lit within their gloomy environment, this time with the flashing lights of a police cruiser glaring ominously in the background.

Because of their bare feet, one might interpret these people as the eponymous “farmers” of the exhibition’s title, perhaps press-ganged into military service, as was the fate of so many generations of Vietnamese farmers throughout millennia of foreign occupation. The coq gaulois was a prominent emblem of the French Revolution, so it’s easy to interpret the animals as an arrow pointing blame for the unequal wealth distribution towards Vietnam’s traditional antagonists: China, France, and the US. (The juxtaposition of a fighter jet and a Vietnamese farmer obviously evokes memories of the ruthless bombing campaign undertaken by the Americans during “The American War,” as it is known here, though planes carry additional personal significance for the artist, whose father was a fighter pilot in the North Vietnamese Air Force.) However, when I first laid eyes on these paintings, the term Hai Lua came involuntarily to mind, which transliterated means “rice farmer,” but is in fact a derogative hurled by city folk at the sort of country bumpkins liable to stand in the middle of the street blocking traffic with their livestock. Vietnam is supposed to be classless according to party dogma, so this subtle reference to class inequality within Vietnamese society might also lead us to a critique of the corrupt party politics that governs the country as a whole, enabling rich industrialists to use bribery to evict the poor and/or pollute the environment in order to increase their already vast fortunes. Such issues feel particularly salient right now, as Vietnam is currently experiencing unprecedented, country-wide protests in response to government inaction over a catastrophic fish kill, presumably caused by toxic waste from a brand new billion-dollar steel mill on the central coast.

Nguyen Manh Hung, Guard at Night, 2016. Oil on canvas, 60 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Nguyen Manh Hung, Guard at Night, 2016. Oil on canvas, 60 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

There is another animal which appears regularly throughout the show, and that is the giant tortoise. In the modestly sized bronze sculpture Checkpoint (2015), three soldier/farmers pose with weapons atop a giant tortoise as if it were a tank or Humvee. All are shoeless and all wear the traditional conical hat of Vietnam, a combination that makes them look like Viet Cong, the communist guerrillas who fought to liberate Southern Vietnam from the French, the Japanese, and the Americans in turn. However, instead of carrying the rectangular flag of the VC, one holds the five-colored flag, which associates them with a more ancient idea of Vietnam, one that predates the existence of the communist party. If the slow and plodding tortoise is a totem of the VC, and by extension, the party, this hardly seems like a flattering association, although an apt one, given the glacial speed of the communist bureaucracy. On the other hand, it bears noting that slow and steady wins the race, as evidenced not only by the story of the tortoise and the hare, but also by the American War, which North Vietnam and the VC eventually won through an almost 20 year long battle of triage. So, while there may be some genuine national pride at work here, I also detect a cynical attitude towards the still ubiquitous propaganda images that pit Vietnam against the outside world. For those generations born after the war ended, dealing with an infuriatingly corrupt and intractable government is probably much more of a relatable issue than any conflict with foreign powers; in fact, foreign influence is generally seen as desirable by the youthful population that dreams of taking its place on the world stage, a dream crystallized in such TV shows as America’s Got Talent, or it’s local equivalent, Vietnam’s Got Talent.

While the physical works themselves are crafted well enough, it is in their conceptual cargo wherein lies Nguyen Manh Hung’s true strength: combining symbols in such a way that their possible significances proliferate, and if some of those possible readings turn out to be subversive in nature, there is always a patriotic counter-reading available to cancel them out. Given how rarely Vietnamese artists dare to even approach political issues and national symbols, this makes Hung a truly exceptionally character, and one of the most exciting contemporary artists working in Vietnam today.