Standort: / Meldung: "Sao La: A Rare Beast in Asia"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

30. 4. 2015 - 12:15

Sao La: A Rare Beast in Asia

It's 40 years since the fall of Saigon. In now Ho Chi Minh City a brave independent art scene struggles to ask big questions - in the spirit of Bruce Lee.

If you were to imagine early 1990s bohemian Berlin art-scene transported to the tropics then you might be able to picture the scene at the breezy art gallery at Lê Công Kiều Station.

The gallery and workspace is found deep in the innards of central Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as most of the locals insists on still calling Vietnam’s most dynamic city. It's colourful, slightly makeshift and chaotic but buzzing with creative idealism.

Inside the loft

Barbara Köppel

Lê Công Kiều Station is also rather hard to find! To get to the dark doorway I have to weave between the domino-rows of parked motorbikes and squeeze past some watchful men who are drinking coffee on small blue plastic chairs.

The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago today (30th April) with the Fall of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City - making this the 40th birthday of a reunified Vietnam

Finally, at the top of a dark winding staircase, I find an open-sided art space with the sounds of motorbikes and the bustle from the street market flood in from the busy streets below.

There’s a bright geometric sculpture hanging from the ceiling but the floor is simple and bare and a dusty radio-cassette player sits in a corner.

Lê Công Kiều Station could hardly be more modest in appearance but it´s showcasing some of the most innovative and exciting art in youthful, bustling Vietnam.

"Grabbing every opportunity"

The gallery doubles as an atelier for artists and designers and you'll see busy figures are huddled over laptops. One of them is Lily Thuy Tien Le, who uses the station as office space for her urban design projects.

"Art is not really funded by the government, so wherever artists find space they can exhibit they grab the opportunity," she explains, as I gawp at the expressionist works on the walls, "It is kind of word of mouth where you can find art."

Artist Lynn

Barbara Köppel

Lily Thuy Tien Le

The hanging sculpture is from an artist called Dao Duy Tung. Behind it there are garishly coloured paintings on the bare-brick walls - one of which reminds me curiously of the Moomins. There's also a green-headed woman and, looking forgotten in a corner, there's a bald-headed man with a several hands coming out of his skull - a work by Hoàng Nam Việt. There's also puffed up rag-rug in a corner - like the beanbags that are scattered around at public libraries. What does it mean? It’s all very eclectic and very intriguing.

After the rug, I'm beginning to believe that everything in the room is art and start contemplating with great reverence the vintage fan that stands by the wall. Then, as the slightly built 'curator' Tung Mai, switches it off so we can chat, I realise that it's not installation, it is literally just there to keep the temperature down. It's a sizzling 34 degrees outside.

Bean Bags

Barbara Köppel

Tung is from Sao La, the group that has organised this space. Actually he doesn't like to be described as a curator, because that's not what his project is about:

"We don’t have one theme or one topic to follow," he says, "It’s just gathering of all artists together in spring to show their work and just to be close to each other."

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You can feel that sense of community spirit. On the sun-blasted roof terrace, there is the detritus of last night’s party: empty bottles of beer and stubby chairs before a backdrop of graffiti street art. There is romantically non-commercial and vibrantly youthful feel to the whole venue.

"Art is increasingly growing in Saigon but it is still quite underground," says Lily Le, "It’s mainly the young generation that is trying to promote art."

Tung’s Sao La is a non-profit initiative promoting experimental art. In a project called March Art Walk, that runs until the middle of May, they have provided space for 30 artists to exhibit their work in four locations around the Fine Arts Museum. The map of the locations is garishly depicted in thick paint in a picture hanging in the stairwell:

The art of Saigon

Barbara Köppel

"The map of the locations is garishly depicted"

Sao La is the name of a very rare and critically endangered mountain animal in South-East Asia and the name seems appropriate. It is not easy to survive as a boundary-pushing artist in HCMC:

"Recently two of the major exhibition spaces have just closed," explains Sophie Hughes, a curator and art doyen who has been based in the city for the past 6 years. "This is a tragedy because it takes away that platform but it has forced the scene to react."

Saigon artist Tung

Barbara Köppel

I ask Tung about this reaction and, rather bafflingly he quotes Bruce Lee’s advice to "be like water." Tung is a bespectacled and softly spoken man, I have to lean in to hear his voice over the roar from the streets below.

"Be like water!"

