Presentation about Sàn Art by Zoe Butt and Dinh Q Le

June 21 2010
AAA-A, New York
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van and Xiaofei Mo

On the occation of Dinh Q Le’s Project 93 at The Museum of Modern Art [June 30 2010 – January 24 2011], Asia Art Archive in America ivited the artist and Zoe Butt to discuss Vietnamese contemporary art with AAA-A and art colleagues.


Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Courtesy of Sàn Art

Jane DeBevoise (JD): I am very pleased today to have the opportunity to introduce Zoe Butt and Dinh Q Le. Zoe will speak about Sàn Art, one of the most vibrant and relevant non-profit art spaces in Vietnam. Then Dinh Q Le, one of the founders of Sàn Art will speak about some of his own work.

Zoe Butt (ZB): It’s a pleasure to be here tonight; I will be focusing on Sàn Art, and will talk a little bit about a few Vietnamese artists that I think are going places, and then we’ll finish off with our guest speaker, Dinh Q Le, who will talk a little bit about his work.

Sàn Art is a non-profit art space located in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. ‘Sàn’ means ‘platform’ in Vietnamese.  It was started in 2007 by four established Vietnamese artists – Dinh Q Le, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phu Nam Thuc Ha, and Tiffany Chung. Sàn Art was initiated by these four artists as they realized there was no platform for experimental contemporary Vietnamese art in Ho Chi Minh City – in terms of exhibition and education, but also in terms of a meeting place for an exchange of artistic ideas.

Sàn Art is in District Binh Thanh, which is walking distance from the central part of Ho Chi Minh City. We are a very small space and we share the building with an artist collective called The Propeller Group, who also operate as a film and media production house. So it’s a really interesting environment where there is film, television, and fine art all in one building. We are now one of the most important and active contemporary art spaces in Vietnam. I’m not saying that just because I happen to work there, but as Jane mentioned, I moved from China to Vietnam, because I could see so much potential in the emerging art community there. It just needed a little bit of help in terms of how to engage with the international art scene, how to showcase their talents, so to speak. My role at Sàn Art is to manage the programming of exhibitions and education; one of my personal dedications is working with artists on a one–to-one level.

Tonight I thought it might be necessary to give a few background facts about Vietnam; I apologize to those who already know this. The Cultural Ministry in Vietnam controls all cultural content for public events and publications, much like what China was and still is to a certain extent. The art education system in Vietnam follows a French model from 1924, and focuses largely on plastic arts – painting, lacquer, silkscreen, sculpture, and drawing. The structure of that curriculum has changed very little since 1924. Universities’ art libraries have extremely limited material about art post 1960; largely due to the Vietnam War and the establishment of the Communist Government in 1975. The role of the Vietnam Fine Art Association is similar to that of the Fine Art Association in China in that the government supports members of the association. Traditionally, this Association is predominantly composed of graduates from the university system. These artists gain credibility nationally by taking part in exhibitions organized by the Association, however today’s graduates consider the Association lacking in knowledge of contemporary art and offering much less opportunity than the growing number of commercial galleries in the country.

Ironically, the Vietnamese government is quite eager to promote the monetary value of art in terms of export and its relationship to tourism. This largely affects the way artists think about their practice in terms of value, as much of their understanding of the importance of their culture comes down to money.

Again, I’m sure many of us here know that there is no such term for not-for-profit across most of Asia and Vietnam in particular. The only non-commercial financial support available to artists in Vietnam is through NGOs such as Alliance Francaise, the Goethe-Institut, and the Cultural Development and Exchange Fund in Hanoi, operated by the Danish Consulate. Secondly, there is no public cultural institution in Vietnam that collects contemporary Vietnamese art. As an aside, in May 2009, Time [Magazine] published an article that stated that a large majority of paintings and sculptures in the collection of the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi were forgeries, and having spoken to experts, it sounds like this may be true. Therefore, it was largely in looking at this set of factors that the founders of Sàn Art decided to create a new home – a place of exchange for independent contemporary art practice.

Opening night of exhibition ‘Syntax and Diction.’ Courtesy of Sàn Art

This is Sàn Art on the opening night of an exhibition called ‘Syntax and Diction.’ It was one of the first times Dinh Q Le exhibited a major piece in Vietnam – his piece is the red flags. That Dinh is understood internationally as a prominent Vietnamese contemporary artist and that 2010 marked the first time for him to be able exhibit a significant installation in Vietnam reflects the level of control over cultural activity in the country.

