KVT – The Southern Journals…Part Four

KVT – The Southern Journals…Part Four

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Has the locus of Vietnamese contemporary art shifted from Hanoi to HCMC?
KVT headed south to take a look for himself. The result is a series of articles about his encounters.

Read more articles here.

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KVT comes face to face with the work of Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai: part one

This episode was going to be about that excellent independent art space, San Art…and in a way it is. But as every time my mind turns to San Art my inner visuals always switch to the work of one of three artists on display there when I visited… an artist from Hue, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai. So I’ll save San Art till next time and concentrate on the first of two pieces centering an exceptionally talented young woman. This piece and another in a couple of weeks when I’ve reached Hue and met Mai face to face.

When I visited San Art the final results of San Art Laboratory, Session One, was up and running and I though I was impressed with the installations of Tuan Mami and spent some time with those of Truong Cong Tung it was the vaginal speculums of Mai that brought me to a standstill and had me hanging around the space for much longer than I had intended.

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Although a lot of out alpha male artists won’t like this at all…it was suggested to me while down south that the next Vietnamese artists to dominate the international spotlight will be the up and coming females…and I hope this is all too true! And I know that when that spotlight points our way that Mai (born 1983) will be basking in its glow.

Let’s see Mai’s artist statement……to me the female body is a complicated, mysterious and beautiful structure. Any invasion or occupation of that structure can cause serious personal damage….in my work I use medical tools that are used in gynecological pathology, such as vaginal speculums. To me they are the objects that invade female bodies; they occupy and divest that woman’s power, privacy, beauty and sanctity. These instruments are the recurring symbols in these works inferring an obsession, worry, fear and insecurity……my art seeks to discover and reveal the marks that were made by such invasion and occupation….

The first time I came across vaginal speculum was in an historical medical museum in Burlington, Vermont a couple of years ago and I was fascinated by their seeming macabre intent (they were rusted, stained and cold looking speculum from a hundred years ago) and wondered how they could be used in an art piece…and now they have been…modern ones… and superbly!

In a medical cabinet with a see through glass top and pullout drawers Mai has mounted varieties of vaginal speculum. These speculum are bound in young rubber and appear like specimens to be inspected by medical students…..or x rays

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Lit from underneath they appear as if they are invading, even tearing soft body tissue. It’s as if you are witnessing the invasion of the body by these speculum that look more like instruments of torture and I guess that when women are faced by a doctor, perhaps a male doctor, bearing down on them with one of the instruments, they may have similar thoughts

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Then there is the other dimension of Mai’s installation.

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Here she presents the speculum as jeweled works of art worthy of being on display at gallery Vivekkevin.. which was the sparkling subject of part three of my journal.

They are certainly works of extreme beauty.

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I’ll leave the work of Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai here- until I reconnect with her and more of her fascinating art at The Craig Thomas Gallery which had the courage to exhibit her ‘Scar’, and again in Hue over coffee- and allow you to digest and comment, if you like, on this body of work

Next chapter is definitely San Art.

Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.

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  1. “Although a lot of out alpha male artists won’t like this at all…it was suggested to me while down south that the next Vietnamese artists to dominate the international spotlight will be the up and coming females…and I hope this is all too true! And I know that when that spotlight points our way…”

    Well, from my position of some experience as a woman artist — gender talk of the type sited above is rather provocative and divisive, as it is poised to provoke unnecessary tension within the artistic community.

    It reminds me of a write-up in the Australian mainstream media few years ago, which immediately provoked bitter backlash from the artiststic community.

  2. Just reading Susan Sontag’s 1964 to 1980 diaries and at one point she declares that there is not and can never be a women’s literature and it’s an idiot ghettoisation to think there can be.

    Is is this what you mean, Ilza, in relation to women’s art?

    Best wishes

  3. But do you think that the comment in the article was relating to ‘women’s art ‘ or to women having the opportunity to break through the ‘proverbial glass ceiling’ by being recognized as artists on an equal representational footing as males?

    As another female artist I’m really interested to know your opinion.