Seeing that the Kung Fu reference has taken me by surprise, he elaborates by pushing his hands through an imaginary liquid so that I can imagine it parting and reforming: "Here we have to be like water. We have to be very flexible in finding our funds."

This has meant petitioning embassies and private companies for donations but also closing ranks within the scene. All the artists muck in to make the exhibitions at the March ART WALK sustainable. "We help each other in installing the work, doing some administrative stuff, also for logistical stuff for the opening and closing of exhibition. Some of the bands come and play for free."

Artist Sophie Hughes

Barbara Köppel

Some funding comes from part of proceeds of the art tours run by Sophie Hugues. She guides visitors through the galleries and workspaces of Ho Chi Minh City, giving tourists a different angle on the city to the standard backpackers bars, strip-joints and colonial relics.

Sophie says she began the tours out of a "personal curiosity and a desire to connect on a deeper level with Vietnam’s history." She first arrived in 2009 to curate a film festival and was so taken by the vibrant art scene that is epitomized here that she never left, managing a gallery for a while, exploring the city, delving even deeper into the arts scene, becoming more and more attached to the innovative artists struggling to find a platform to showcase their work and struggling to make ends meet.

"Art is low on the government's list"

It seems rough, from a European perspective, that the artists can’t access more public funds, but Tung is sanguine about the problem. HCMC is visibly booming and Vietnam is now a low middle-income country, but a generation ago it was one of the very poorest countries on the planet and there are still many pressing social concerns. Tung says with a shrug: "The government they have a lot of things to worry about, so art is something very small on their list."

Environmental Themes

Yet is equally true that Vietnam needs its new generation of critical innovative artists to help provoke needed public debate about the rollercoaster journey the country has made and the breathless path towards greater materialism that it has now embarked upon. Sophie Hughes says Vietnam’s young artists have a lot to contribute:

"Recently there have been more artists concentrating on environmental issues. We’ve also seen an artist called Lê Phi Long who has been looking at the 'cancer areas' - areas that were heavily bombed during the war with a lot of use of dioxin. He’s gone back there and spent a lot of time with locals and has created art out of that."

Saigon Art

Barbara Köppel

In a cubbyhole near Lê Công Kiều Station’s stairwell we watch a new piece of video art. "That’s my projector," chuckles Sophie. It’s the first time she has seen the film which seems, in a comic way, to be bemoaning the death of nature at expense of rapid commercial development.

Men in white uniforms are playing are holding a funeral for a rotting wooden boat in a newly-drained swamp, one of the last stretched of nature in HCMC that is now marked for housing projects.

It's loud, it is humorous but it is critical.

How Far Can You Go?

The preconception I had taken with me to Vietnam was that all criticism was unwelcome but the artists exhibiting don’t appear to feel the need for self-censorship. Lili Thuy Tien Le says that despite funding problems this is an exciting time for the arts world: "People are beginning to open their minds up a little bit. Now there is more freedom of expression. The government is opening up more forums and internet platforms to express art."

But how far can you go? "The exciting challenge is for artists to find a way of saying what they want to say but doing it more subtly or with more innovation," says Sophie. "That’s the beauty of art. You can communicate it on many levels."

I’m starting to feel optimistic about this brave, creative, resilient scene but then Lily tells me that the building that hosts this art space is going to be knocked soon "to make way for a boutique hotel."

Chris Cummins

HCMC is striving to replicate the business hub success of South-East Asian cities like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. A new underground train system is planned, which might help to ease the traffic chaos. But many of the houses and neighbourhoods that have given the city its soul will be sacrificed in this big push forward. The city, says Lilly, is in the grip of rampant materialism. "Saigon still has a charm, but at the moment business always comes first."

"There's a lot of talk about heritage," says Sophie Hugues, "but the reality is that every single day these buildings are being lost."

Reality Check Special: "Vietnam"

It’s now 40 years since the communist forces captured what was then called Saigon, and reunified Vietnam. Four decades on, the same party is in power but everything else has changed.

Join me on Saturday Reality Check special this weekend. It's a journey by foot, bike, train and boat through Vietnam. It’s a resilient country, recovered from bombed-out penury to 21st century boom, but a country facing the forces of climate change, globalisation, and a digital revolution. A trip through the many faces of modern Vietnam. Saturday at 12noon.

Reality Check Special, Saturday, May 2nd, 12-13, and afterwards seven days on demand.