Portraits of Vietnamese in 21C 

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Still from “Bowls and chopsticks ‘1945’” (2011), installation art. © NSAF.

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —– 

Known as the Le Brothers Thanh-Hai, or Thanh-Hải as some of their friends call them, these twin brothers, Lê Ngọc Thanh and Lê Đức Hải, make quite a pair. They collaborate and thrive in union as the best twins can be. They talk loudly and make bold statements that could be deemed offensive to many. After a short conversation with them, one could possibly feel the ‘hate-them’ or ‘love-them’ vibe. But ultimately, their goal is to bring art to Huế people and beyond, and they are doing great at that. Their accomplishments dovetail their stories.

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A group exhibition at NSAF, 15 Lê Lợi, Huế. © NSAF.

Thanh-Hải’s passion for art is piercing nonporous surfaces. Instead of saving money to buy a car or build a big house, they pour it into their private art foundation in Huế. They are willing to sell the properties they have to maintain it. They work extremely hard without a complaint – mostly because they don’t have enough time to do what they love doing, let alone sitting around and complaining. Conversely, it is not in their personality to sit around and complain, that’s why they have more time doing things they like. Even before their graduation in 2000, they attracted attention of the artists in Huế and became well-known in Vietnam soon after that.

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Still from “Red” (2001), 3-channel video, 12 minutes. © NSAF.

Thanh and Hải have been abroad many times for their exhibitions and performances: Thailand, Singapore, France, Germany, etc. And they have learned valuable lessons. That is why it is not a surprise to see New Space Arts Foundation (NSAF) founded by them in 2008 doing so well. They have a residency program open to artists all over the world. Up to this moment, 81 artists have been in residence at NSAF.

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Artist residency at Lại Thế village, Phú Thượng (2.5km from Trường Tiền bridge). © NSAF.

So far, the foundation is funded by their family money and from sales of their art works. Laughing, Thanh-Hải said, “We would close down the foundation when we run out of money and our wives stop supporting our artist career anymore.” Are they joking? Read their responses below to judge for yourself how serious you think they are. During the interview, Thanh and Hải often talked at the same time. The answers that follow the questions, therefore, represent both of them.

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Still from “Into the sea” (2011), 3-channel video, 21 minutes. Collective work. Highlighted work at Singapore Biennale 2013. © NSAF.

What does it take for Vietnamese artists to be recognized outside Vietnam? 

Labor, art works. What is unfortunate about Vietnamese artists these days is that they depend on grants to make art. We have finished dozens of works without asking money from anyone. One does not necessarily need to have money to make art. We are making a 36-hour long video – an impossible thing, you may think. But we are doing it. We have more than 20 hours already. We work everyday. Our friends help us as well. The key is hard work, some days we record 60GB. So it is not just money. Sometimes money does not bring you art.

It is tough to be an artist because one has to work really hard. It takes time to build up. One cannot think that money is a must in making art. Art dies if you don’t make it. So you have to constantly work on it. Besides making a living, one must be able to create concepts and projects to go along. If an artist knows how to work, money is not that important.

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Still from “Dormitory bed ‘1945’” (1991), installation art. © NSAF.

How has the audience to New Space Arts changed over time since 2008? 

More and more people come. Huế people love art, but contemporary stuffs like performance, installation, video arts are not their favorites. So we weave in music, poetry and book nights. Any activity that brings about changes is included in our events, not just high art. We simply make sure the works are of high quality to support them.

What is your relation with the press like? 

In Vietnam, you often have to bribe the press for coverage in cases of events. We have not done that because we operate on family money and we cannot afford that. On the other hand, we have a group of journalists who like what we are doing. They write about us without asking for anything in return.

What is the relation with the government like?

Our exhibition space is provided by the government. Of course we need a permit for each exhibition. One time we didn’t get it because one painter titled their work “The Arab Spring.” Because of issues like this, as organizers, we have to do the checking to make sure the exhibition can go smoothly. Mutual understanding among human beings is limited. We have to act in a way that bridges the gap between the sides.

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Still from “The game” (2013), video and installation project, 3-channel video, 12 hours. © NSAF.

Many artists are complaining about the government. What do you think about that?

I think they buy trouble to themselves. Life is so wonderful. You just have to work hard and not sit around waiting for things to fall from the sky. You also need to know who you are. Vietnamese artists have a habit of complaining about being poor and lack of freedom. I think that is BS.

Do you think you are suppressed and without freedom to express yourself in Vietnam?

I think in many cases people use scandals to achieve fame, using politics to do art. The fact is politics is in the air we breathe. We live in the system and politics is embedded in our works. I don’t know about others, but I do whatever I like and everything is fine.

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Still from “The game” (2013), video and installation project, 3-channel video, 12 hours. © NSAF.

If you have a chance to go abroad again, what else do you want to study? 

We have studied enough. We just want to learn to fly an airplane in the US. We are 38 now. We have about 12 more years to make art. Then we retire.

Why the US? 

It is safer there. The number of student casualties is low.

Where do you want to go for a vacation? 


How difficult is it to be an independent artist in Vietnam? 

I think it is actually more comfortable here in Vietnam because the living cost is lower. But after all, art is a game where you have to be willing to take risk.

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Thanh (in grey) and Hải (in red).

What is your reception of artists of Vietnamese descent who live and work in Vietnam?

Honestly, they are American. They carry the Vietnamese blood line, but everything about them – from their dreams, their education, their thoughts – is American. They don’t breathe the Vietnamese air the way we do. They may understand Vietnamese culture, they may understand Vietnamese art, they are well-trained, their art works are of high quality. Yet, understanding is not a simple thing. They are completely different than us. They are not local.

Where do you want to see Vietnamese artists head to in the future?

Independence is the most crucial issue. An independent artist does not need to join any organization or group. If they understand who they are and where they are from, they don’t feel heavy. They just smile and go through life.


Find out more about Thanh-Hải and New Space Arts Foundation at: http://www.newspacearts.com/

The Vietnamese version of this article has been printed and published online by the Viễn Đông Daily News. Read my online Vietnamese version

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