Left: American light artist, Hap Tivey, January 2010. Right: Japanese artist, Goh Ideta, February, 2008. Courtesy of San Art

At Sàn Art, we try to be a meeting point for local and international artists. Here, we have an artist from America, Hap Tivey, and Japan, Goh Ideta.

Sàn Art co-presented Time Ligaments: 9 Contemporary Vietnamese Artists with 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong in May 2009 (Co-curated by Dinh Q Le and Zoe Butt). Courtesy of Sàn Art

This is an exhibition we did in Hong Kong in 2009 to tie in with last year’s Hong Kong art fair [ArtHK].

Sàn Art was one of 70 non-profit organizations from around the world presented at TATE Modern, London in No Soul for Sale 2: A Festival of Independents, May 2010. Courtesy of Sàn Art

This is Sàn Art participating in an exhibition at TATE Modern in London in May (2010), where we were one of over 70 non-profit organizations from around the world looking at the idea of non-profit, independent work.

Sàn Art also organizes guest lecturers to give talks about their practices; so here we have Josh Harris, a conservator who spoke about his work as an artist and as a conservator; we have poets and writers give performances such as lê thị diễm thúy. Recently, we had Eungie Joo from New York’s New Museum come give a talk. And of course we work with local artists to discuss their practices as well.

And then we have a reading room, which is quite an important component of Sàn Art, because universities in Vietnam have little textual or visual material about art post-1960s. We are building a library which at the moment has a considerable number of exhibition catalogues, journals, monographs, general art historical texts, etc. This library is built through donations. We are sincerely grateful to donors such as the Whitechapel Gallery London, Serpentine, and universities around LA who have been quite generous.

Sàn Art is the host for Asia Art Archive’s pilot project ‘Mobile Library’ in January 2011

In January, we are the first partner for an Asia Art Archive project called Mobile Library, which is a great little initiative to extend the audience of Asia Art Archive’s library. I’m quite excited about this because it gives us the opportunity to work with the local community to build educational programs with these resources.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Enemy's Enemy: A Monument to A Monument (prototype 1), 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Sàn Art

Now I would like to talk about the work of five artists. I will start with Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who is actually one of Sàn Art’s founders. His piece here talks about the self-immolation of  Thich Quang Duc in 1963, a Buddhist monk who set himself alight outside the premises of Ngo Dinh Diem’s American-appointed Roman Catholic administration in Ho Chi Minh City as protest against this government’s persecution of the Buddhist community. Recently the Vietnamese government erected a monument to this monk in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s quite ironic that the Vietnamese government would choose to create a monument to a religious icon as under Communism no religion is actually recognized, however it is duly noted that the motivation for this monument is to remind the Vietnamese people of the negative influence of America in Vietnam. For Tuan Andrew Nguyen, he finds it particularly interesting how religion and sport are used as platforms to talk about politics.

Nguyen Manh Hung, Apartment Block, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Sàn Art

Here is work by a young Hanoi artist, Nguyen Manh Hung. He looks at the way in which progress in Vietnam, in terms of architectural development and civic development, has no organized structural plan for the past thirty years. This is an artist who usually only paints, but has just started to work with installation and has received significant recognition for his new work. He is also experimenting with music and sound.

Bui Cong Khanh, Power from Juice series, 2009-2010. Courtesy of the artist and Sàn Art

This is Bui Cong Khanh’s work. Khanh is an artist based in Ho Chi Minh City and originally from Hoi An. He is quite a role model in Ho Chi Minh City, openly critical of the mis-use of power in Vietnam. This is a huge oil drum that he has used to talk about the influence of consumption in Vietnam, using the idea of the soda can, a ubiquitous object across the world, that is readily discarded after consumption. Here Khanh directs the idea of consumption to social issues such as  ‘Juice of Power’, ‘Juice of Labor’, Juice of Love’, which is in many ways typically-Vietnamese, using ‘Love’ and ‘Power’ in the same sentence.

Nguyen Minh Phuoc, Red Etude, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Sàn Art

This is Nguyen Minh Phuoc, a very interesting artist – a few months ago, he and I spoke of his understanding of the Vietnamese government. It was very revealing for me. He remarked that the Vietnamese government was hand picked from the military, which presents a problem for the country as it struggles to understand the definition of contemporary culture. Coming from a military background, these officials don’t know how to advise the people on the relationship between culture and society. In this video piece, he asks a woman to do a series of Tai-Chi movements wearing military dress. In the background is a series of black and white images of Vietnamese people sometimes in protest, sometimes doing domestic activities. The imagery looks as if it’s quite old, but actually it was taken in the last three years. He is asking where Vietnam is going, how it is conceiving of it’s own sense of identity.