  4. Ursula,
    Reading of the quotation I pulled out in my first comment: from the very start of the first sentence there is a stated opposition of male artists vs female artists. This opposition is presented as a sort of competitive affair between the two genders, which implies that women artists are either under-represented in comparison to the men artists, which we do not have statistics for to argue the case, or if not so, then they are a subject to a trend: “the next Vietnamese artists to dominate…”, which favors “the up and coming females”. If this is ‘the trend’, then it follows that apart from the male artists, the female artists who do not fall into this ‘category’ are also excluded.
    Now, if you have a rather depressed art market (and even if it is not) and all artists, irrespective of their gender and position are struggling for exposure, then it is rather obvious that many will feel (justifiably or not) that they and their art are discriminated against by whoever is out there setting and propagating this trend. The very important point is what follows as an inference from this, is that the above quote is actually affirming the notion of ‘women’s art’, which you rightfully pointed at.
    What complicates it even further is that this automatically proposes and involves personal identity and other social issues.
    That is why I think that the above quote and the tone of it are not helpful at all and are divisive for the artistic community.

    PS>I do not know to what extend the ‘glass ceiling’ is evident in Vietnam, so I can not comment on this specifically.

  5. Isn’t it funny how two minds perceive the meaning of textual statements? where as you may have taken umbrage, I was sympathetic to the intent. I interpreted the statement to mean that women in Vietnamese art may become the new flavor of the month, so to speak.

    I assume that the words ‘alpha males’ were intended to be provocative and had they been omitted then there would have been less of a red cloth for the bulls in the field to charge at.

    Some more Susan Sontag that may interest or provoke you, as it did me. Statements pricked like new shoots from the context of the larger text of course but definitely triggers for thoughtful discussion.

    She says that so much of the great art of our time is boring.

    She also says that beyond a certain point intelligence is a liability to the artist, that Leonardo Da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp ‘saw through art’

    As usual, regards and thanks

  6. Ursula,…yes, the Author might have had “good intentions”, but since s/he makes a point of being aware of the consequences of what s/he writes, so ! am set to disbelieve hers/his “innocence”…
    + as the proverb goes… “the road to hell is paved with good intentions…”. When s/he says “alpha male artists” there is a word in front which is important — “out” –“…a lot of out alpha male artists…”. This a way for the Author to set his delivery in terms of conflict. i e. who’s “out” and who’s “in”.

    Art and art making is not a fashion show or a competition, though today people are obsessed with ‘novelty’, rather than ‘originality’ of art not that they are mutually exclusive…

    Also, we all come with our ‘intellectual luggage’, so to speak and our judgment is more or less colored by our personal and collective experience, which I pointed out in my first comment.
    When it comes to reading a text — in my view, there are no “perceptions” involved, but understanding of the meaning of it and how that meaning interacts / affects the reality of life: i.e. what kind of knowledge it conveys and in what ways this is done; the implications and inferences for the reader.
    Of course, on a personal level, I could very well ignore a piece of gossip in somebody’s text, but I do care to pay attention as to what end this is used in the text as a ploy. Also, I take it that the Author commands certain “authority” by his considerable presence on the blog and what s/he says matters.

    Re S.Sontag: I like reading her (“On photography”,1977 is particularly original in many ways) , but just as well not everything she says that is a provocative or challenging statement makes it automatically illuminating, however, it is beneficial, because it challenges some entrenched preconceptions and provokes the reader to think in more dept.

  7. What an excellent reply and thank you for it.

    Isn’t it funny but when I read the article I read ‘OUT’ as ‘OUR’ which I assume it is meant to read. That’s my punishment for being too much of a skim reader. When our is used the sentence reads differently. When out is read the sentence could be referring to homosexual artists who have outed themselves.. If this is so I guess that the term, alpha, as used in the article could be applied to those male artists who have the highest ranking in that category of artists.

    I assume that you read the out as being the leading male artists who are out in front in the reputation area.

    Words, like assumptions, are fascinating.

    I wonder if the author of the article does command a certain authority. I have never come away from reading the blog feeling this. But then my actual reading of the blog has been limited by my relatively short researching time in the city and I haven’t delved into the blogger’s archive of opinion pieces, if that is what they are. You appear to indicate that they are some what more than that or that they have an influential capacity.

    Best wishes again and looking forward to your reply.

  8. Ursula,

    I have only one more comment to add to what I said until now — it is the “little pedagogy” wisdom of Jacques Derrida, which I particularly cherish: “There is nothing outside the text. There is nothing outside its context”.

    Many thanks to you for sharing your thoughts.

    All best,


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