My little manifesto

Major thanks to Kaitlin Pomerantz for clearing a lot of shit out of my draft.

H40.4Flea farm
H40.4 [flea farm], 1.4×1.78m (57x72in), graphite, acrylic and masking tape on bristol paper, 2018

In my long-term drawing project titled My Land, I design a framework to spatially organize my ethical choices. Through drawing, as an intuitive archival tool tied to my formal training, I symbolize and classify ethical inheritances from cultural environments rooted in my history. Each drawing is inspired by a personal ethical question, for example, about the distribution of resources or gender roles. Then the drawing raises more ethical questions and more drawings. Ethics has been my tool to survive and navigate this today’s world of globalization.

The project’s framework shares its form with a process flow diagram. I start from an 8-by-8 grid, one axis is signed from 1 to 8, the other A to H. The grid functions as the permanent primary unit. Each subsequent and adjacent drawing is a portal to the next layers. The drawings continue to multiply according to these rule-based systems. The more the project evolves, the more a branch is likely to become either complex or abandoned. I name each drawing after its address in the framework so that I can track its location.

The drawing space is also a thinking place, where I visualize ethical ideas by designing various structures and algebraic rules. I make use of invented sets of icons, indexes and symbols, and a mixed drawing language between cartography and landscapes, to execute arbitrary and scientific, but also humorous, poetic and nostalgic narratives. The space is meant to be engaged by reading. The viewer can observe how I consider ephemeral ethical decisions.

The reason for this project comes from my anxiety of dealing with an unstable ethical foundation since my birth. I was born when the country was undergoing drastic cultural changes after the Reformation. My family was typically traditional, strongly driven by the culture my father, who was a military lineman veteran in the Vietnam War. When I was 10, he signed me up for a home class of a state artist. Then I learned how to make propaganda posters and cast drawings for the next 8 years, to prepare for the entrance test of the Vietnam University of Fine Arts (VNUFA).

The VNUFA was my formal training. The school was formerly the Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine founded in 1925 under the French Colonization. After the Revolution in 1945, it was restructured under the Socialist Realism ideology, maintaining the traditional silk and lacquer painting in the curriculum. In the 80s, the school added Constructivist style and remained unchanged since then. For some reason, all -isms from the past cohabited nicely in the school in their “translated” forms, which students like me learned without knowing their meanings.

However, different from older generations, the Internet was the major source of my education. When I was 7 my father brought home a dial-up modem, which was among the very first modems in Vietnam. Just five years later, Internet was already omnipresent in the country. Since then I could see art around the world. As there were some artists that always looked worse on the computer screen, I even thought the works of Malevich and Pollock were no different from tablecloths. De Chico and Persian Miniature, on the other hand, mysteriously connected to my soul. Internet has shaped my vision on art forever. 

After graduation from VNUFA, I found myself as an outsider of both the Socialist art system and the newly emerged contemporary art system. The former still turned away from contemporary expressions, but the latter seemed to have controversial meanings that, as Stuart Hall would say, “decoded” differently in the local culture. I was particularly interested in this situation, and decided to take a break from art making to observe, by opening an art cafe a few blocks away from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a popular area for artists and tourists.

The cafe brought me close connections to work with many different artists and talk about the crisis that Vietnamese contemporary art is undergoing. Lacking support and resources, the local contemporary art movement tried to make a quick “bridge” to Western centers to catch the wave of the newly open art market. In this traffic, cultural dynamic interactions are essentialized and condensed into fast products, and political identity and ethnicity are oversimplified to branding. Moreover, the analog bridge is very narrow and not for everyone. Some well-known “iconoclasts”, using their powers of access, even suppressed other voices to gain monopolistic exposure in West. Unfortunately, most local artists are not fully aware of the situation, which is, as Gerardo Mosquera said, “a complex disease that often disguises its symptoms.” From my observations, though it emerged with good intentions, Vietnamese contemporary art seems to end up contributing only modestly to the local cultural capital. It’s also for the most part disconnected from the local audience and at worst becomes an unethical system of exploiting and destroying the already fragile local cultures.

“Bridges” can never fully reflect the complexity of their “lands.” This is why I would like to ask people to be critical about the bridges, and to encourage them to take a step further from a remote appreciation of cultural forms, to look closer at tremendous ethical struggles happening today in local cultures. My art is therefore based on an intimate conversation about cultural reception and translation, which can easily be distorted or misunderstood. In a broader conversation, I also question the contradiction between the political ideology and cultural reality of multiculturalism in contemporary art. My goal is to use what I learn here to build a more ethical contemporary art community in my homeland when I eventually return.

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