An article by Vân Đỗ
originally published on artandmarket

Do we need an art space? In a context like Vietnam where the infrastructure for contemporary art has always been limited, the answer is of course yes. But then, what do we look for in a space, and who could benefit from it? What dreams and hopes can a space uphold? These questions have been at the back of my mind for the past three years since I started becoming actively involved in the artistic landscape in Vietnam, both in Saigon and Hanoi, as a participant and as an observer.

Installation shot of ‘There’s an ant inside my glass of water’, a solo exhibition by Xuân Ha‭‬, curated by Châu Hoàng at Chaosdowntown, Saigon in 2018. Image courtesy of Chaosdowntown. 

In 2021, while working at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Saigon, which presented itself as the first purpose-built space for contemporary art in Vietnam, I was conducting a survey on the history of the art scene in Southern Vietnam. That was when I became intrigued with another space in town, which had ceased its operation, called Chaosdowntown, an artist collective/artist-run space/hostel co-founded by artists Xuân Hạ and Thanh (Nu) Mai, which was active from 2015 until 2017. Compared to The Factory, an art centre with carefully curated programmes and exhibitions, there was a stark difference in terms of Chaosdowntown’s experimental approach to programming and selection of artists; their active involvement with Saigonese subcultures; their strong attitude towards social injustice; and even the malleability of their architecture, which could remarkably shapeshift according to the founders’ innate preferences, at times even their mood swings.

“Why do you think you need an art space?” I asked Xuân Hạ a year after she moved back to her hometown in Đà Nẵng, a city in Central Vietnam, where she again opened an art space called A sông. She said that she wanted to be reaffirmed by the physical presence of other artists and to embrace the ethos of “learning by doing”. To her, a space means agency and community.

A mobile film screening organised by Nãi Cinema on the sidewalk of Huynh Thuc Khang Street, Street, District 1, Saigon in 2021. Photo by Van Do.   
Cover image of the catalogue of ‘The Bao Loc Project’, curated by Sue Hajdu and organised by a little blah blah and Atlantic Commodities Vietnam Ltd. (ACOM) in Bao Loc City, 180km from Saigon.  

On a different end of the spectrum, I am also inspired by various independent art projects that take place nomadically, moving from one place to another, mostly non-art venues, and assuming different forms each time. Such projects put more emphasis on the idea of site as opposed to space. I am reminded of a range of community-based projects by a little blah blah, an artist initiative in Saigon co-founded by artists Sue Hajdu, Nguyễn Như Huy and Motoko Uda that actively operated without a fixed space from 2005 to 2010. There are also various mobile screenings of experimental films organised by Nãi Cinema, founded by video artist Phạm Nguyễn Anh Tú; or sporadic DIYstyle exhibitions featuring emerging artists by ‘Đường Chạy’, a project co-initiated by Saigonese artists Vicky Đỗ and Phan Anh. Another notable project of the same kind is ‘Skylines with Flying People 4’, curated by a Hanoi-based performance artist group, Phụ Lục, or The Appendix Group, in which the curators rented a range of storage units to put their selected artworks on display. All of these projects stretched their arms to venues such as a bar, a cafe, a farm, a storage facility or even on the street, utilising the choice of locations as a strategy to question and further expand what is considered art and who gets to exhibit art. The situations each project creates or the specificity of a site that it responds to become the space for experimentation, contemplation and encounters.

A year later in 2022, I found myself working at an artist-driven space in Hanoi called Á Space for Experimental Arts. This came after a few months of tirelessly initiating experimental projects that took place either online or at a range of different places and locales. Situated in artist Tuấn Mami’s private home on the fringe of Hanoi, Á Space refrains from constantly putting on shows, while acting both as an activator and a champion of experimental and emerging practices. With the freedom I am generously given to shape this space and its programming, I am able to materialise this interplay between site and space.

A structure designed by Thao Nguyên Phan in response to Đie‬m Phùng Th‮i‬’s letter system, produced for a group exhibition ‘Within / Between / Beneath / Upon’ at The Factory in 2021, re-presented in an open studio ‘Tò he learns how to swim’ organised by Te Ret in Binh Quoi, Saigon in 2021. Photo by Van Do.
Image of a private critique session with artist Pha‬m Hà Ninh at Á Space last April, 2022. Photo by Hai Le. 

Recently, long-standing art spaces in Hanoi such as the Centre for Assistance & Development of Movie Talents (TPD) and L’Espace were replaced by high-rise buildings one after another, and the question of the necessity of space for the arts continues to be urgent as it has always been. This time for me though, the question of what a space could mean began to feel strangely personal. It started to dawn on me that, while the fragility will still run deep in the lives of many art spaces in Vietnam, what I do and will continue to care about is the specific community of artists and art practitioners. For them and because of them, a space is needed. It is, thus, the longevity of their practices that I believe in, and I am stimulated to seek different ways of engaging and learning with them. I endeavour to nurture and live by the values passed on to me: their capacity to question the conventional and to propose alternatives, their earnest consideration of context, and their genuine care for past and future generations. It is not an easy path to take, but I will humbly take on this task.

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