Alternate spaces, mainstream problems

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Alternative exhibition spaces are striving to develop in Vietnam 20 years after they first came on the scene

An artist performing his work at the "˜Shaping a Line' exhibition, opening from July 28 to September 8, at San Art in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo courtesy of SanArt.

Artists are famous, if not notorious, for their need to be free from constraints the others might not even see as constraints.

They need the space to be spontaneous, a space that does not confine them. The boundaries of this space are drawn and redrawn over time.

One such redrawing of the space is taking place in Vietnam, and it has caught the attention of many artists and art critics here.

It is a redrawing that comes out of being stifled by official exhibition venues such as museums and galleries where visitors have to buy tickets and be followed by guides waiting for the chance to make an offer for a painting or so.

The alternative space created by the current redrawing of boundaries is being called "the alley of contemporary arts" where people can visit freely and the works on display do not need to have some specific value. Some works are unfinished.

Alternative exhibition space as a concept appeared first in the US in the 1970s along with the emergence of new contemporary arts such as installation and video art. The movement grew strongly in the 1980s with arts taking any space possible, like a kitchen corner, before spreading out to the world.

It is in a budding state in Vietnam after first coming here nearly 20 years ago, with known alternate spaces being Salon Natasha and Nha San (House on Stilts) in Hanoi.

Nha San, belonging to painter Nguyen Manh Duc, was one of the first houses on stilts put up in Hanoi during an art trend at the time, and also among the first free art venues in the capital. Houses on stilts are an iconic construction of ethnic minority people in Vietnam.

Duc put up the house in the early 1990s as an accommodation, a store for his antique collection, and a traditional statue workshop targeting foreign customers.

In 1997, he met Tran Luong, a famous painter at the time who was tired of the age of commercial arts when arts meant galleries and many painters became painting producers. They used the house to exhibit Luong's first products of contemporary arts called "Khoi Thuy I" (Initial I), which were unwelcome at galleries since they were strange and would not sell, in the latter's estimation.

Luong said it was at that moment that the two artists realized they need "an independent art space."

"Galleries only agree to exhibit what they can sell while artists always have the need to experiment," he said.

The two artists upgraded the house with their own money and US$5,000 from an American couple to make it a proper exhibition venue. The first exhibition held there was Con rong tan thoi (The modern dragon).

Luong said "The first days were not easy. After some programs, people even said that Nha San was doing devil arts."

But the space attracted more artists over time, as also public interest.

The house was where Vietnamese French dancer Easola Thuy and contemporary musicians Truong Tan and Kim Ngoc did their experimental programs. Young artists in Hanoi and students from Hanoi Fine Arts Museum also had the house as a springboard, exhibiting their first works.

It was also a space chosen by international contemporary artists coming to Vietnam.

"The motto of Nha San was to offer a place for everything that could not find its way into commercial or public spaces," Luong was cited by a report carried by the The Thao & Van Hoa in a report last month.

The house was a pioneering free art space in Vietnam for a long time until similar ones opened in Ho Chi Minh City and Hue.

San Art (art floor) in HCMC which hires foreign managers to represent them at international alternative space conferences is considered the most professional venue for contemporary arts in Vietnam until now.

It exhibits different forms of arts and has built connections to many cities and countries and thus has become better known abroad than other alternative spaces.

But with only fewer than ten such exhibition venues operating in the country, Australian curator Zoe Butt of San Art said there is not sufficient space for contemporary arts yet in the country.

Butt, who studied art theory in college, said there needs to be more venues and a lot of professional and financial support for developing this space, which is not available yet in Vietnam.

In Western countries, museums operate actively and artists will rely on the museums' programs to see what has not been included and develop that in their alternative spaces.

That is not the case in Vietnam, according to the curator, as there're not many cultural institutions that are active, making it hard for artists to know what alternative programs or spaces they should develop.

Butt told the The Thao & Van Hoa that artists in Vietnam are either following Western models or developing any "unique" programs they can think of.

She said that few people in Vietnam have experience and knowledge of alternative exhibition spaces also because there has been little renovation in Vietnamese art education since the 1950s, such as contemporary art practice at college or academic documents about international visual arts.


Salon Natasha at 30 Hang Bong Street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi: opened in 1996 and having connected Vietnamese artists to those in Australia, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, Germany and the UK.

Nha San at an alley on 462 Buoi St., Ba Dinh Dist., Hanoi: opened in 1998 and having hosted more than 100 events including exhibitions and conferences.

San Art at 3 Me Linh St., Binh Thanh Dist., HCMC: opened in October 2007 and has been the best known alternative space to foreign artists in Vietnam.

Anh Khanh Studio at 462 Ngoc Thuy St., Gia Lam Dist., Hanoi: opened in 1999 by painter Dao Anh Khanh.

Himiko Visual café at 324bis Dien Bien Phu St., Dist. 10, HCMC: opened in November 2005 as a forum of visual artists.

New Space Arts Foundation at Lai The Village, Phu Vang District, Thua Thien-Hue Province: opened in late 2008 and has been operating as an artists' residence. There are nearly 60 artists who go there regularly to stay and create their works.

Zero Station at 288 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St., Dist. 3, HCMC: opened in 2010 as a space for contemporary art theory.

Khoan Cat Be Tong (Concrete drilling and cutting) at 46/8 Road 18, Kha Van Can St., Thu Duc Dist., HCMC: opened in early 2011 and considered the most open space for artists as it does not follow any set style or routine.

The Muong ethnic group culture museum in Hoa Binh Province, around 40 kilometers from Hanoi: opened in 2008 by painter Vu Duc Hieu on two hectares in a limestone valley. The museum also plans hosts artists-in-residence in the future.

Factory at 11 Bao Khanh St., Hoan Kiem Dist., Hanoi: opened as a bar by painter Le Quang Ha and his friends. The venue mostly exhibits Ha's works.

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