German man on mission to make Vietnam's busiest city art hub

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Paul Weinig (left) with painter Nguyen The Son at the latter's exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City last November. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Paul Weinig has found all kinds of ways to breathe new life into Ho Chi Minh City's art scene since moving there in 2008 to head of the city's branch of the Goethe Institute.

The German PhD said he wanted to turn Vietnam's southern hub into a haven for artists who are now struggling to flourish amid the city's busyness, in which it is tough to find the literal and figurative time and space to produce art. Weinig said that Berlin was the same way, years ago, before it became one of Europe's major art centers.

"Welcome everyone to the third Cracking Bamboo," Weinig said in his not quite fluent Vietnamese at the city's Conservatory of Music at a percussion concert featuring artists from Europe and Asia.

Ho Chi Minh City audiences have become accustomed to hearing Weinig's greetings, as he has presided over nearly all the Goethe Institute's events of the past four years, according to a February 22 report in Tuoi Tre.

The city is a new land to him, he said, and it has been fascinating getting to know it while serving its people plenty of art.

Together with two assistants and distant support from the Hanoi office, Weinig has organized many cultural and artistic events, free music classes, exhibitions for local and foreign artists, plus smaller programs such as book readings and small concerts and art exhibitions held at cafés.

He said artists in Ho Chi Minh City face harsher conditions both in terms of basic survival and pursuing their art than those living in Hanoi, where there exists a more vibrant art community.

Artists in the southern city usually work alone or very small groups, having little space and too few studios to exhibit their works, often being forced to pay high fees to have them displayed at posh galleries, Weinig told Tuoi Tre.

He noted that most artists in the city make little money from their art, and must earn a living working other jobs, which impedes the development of their artistic skills and aspirations.

Nevertheless, the institute's leader has done hundreds of things to infuse the city's art scene with excitement.

At the German Film Festival held last September and October, he was in his usual spot standing, treating the moviegoers to a warm greeting as they arrived, in addition to free admittance.

After a jazz concert, he mingled amongst the crowd as they exited to find out their reaction. He sat silently in the corner of a café to hear a saxophonist perform. In short, Weinig is all over the place in his pursuit to spread his excitement for the arts and to support artists in any way he can.

He has been studying Ho Chi Minh City audiences to find out what type of performance is likely to be attractive to them, making sure they aren't discouraged from attending by the city's rigorous logistics.

Weinig said when people suggested he choose District 7, the city's new urban area, as the site of the film festival, he decided it was too far to ask many people in the city to travel.

A person who lives in District 2 would not go all the way to District 7 just to watch a movie, he explained. The festival ended up being held at BHD Star Cinema at the foot of Ba Thang Hai Street in District 10, close to the city's center.

Weinig also chose the Castus Gallery in Binh Thanh District last November for painter Nguyen The Son to showcase his work on the effects of urbanization in the city as seen through main street houses, because the venue is air-conditioned. 

He said the audiences in the city don't like to travel far or suffer the heat to enjoy art.

So he brings art to the people in the most convenient way, so they can enjoy it at the highest level possible, he said.

He also had Idecaf, the center of cultural exchange with France in the city, screen one or two German movies every month, with tickets either being free or very cheap.

While more artistic movies are saved for festivals, he chose comedies suitable for everyone to enjoy, from the elderly to schoolchildren, for these monthly screenings.

Weinig said he first went to Berlin in 1982 and then returned again in 1993, when he saw artists painting on the walls of abandoned buildings and houses.

By then they had formed a community where artists gathered, creating art within an environment infused with freedom.

He said he sees traces of that spirit in Vietnam southern city, where young artists battle life's difficulties, working all varieties of jobs to support their love for art.

He wants to provide opportunities for these artists, and thus, searches them out to help them exhibit their work.

Under his tenure, the institute has held several exhibitions each year, many of which earned positive reviews from critics.

But he said the biggest problem for local artists is finding both the space to work and display the fruits of their labor.

Cactus Gallery is one of the few that meets artists' light, space and air requirements, but it is closing down due to financial difficulties, he said.

He added that there were many more sad stories taking place within the city's art scene. Local fine arts students showed no interest in German woodcut artist Christiane Baumgartner, who he recruited to teach a one-week course for free; the HCMC Conservatory failed to provide proper lighting on a featured pianist; and Weinig had to turn people away from the latest installment of the German Film Festival, because there were not enough seats.

But he is not discouraged. He said like in Berlin, people need to embrace the strength of their artistic aspirations in order to prosper.

Signs of such a trend are present in Vietnam, where many young people have taken up the arts as a hobby.

Much of the audience at the most recent German Film Festival was young, as was half of those to attend the third Cracking Bamboo last October.

He said sometimes he has prioritized his mission to advance the arts in HCMC over spending time with his 3-year-old daughter. Instead of staying home with her on Sunday, he goes to the institute to read passages from famous books to visitors, showing them the book's film adaptation and holding a forum for discussion afterward.

But he said his efforts will give his daughter the chance to grow up in a country with a better art atmosphere, as he has decided to stay in Vietnam indefinitely. 

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