Category Archives: art criticism

A Report from Vietnam’s Art Scene

NOTE: I’ve been out of commission for a few days due to laptop madness but I’m glad to report that I’m back and itching to blog.

justinsaigon01.jpgI caught up with a longtime friend and neighbor from the bodacious borough of Brooklyn, Justin B. {via Facebook} and discovered that the one time resident of Lagos, Madrid, New York, and most recently Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) has chosen to move on to Osaka to build a new nest.

A connoisseur of the creative and a subversive personality in general, I took the opportunity to email Justin and get the skinny on Vietnam’s culture scene.

Why did you choose to move to Saigon?
I must have been out of my mind or feeling nostalgic and slightly violent. I guess the RNC 2004 pushed me over the edge.

requiemforawallphanumthucha.jpgWhat were your first impressions and how have they changed?
At first I thought it was paradise, then I discovered it was Disneyland.

What is the art scene like in Saigon or Vietnam in general?
The art scene is dead, except for expat fantasies.

Who are some of the major artists in the scene?
Outsiders mostly, who come in to the playground. The major gallery had to drop “Vietnamese” from its title due to a lack of local artists. Cash, not creativity, is king in Saigon.

Tell me a little about some artworks you’ve created or been involved with, including that sleep project (Magma) that was webcast?
Magma was an effort by Sue Hadju, who along with Motoko Uda runs “A little Blah, Blah…” They are perhaps the real power house pushing creativity in Saigon but mostly by hosting foreign visiting curators and artists. I embed myself in other people’s shows, generally providing some kind of peripheral service and then hijack the implementation a little. My artistic efforts are based on interventions, situations and disruptions, mostly in an effort to force the audience to stop taking themselves so seriously and take the work seriously by recognizing they are viewers and participants, that they are part of the work.

Are there institutions that support the arts in Vietnam?
ALBB (A little Blah Blah), Gallery Quynh, and Wonderful District.

Are there any limits for artistic freedom of expression?
Oh yeah. Everything has to pass through the censor, who of course knows nothing about art.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest obstacles the Vietnamese art world faces?
Greed, greed, greed, a complete lack of interest in creativity outside of profits. A complete lack of interest in art by the youth. A consumer culture with no interest in creative production.

Is there any local interest in the art being produced in their country? How does the media cover it? Does the government get involved?
The media is censored. Fortunately, the government has little interest in art as long as it stays in foreign circles. Because of the censorship what little art there is remains a private matter for people with means.

What is the legacy of communist social realism in Vietnam, if any?
It sells well to tourists who love to pay silly amounts for viet-kitch.

In your opinion, what is the future of the art in Vietnam?
Vietnam is developing its consumer culture and won’t have a creative/counter culture for another decade. The government remains uninterested and unconcerned. Interested artists should check back in about 10 years or focus on ethnic-chic documentation.

My New Banner (Second Life)

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Under the guise of my Second Life (SL) avatar, Ari Montreal, I went gallery hopping in SL for months. It was often hit or miss, but art was all around and there were some interesting things to see. My SL art experience culminated in an article about SL’s art scene for the Brooklyn Rail in April 2007.

But, after a few more months I stopped going, realizing that I didn’t have time for a three-dimensional cyber-life. Though I hope to revisit SL again…time will tell.

My new banner marks those months exploring SL’s art scene…..and it is my way of saying a special thank you to all the SL artists, critics and users that helped me find the treasures that lay within.

The Armenian flavor of West Asian Photography

vanleo.jpgLast year’s YEAR OF ARMENIA in France, called “Arménie, mon amie” (Armenia, my friend), was a coup for Armenian cultural awareness in the West…well, at least in Europe.

One of the most interesting exhibits from the French festivities, and there were tons of crappy ones judging by the web, was the Armenian photography show at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris.

Thankfully, the IMA (which is a great museum in an amazing Jean Nouvel building) does a great job documenting its shows and in this case, a webpage and brochure exist online for posterity.

bedrostarkulyan.jpgFocusing on work from North Africa (Egypt) and West Asia (Turkey, Israel/Palestine, Iraq), the show spanned 150 years of Armenian photography. Armenians had a seminal role in West Asian photography.

In places like Jerusalem, Armenians were the pioneers of the medium, while in Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Aleppo, Istanbul & Tehran most famous photographers were Armenian.

Admittedly, some photographers are more gifted than others and many tend to be to documentarian, but the Egyptian Armenian photographers are the exception and come across as artists—Van Leo, Angelo, and Katia Boyadjian are the crème de la crème of that creative flowering.

Perhaps one day, the other branches of Armenian photographic history (like Soviet & Anglo-American) will be given their day in the sun.

angelo.jpg lekegian.jpg yessayigarabedian.jpg zgdonatossian.jpg

While I’ve posted half a dozen images from the exhibit here, check out the original exhibit brochure for more images from the IMA show (.pdf).

Touring the Art Blogs

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Since the galleries are lame in August, I decided to tour the online art circuit instead…here’s some posts that stood out:

When she was studying at the Art Instutute of Chicago in the late 1950s Murray had what she always thought of as a crucial encounter with one of the Institute’s Cezannes, The Plate of Apples, a painting she described years later as one where “the space is all pouring out somehow at you.” At the time the painting’s main importance for her was simply that it turned her on to the joy of looking at painting. But plainly something of the canted, tilted iceflow surfaces of Cezanne’s still lifes would find its way into Murray’s work.

