Interview undertaken by Tran Duy Hung
Photos by Phan Dan
Artwork images courtesy of RMIT Vietnam
Graphics by Nguyen The An
Translated into Vietnamese by Dinh Vu Nhat Hong
Kindly credit VFCD 2020 when sharing the article
Please do not copy or repost without permission
This November, 30 works from the RMIT Collection of Vietnamese contemporary art will form the exhibition “No Rain Without Clouds” – part of the Vietnam Festival of Creativity & Design 2020. Join us and the show’s two curators for a chat around said collection, what to expect from the exhibition, and the role digital platforms might play in the safeguarding of cultural histories and heritage.
How well do you really know the places you think you know? A familiar environment can be taken for granted, but in certain situations what makes it special is easily discernible. On a day like today, for instance – it’s been raining since morning and hasn’t at all let up, prospects of a storm looming large – I’m at the Hanoi Campus of RMIT Vietnam University, and as I pass my time surrounded by large crowds of students and office workers, the presence of a group of artworks placed around the site is very much felt and appreciated.
At the reception area: bold textures of a Tran Van Thao piece greeting visitors and future enrollees; in the Student Services Centre: the humour of a Nguyen Manh Hung canvas; Phan Thao Nguyen’s paintings – critically exploring the idea of ‘belief’ – displayed in the Masters students area; a Dinh Cong Dat sculpture in the library; soft colours and abstract shapes in the Well-being rooms, and even a skeleton (in a work by Richard Streitmatter-Tran) in its natural habitat (the Medical Centre).
Owned by RMIT Vietnam, these works and others transform the University premises (in both Hanoi & HCMC) into a kind of art exhibition in itself (or something of a treasure hunt for those inclined), both blending with and adding an extra layer to the quotidian, providing both a touch of calmness to a busy campus, and the inspiration to notice, think, question, acquire knowledge, and be creative.
“Having artworks around definitely encourages expression.” – said Michal Teague, Associate Lecturer in the Design Studies department, RMIT Vietnam’s School of Communication & Design (SCD).
“I’ve just witnessed a group of students dancing in front of one of the artworks on the ground floor.” – added Dr. Emma Duester, Michal’s SCD colleague, who works as Lecturer in the Professional Communication department.
The two are co-curators of the exhibition No Rain Without Clouds, which features 30 works from RMIT’s Contemporary Vietnamese Art Collection. Taking place at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi, the show marks the first time works from the collection will appear together outside of RMIT’s campuses. Today, I’m here to interview Michal and Emma on their involvement both with the exhibition and the larger arts and cultural community of Vietnam.
Can you provide an overview of RMIT’s Vietnamese Contemporary Art Collection?
MICHAL TEAGUE (M): It was started in 2015 and currently includes upwards of 80 artworks located in many spots across our Hanoi & Saigon South campuses. The care of the collection is primarily with the RMIT Library, but there’s also a group of us – consisting of RMIT lecturers and one artist [Richard Streitmatter-Tran – all notes inside square-brackets have been added by the interviewer] – who form the Advisory Committee in order to look after and promote it. Professor Rick Bennett, now the Executive Dean (Academic & Students), when he was the Head of RMIT School of Communication & Design (SCD), was really instrumental in developing the collection and organising purchases. It’s a particularly good way for us to connect with and support Vietnam’s cultural and creative community.
Sometimes as an artist creates a work it might be sold – gone – and they never see it again; so I find that it’s always nice for the works to be seen in person, whether by the artists or by others.
EMMA DUESTER (E): I think having artworks around on campus has a subconscious impact on students, too. In our library students would often work right next to paintings and sculptures.
M: Also when you’re teaching you don’t want to always use examples from Western culture – even if that’s the environment we were raised in and are familiar with. We’ve thus been looking at other ways – whether through works in the RMIT Collection, or through field trips – to highlight how valuable artistic and cultural traditions are in Vietnam, including both heritage and contemporary practices.
On campus, not every piece of artwork can be seen by the general public, but anyone can visit the digital collection on the RMIT website to access information and images related to all of the works [including the exact room number of where each artwork is to be found]. Having it accessible digitally is something we’ve become really aware of, and it’s been particularly important since the start of Covid-19.
E: We’ve also been researching how arts and cultural organisations in Vietnam are digitising their collections, and that research has shown how important it is to have a digital platform.
30 pieces from the RMIT Collection will soon appear together in the exhibition ‘No Rain Without Clouds’ – why this title, what’s the implication of it?
M: As the project complements what’s happening elsewhere with the Vietnam Festival of Creativity & Design 2020 (VFCD 2020) – with many of the events revolving around the dynamics between heritage and modernity – we’re showing quite a few artworks wherein the artists explore the concepts of memory and cultural traditions, or make commentaries on urbanisation and the way things have been changing very fast.
“No rain without clouds” is a phrase that I came across, which resonates in the sense that without heritage – or the past – there would be no future, just as the rain needs to be ‘nurtured’ by the clouds.
It has a lot to do with preservation – not only in terms of preserving art, but also preserving a city for future generations. It’s the right time to talk about these, especially with the current pandemic – how do we refresh and restart after that?
Beside the main exhibition, you’re also holding a couple of other events and activities that will all link together in different ways within VFCD 2020. Can you provide more information on these?
E: There’s a talk on 14 November featuring various artists who take part in the show, which will look in detail at both the works and the general context of Vietnamese art and culture. Four days earlier at our Hanoi Campus a seminar and workshop event will take place that will be larger in scope. It aims at professional cultural practitioners – galleries, libraries, archives, museums – and gets them to discuss how to make the industry sustainable..