Nguyen Thai Tuan, Room of the Prince, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Sàn Art

Nguyen Thai Tuan is a self-trained artist from Dalat. I like the way he has come about his own artistic practice. For example, he loves artists like Marlene Dumas who he follows with great interest.  For this particular piece, he visited the site of Emperor Bao Dai’s (Vietnam’s last Emperor) final residence in Dalat. It depicts Bao Dai’s son’s bedroom much as it is seen today, its furniture discolored and forlorn with next to no contextual information on what might have passed in this room. For Thai Tuan, he questions the space of memory and how meaning is retained. In most of his paintings, there are body-less figures, clothed yet outlined in black. He is looking at this idea of how memory is embodied in historical objects. How do we evaluate and read our history? He is quite an interesting artist and just started to gain a name internationally. Nguyen Thai Tuan is the only artist that Sàn Art currently exclusively represents.

This is Dinh’s work. I’ll let Dinh talk about his own work.

Dinh Q. Le, The Farmers and the Helicopters (detail), 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Sàn Art

Dinh Q. Le (DQL): This project started in 2006. Basically I read a story about a self-taught mechanic and farmer named Tran Quoc Hai in a rural countryside of Vietnam building a helicopter. That’s the first helicopter that he built, which is life-size. It is supposed to be able to take off about a meter and a half. The problem is nobody knows how to fly, so they just lift it up and put it back down. It’s such a wonderful story and the way he talked about it was amazing. He was talking about how the helicopter is something that helps people, both in agriculture and also in emergency evacuations. I thought it was fascinating the way that helicopters in Vietnam’s history, especially during the Vietnamese war, had become iconic images. For many people in Vietnam, helicopters are objects of war. But here we see this man trying to transform and change the idea of the helicopter from a war machine into a machine that helps people. So I started working with him and decided to make a three-channel video installation with interviews with him and his neighbors. If you get a chance, please come to MoMA to see it, which will be open to the public on the 30th and up for about six months ( In this video you will see that their points of view are so diverse and interesting, even though they are neighbors and some of them are even relatives. Each person’s take on helicopter is completely different from the others. Another interesting point is that they all kind of come around to the point of view of Tran Quoc Hai, who seems to have singlehandedly transformed the helicopter in Vietnam. To some extent one can say that this marks that Vietnam is ready to let go of the old history and start to build new memory. That’s what the work is about. Tran Quoc Hai is now very famous in Vietnam because his helicopter has become a big sensation there. We have brought this helicopter to MoMA’s Project Room, and next to it is the three-channel video installation. He has built a second one, which is a bell helicopter. Because MoMA has bought both the helicopter and the film for their collection, we are working on the third one for future exhibitions. It’s not a miniature, but almost a full-size helicopter. Our helicopter is bigger than the bell helicopter from MoMA’s Design Department, and the latter is not really that big.

Dinh Q. Le, The Farmers and the Helicopters (detail), 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Sàn Art

ZB: Actually we are all quite excited in Vietnam about Dinh’s project at MoMA because it is the first acquisition by MoMA of a really significant installation by a Vietnamese artist. To celebrate that event, three of the four founders of Sàn Art are coming, and hope to use this as an opportunity to talk more about Vietnamese contemporary art. So if you are available and interested, please come to PPOW on the 25th. We are hosting a small cocktail party to increase the awareness of Vietnamese contemporary art and to get more support. In Vietnam, we all work voluntarily at Sàn Art, but we want to get Sàn Art into a financial position that [allows us to] increase our support for artists and organize more international exchange.

JD: Thank you so much. Does anybody have questions?

Audience member: The film is running on a loop at MoMA in one room, and the helicopter is in another room. Is that correct? The helicopter is not something that can fly, right?

DQL: Not anymore. He used an engine from a Russian tank that was left over from the war, and he just ramped up the engine to increase the engine’s speed. Then he stood it up for the propeller shaft to go in. He is really amazingly creative. Later he took the engine out to build the second helicopter. Therefore, the first one here is just the shell only. The second helicopter is able to lift according to Tran Quoc Hai, but again they don’t have a pilot. It’s a very complicated story. The helicopter is forbidden by the government to fly any higher than 2 meters, because they think it could be a danger. Another issue is that every time they test it, all the villagers come out. So it’s actually scary [because] if one of the components blows up, half of the village would be gone. For a long time there was a struggle between him and the government, because the government didn’t know what to do with his helicopter.

Audience member: Where is it located?

DQL: It’s located about 4 hours inland from Saigon, near the Cambodian border. It’s a one-street village, basically a farming community with a little workshop that fixes farming equipment.

Audience member: What is your background?