Vietnam’s Indelible Mark on America

photo3n.jpgAs an Armenian Canadian, who is slowly becoming an American, the impact of the Vietnam war is difficult to understand. The only Vietnam War affiliated people I encountered in Toronto were draft dodgers, Vietnamese refugees, and parents who moved to Toronto with their young kids to ensure when they reached draft age they wouldn’t end up in southeast Asia.

Veken took time out of our Sunday schedule to show me the Vietnam Memorial in Holmdel, New Jersey, near his parent’s home–it reminded me of the power of memorials.

wardogs.jpgUnfortunately, most people in Holmdel (Veken found it one day roller blading near his parent’s home) probably don’t know about this serene monument. Along side the more conventional Vietnam memorial with the names of soldier’s engraved on its walls is a smaller monument to the war dogs that died serving in the US military (built only last year). Also on the grounds is an education center which was closed when we visited, I can only imagine the stories it tells.

What makes the site particularly poignant is the older cemetery at the heart of the complex. Dating from the early 19th C., the Crawford family cemetery suggests this little patch has a symbolic significance, one that Vietnam vets & Holmdel chose to acknowledge. For over two hundred years this rather hidden place has served as a place for mourning and memory, today it is great to see it continue in that role.

It is only unfortunate that the minimalistic sculpture of the memorials are impeded by the more conventional bronze sculptures that strain to “narrate” the monuments. If only the powers that be overcame the crutch of populism to find another more creative way to show the loss and soul-searching triggered by Vietnam, but like the soldiers (and canines) commemorated here, I guess they were only human and prone to mistakes.

Complete photos from my little tour here.

Sag Harbor Oasis

sagharbor01.jpgMost people who know me, know that I am helplessly a city boy. So, it is rare that I venture to quieter pastures unless dragged there by friends or family eager for my company in the countryside.

Fortunately, a good friend suggested a foray to the haven of Sag Harbor, NY, which has a notable and storied history (writers Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, James Fenimore Cooper, Truman Capote, Betty Friedan, E.L. Doctorow and others have all lived or live there, and legendary mail artist Ray Johnson drowned there after jumping from the Sag Harbor-North Haven bridge).

So, I admit it, while the thrill of visiting the store (Schiavoni’s Market) that inspired Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent drew me to Sag, as soon as I arrived I realized I was onto something quite beautiful. The poetically situated hamlet (can a place be poetically situated?) seemed a perfect retreat from New York City’s sweltering summers.

Little did I realize that I not only had a come across a delightful little town but the home I was invited to stay in was an oasis of Americana dripping with the quirky character that makes America’s storied past intriguing.

sagharbor02.jpgCamera in hand I instinctively snapped pictures of the beach front cottage just outside Sag Harbor, NY. Thankfully, a historian already documented the house and I read that the residence was established in the mid-fifties when two older buildings from Sag Harbor were relocated, combined and expanded by the mid-20th century owners.

The entrance signaled the entry into a magical abode. It is dominated with a tree mural that careens past the wall, up behind a metal bench…onto the ceiling…engulfing a metal light fixture forged with vine and bird forms. Primitive grass sprouts from the floor onto the walls and birds are drawn onto the sky-colored walls, eternally frozen mid-flight.

Folk art painted carpets lead up to the guest rooms. Every corner is filled with curiosities–tramp art, wooden ducks, quilts and framed silhouettes.

ivories.jpgThe couple who owns the home preserves, and I’m sure have contributed to, the integrity of this oasis of Americana. Unlike the other homes in the neighborhood, the estate doesn’t embrace the shore and seems to step back in a contemplative contrapposto.

Trees grow all around the perimeter and only a small stone paved pool punctures the green of the rolling lawn. The facade is serene and the tight spaces are not luxurious but rich in textures and warmth.

Spending a few days in this place was sheer joy, breathing in the illusion of a colonial home made me think about the beginnings of America. About a place that began as a provincial backwater and eventually flowered into the crossroads of the world.

Sag Harbor gave me a chance to think about that beautiful journey. I posted my images (with the owners’ permission) for the world to see, enjoy. Complete photo album.

For the text-inclined, here’s a brief literary history of Sag Harbor (courtesy Newsday)

Eloyan’s Joy of Painting Lands in London

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His exhibition at Parasol Unit in London closed late last month, but don’t expect Armen Eloyan, who lives and works in Amsterdam and Zurich, to disappear any time soon since the zany paint master has a reputation that gathering steam.

Having not seen the works in person, I will turn the mic over to BBC’s Collective interactive culture magazine (Issue #246) for their take on the July London show:

Thick paint is smeared over…in a globule fashion. The fevered brushwork, which creates extremely textual layers, entices you up close to scenes of a perplexing, horrific and sexual nature played out by curious characters. Often using multiple canvases mimicking the stills of a cartoon, you move through the desolate landscapes inhabited by angry mice, dead bunnies, lumberjacks and uniform-clad figures frame by frame.

Adopting a dull and muddy palette, all that’s missing from these characters in a state of distress, anger and contemplation, are the speech bubbles. Referring to folklore and using recurring motifs of the toybox gone awry, there’s also an underlying humour in Eloyan’s sinister paintings hinted at through the titles and his choice of bizarre protagonist. Ultimately it’s his obvious enjoyment of painting, evident in the zealous paint application and exploration of obscure narrative, that strikes you most. (source)

Check out some of these links for more info on the Armenia-born painter:

{Above image courtesy bunnylicious}