M: ..whether that’s audience building, how to develop an income stream, or digitise your collection and make it accessible to more people, there’s a whole range of ways we’ll explore. RMIT has been really active in terms of connecting other arts and cultural organisations, be it the Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism, UNESCO, the Women’s Museum – with the Museum in particular, this exhibition is just one of the different projects we’re working with them on.
E: The role of RMIT is to bring ideas and information about the arts and culture sector into education, and also providing local organisations with international contacts with a view towards collaboration and development.
And apparently there’s a Review Competition too?
E: Originally, what we wanted to do was to extend the existing dialogues between the artworks and our students – it’s now the case that the external public can also take part. The reviews can be submitted in whichever format they see fit – a creative text, a video, even a TikTok video! A jury board consisting of artists and members of the collection’s advisory board will then select the responses they think are the best; and there’s also a Facebook component where submissions can be voted for. The main aim is really to get people interested and raise awareness of the collection..
M: ..And to promote the idea that art isn’t an elitist pursuit only reserved only for those who are highly knowledgeable – but rather, it’s really for everyone to engage with.
E: Indeed, this idea ties in with what organisations and spaces are doing across Vietnam.
There was a mention just now of a virtual edition of the exhibition, can you elaborate on what it’ll be like?
M: It’s going to be accessible virtually on a platform called Kunstmatrix, which we felt a bit hesitant about initially as we’d never used it before. It turned out to be reasonably affordable, quite intuitive. That’s the great thing about living in 2020, there are so many technological options that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert who knows how to code. And this [points at a printed dossier] – it produces an exhibition catalogue with the click of a button. For viewers, it’ll also be very easy to use and navigate around its 3D space – when you click on each artwork full information on it will be provided, including virtual wall texts and detail view. There’s even a soundtrack for the show composed by our RMIT colleague/ multi-disciplinary artist Thierry Bernard-Gotteland [who takes part in another VFCD 2020 project called City Edge].
With Kunstmatrix we have a choice of about 20 spatial configurations. We try to make the experiences as similar as possible across the platforms, but they’ll still be slightly different, due to the nature of the Women’s Museum space [in Hanoi].
E: The fact that with the physical exhibition all 30 works will be there together in one room, means that they’ll speak to each other in a different way, compared to the virtual show. These are still two different experiences.
Like a number of your colleagues in the SCD, you both perform a duality of roles, as educators, and as practitioners – be it curator, researcher or designer. The aspects you’ve discussed earlier in this interview – both the role of technology and the role of preservation – seems to also relate to a research you’ve been doing together?
E: We’ve been researching how Vietnamese arts and cultural organisations are digitising their collections. The focus is on Matca and the Women’s Museum as the two case studies, but we’ve also done 20 interviews in Hanoi over the past few months, with art-spaces, museums, auction houses, other organisations and also individual artists.
M: Interestingly, the pandemic has sped up the changes: quite a few organisations have been much more active since in digitising their archives. Covid-19 is almost like a wake-up call.
Time is a factor, too, when these spaces were closed because of the pandemic the people managing them had more time at hand – to create a new version of their website, for instance.
M: Some organisations have gone back to recapture 10 years’ worth of programming and made this information available to access. If a person leaves the industry or relocates, all that knowledge can disappear with them.
E: We’ve spoken to a few people who’ve actively tried to create new archives on contemporary art. There’s also a lot of interest in the governmental sector, with organisations like VICAS or the National Archives Centre III, for example. Overall, we really want to highlight what’s happening locally in Vietnam, especially as a lot of people are talking about things on a global scale. A challenge that we’ve heard many mention – in making collections and archives more publicly accessible – are the lack of funding and other resources: both technological and human; but in other parts of the world this situation might be the same.
What are some of the plans that you have for the RMIT Collection?
M: Most of the works have been digitised, and the technology is now there to 3D-scan certain works and objects not yet digitally available.
E: One of our main aims is to raise awareness of the collection and the platforms that are there – for students, staff and the general public to know where each artwork is and how to access its site. We hope that this year’s virtual exhibition will help with that.
M: I’m really happy when I find out where the artworks are on campus, as there are sections where we don’t go very often. This area [where the interview was taking place], for instance, is normally for Masters students or for special training courses. Another plan is to incorporate the use of QR codes for the physical artworks, so that students can scan and get information in a more immediate manner…
E: …more interactive, and also more exciting!
MICHAL TEAGUE is an Associate Lecturer in Design Studies working to facilitate the recently launched Design Studies program at the Hanoi Campus. She was the Key Academic Contact in Hanoi for last year’s Vietnam Festival of Media and Design. For the past 10 years Michal has worked professionally as a transnational practitioner and educator in art, design and communication in the Middle East and Vietnam. Michal holds a Master of Art in Public Space from RMIT University Melbourne. Prior to becoming an educator, she ran a graphic design agency in Sydney, Australia for over 10 years. Her areas of research interest and creative praxis are social design, creative and cultural industries, urban spaces and transnational design pedagogy.
EMMA DUESTER is a Lecturer in Communication Studies. She joined RMIT Vietnam in 2019 and is currently teaching contextual courses in the School of Communication and Design. Emma is also leading a research team exploring the digitization of the art and culture sector in Hanoi, Vietnam. Emma received a PhD in Media and Communications from Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2017. She has also been Associate Lecturer at the University of Roehampton, the University of the Arts London and Goldsmiths, University of London. Emma’s research interests include the creative industries, the art and culture sector, digital technologies and transnational communication.
|Vietnam Festival of Creativity & Design|