DQL: I am Vietnamese. After the Vietnam War, my family left Vietnam in 1978. I actually went to school here in America, and I did my graduate study at the School of Visual Art in New York. When I finished school about 15 years ago, I went back to Vietnam.

Audience member: What is the situation now for Vietnamese artists? Do they sell their work outside Vietnam to Hong Kong or Singapore? Do you have capital accumulating, wealthy business people in Vietnam?

DLQ: The market for art is pretty much outside of Vietnam. There are wealthy people in Vietnam, but I think it will take a while to get to [a place where they appreciate] culture. Right now they are collecting handbags and expensive cars [laughter]. Unfortunately that’s the problem. They have not yet realized art’s potential as investment. If they do, they will only collect the modernist painters, because they already have established names. What we are trying to show at Sàn Art is more experimental work; we do show painters, but we show other mediums as well.

Audience member: There is a gallery in Hong Kong that sells Vietnamese art, and several dealers here in New York sell it too.

DLQ: While there are galleries in Hong Kong, for example Plum Blossom and Apricot, that show Vietnamese art, it is usually work that is primarily decorative. This pushes a large group of Vietnamese artists toward that direction, which is really problematic.

ZB: Often these commercial galleries work with artists who continuously reproduce the same image over and over again.

Audience member: What struck me was how Vietnamese work is dramatically different from Chinese work.

ZB: I think it’s also interesting that in China the craze for translating texts post 1978 shifted artists in China towards thinking about international parameters. Much of Vietnam still today has limited reading materials when it comes to modern or contemporary art or European philosophy or postmodernist thought. The relation between knowledge and image-making has always been understood as fundamentally intrinsic in the Chinese tradition. In China there are international exchanges and universities welcoming foreign lecturers. Even today foreigners are not allowed to teach in Vietnam, so this really limits the availability of basic knowledge about contemporary art. At one level, the Vietnamese government looks towards China as a model of how art can become a form of trade, because they can see how well Chinese art is doing in the auction houses, etc. They wonder if Vietnam could be similar. Of course they understand they are smaller, but they would like to replicate that model. What the Vietnamese government doesn’t understand is that there is in China a strong engagement with the international, though at times it’s very problematic, while in Vietnam there is still some hesitancy to engage with the international.

Audience member: How long have you been in Vietnam?

ZB: I’ve been traveling between China and Vietnam since 2007, but I moved to Vietnam in October last year.

Audience member: How long does it take for people to change from the fear of helicopters to some positive feeling?

DQL: Later you see how they talk about the helicopter as an object that they should have. In part it’s a desire for modernity, a desire to move on. Their takes on the helicopter are totally different, but many of them express the feeling of how magical this machine is.

Audience member: What are the galleries selling in Ho Chi Minh City?

DQL: Most of the painters in Vietnam are very capable painters, but their subject matter is another question. In part it has a lot to do with escapism. During the war, they wanted to paint something else. Even in poetry and writing, they talked about love and romance, things that helped them escape from the war. After the war, the government dictated what you could and could not paint. At the time, most artists belonged to the Fine Art Association. You had to be a member because that was the only way that you got access to canvas and oil paint. As a result, if you painted negative things about the community or about Vietnam, you would get kicked out. Therefore many of them painted pretty landscapes. There was one painter who painted a factory and got banned, because they said that a factory that had no smoke meant it was not active, therefore it was a critique of the system. Thus the situation forced artists to avoid any serious issues.

They do paint about the war, but only once a year, on Military Day, or the anniversary of the end of the war. Then the National Museum hosts an anniversary show, and painters who want to be included in it paint about the war. It takes the form of a glorification.

JD: Well, we have come to the end of our allotted time. Thank you both very much for coming. It’s great to have the opportunity to learn about both of your work at San Art and congratulations, Dinh, on your opening at MoMA next week.



Born in 1968 in Ha-Tien, Vietnam; lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
MFA, Photography and Related Media, The School of Visual Arts, New York.
BA, Fine Arts, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Lê’s work has been exhibited in 2008 Singapore Biennale; Thermocline of Art exhibition at ZKM in Germany; the 5th Asia Pacific Triennial at Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane Australia; The Gwangju Biennial 2006, Korea; Only Skin Deep at the International Center for Photography, New York; Delays and Revolutions, Venice Biennale 2003. His recent solo exhibitions include, A Tapestry of Memories: The Art of Dinh Q. Lê at the Bellevue Art Museum, Washington State; Destination for the New Millennium, The Art of Dinh Q. Lê, at the Asia Society, New York; and Project 93, at MOMA, New York.


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