Walls can speak

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Concerns about overt commercialization, historical ignorance and haphazard design are dogging a half-completed project to create a 4.3-kilometer mural for Hanoi's millennium.

When artist and journalist Nguyen Thu Thuy suggested creating a ceramic mosaic mural showing episodes from Vietnamese history in March 2007, it found immediate favor with the general public and the press.

The idea had gradually formed in Thuy's mind as she passed by a drab concrete dike along the Red River on her way to work each day.

She decided the bare concrete wall should be embellished and began by co-opting several artists into a non-profit collective called New Hanoi Arts that she had formed to develop and promote public art.

Three months after announcing her plan for a 4.3-kilometer mosaic along Yen Phu Dike, the Hanoi People's Committee gave its consent and approved the project's name: "Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural: A Gift for Hanoi's Millennium."

The budget was set at VND68 billion (US$3.81 million), most of which will have to come from nongovernmental sources.

The mural will incorporate motifs and images from the past 3,000 years, contemporary designs, works by artists from traditional craft villages and from abroad, and mosaics by Vietnamese children and kids from other countries.

Two years after, and a little more than a year before the capital's once-in-lifetime party in October 2010, slightly more than 1.8 kilometers of the mural from the start of Yen Phu Street to the intersection with An Duong, Nghi Tam and Thanh Nien streets has been completed.

Since the work began, there have been several complaints about the large sponsors' logos and their dominant places on the mural.

Children lay out ceramic tiles to create a mosaic for Hanoi's birthday mural

Following public and media criticism, several logos were put on hold while the city decided how to deal with the issue.

Thuy, in an interview with Thanh Nien, said the agreements with the sponsors should be honored as they were providing the bulk of funding for the mural.

She named several community works in other countries that were named after their benefactors, such as Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain and the Archibald Fountain in Sydney, Australia.

"Without sponsors, how could we have enough money to meet the deadline for Hanoi's thousandth anniversary?" she said.

Nguyen Trong Tuan, chairman of the national steering committee for Hanoi's millennium, agreed.

"Obviously for a project that is funded mostly by non-government sources, the business logos have to be there," he said.

"But the city keeps a close eye on the people involved in the project and has formed a committee for each component of the mural to assess the work in progress and make suggestions."

So far, a score of Vietnamese artists, ten international artists and 50 university art students have contributed to the mosaic, helped by countless artisans and others.

But some say the mural's patterns are "incoherent" and do not provide a comprehensive and accurate picture of the country's culture and history.

Phan Cam Thuong, who teaches art history and criticism at the Hanoi College of Fine Arts, thinks the mural is merely a decoration for the dike and that there was "no official sketch, or outline, of such a giant picture" for the public or local artists to comment before the first tile was stuck on the wall.

"It takes a great amount of time and effort to outline something of this scale. What we have so far is one haphazard design after another, done without forethought or even knowledge of our country's history," Thuong said.

And another thing, the sponsorship to date has only been enough to pay for some of the mural so the job cannot be finished without additional funding, Thuong said.

If the project is not completed, it will end up being a "failure of urban art."

Nguyen Do Bao, chairman of the Hanoi Fine Arts Association, said the value of a community arts project could not be compared to the work of professional artists.

Its value derives from the interaction among community members, not from the professionalism of each contributor, he said.

Joe Brenman from Philadelphia, the US, who's expected to work on the mural in December, is full of praise for the idea and scope of the ambitious project.

"From my experience in community arts, it is a great way to bring people together," Brenman said.

"Working together on an art project helps to break down barriers between people and gives them a feeling of working for a common purpose."

Still, Ylva Landoff Lindberg, a Swedish artist who lives and works in Hanoi, loves what she sees.

"Nowadays I love passing by the mural, letting my eyes wander over the wall in search of new details with the sun at my back," she said.

"The ceramic mural really could become an important symbol of Hanoi. That's why the sponsors' logos have had such a negative reaction. I too think a symbol of Hanoi should be free of commercialization."

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