Cages within cages – art censorship in Vietnam

I usually report on art exhibitions around the Geelong region but this post is about an exhibition approximately 7000 km north west from here. The reason I feel compelled to post about this exhibition, in the motorbike metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is that although this work deserves to be seen, the Vietnamese government censored the exhibition.

I travelled to Vietnam earlier in the year and came across this exhibition at Sàn Art, an independent, non-profit, artist-run contemporary art gallery and reading room. When I visited, it was two days before the exhibition, Space/Limit by photographer Phan Quang, was due to open. A large bamboo cage was being installed over the entrance of the gallery and it was a hive of activity. Just as preparations for the exhibition neared completion, however, the gallery received news that only two of the nine artworks for public exhibition would be allowed to be shown.

Phan Quang - System
Phan Quang, ‘System’, 2011, archival pigment print mounted on aluminium, 100 x 170 cm. Image courtesy Sàn Art. This is image was the only photograph to receive exhibition approval from the Vietnamese government.
INstallation 9
Entrance to the gallery transformed by the bamboo cage structure. This was allowed to remain for the exhibition. Image courtesy Sàn Art.

Incredibly, at least from my Australian viewpoint, every gallery in Vietnam is required to obtain an approval licence for each exhibition from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The Ministry did not allow most of Quang’s works for exhibition, without any explanation.

So what was not allowed to be exhibited and why? The Space/Limit exhibition comprised large photographs printed on aluminium, and two installations. Quang has used the motif of the bamboo cage, a container widely used throughout Vietnam for housing and transporting poultry, to comment on the limitations of every day contemporary life in his country. In dramatic, sweeping tableaux, Quang’s carefully staged subjects are positioned inside giant bamboo cages: a man sits on the bonnet of his new car, perhaps imprisoned by the cage of consumerism; pupils study at their desks, presumably held captive by current pedagogy. In another image, a person become the cage himself, caught in his own body.

The artist juxtaposes this symbol of traditional rural life with imagery of modern living. The bamboo cage is open and spacious, yet it contains and limits. Are the limitations experienced from without or from within? The Sàn Art media release states:

Space/Limit is an exhibition concerned with the social habits, expectations and desires of contemporary society. How does popular media, cultural myth and custom, or ideas of class affect the way we live our lives? … What is the affect of living as part of a collective, a community, a nation? How can an individual maintain integrity within a community while seeking innovation beyond what is already practiced or believed?…”

Below are Quang’s works that were not allowed to be exhibited.

Phan Quang - Everlasting
Phan Quang, ‘Everlasting’, 2011, archival pigment print on aluminium, 100 x 170 cm, ed. 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang - Nouveau Riche
Phan Quang, ‘Nouveau Riche’, 2011, archival pigment print on aluminium, 100 x 150 cm, ed. 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang - TV Time
Phan Quang, ‘TV Time’, 2011, archival pigment print on aluminium, 100 x 150 cm, ed. 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang - ControlPhan Quang, ‘Control’, 2012, archival pigment print on aluminium, 100 x 150 cm, ed. 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang - 50 follow this direction
Phan Quang, ‘50 follow this direction’,, 2012, archival pigment print on aluminium, 42 x 180 cm, ed. 3 + 1 AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang - 50 follow that directionPhan Quang, ‘50 follow that direction’, 2012, archival pigment print on aluminium, 42 x 180 cm, ed. 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.

In the two panoramic photographs above, 50 men stand facing the sea in one while in the other photo 50 men stand in the opposite direction. These works reference a Vietnamese creation myth where 100 sons are born from the union between the fairy Âu Cơ and the dragon king Lạc Long Quân. The couple separate and 50 sons follow their mother to the mountain and the other 50 sons accompany their father to the sea. Here Quang suggests the myth confines – an individual imprisoned by the collective fate of a nation.

The following three works were not for public exhibition due to their strong themes and nudity (nudity is still taboo in Vietnam). In the provocatively titled, The Red Thread, a loudspeaker is placed on a red strip and covered by a bamboo cage. The loudspeaker is commonly found on street corners throughout Vietnam to broadcast, very loudly, public announcements from the government. Instead of people inside a cage, here Quang places what could be interpreted as a symbol of communist rhetoric. It too is limited, constrained, unable to free itself from the ‘red string of fate’.

Phan Quang - The Red Thread
Phan Quang, ‘The Red Thread’, 2012, archival pigment print mounted on aluminium, 70 x 75 cm, ed. 5 + 1AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang - Pupils
Phan Quang, ‘Pupils’, 2011, archival pigment print mounted on aluminium, 100 x 170 cm, ed. 5 + 1 AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang - The Disappointment
Phan Quang, ‘The Disappointment’, 2012, archival pigment print mounted on aluminium, 100 x 170 cm, ed. 5 + 1AP. Image courtesy Sàn Art.

Sàn Art responded to this censorship by completing the installation of the exhibition and documenting it photographically. Then they took down the restricted works and put them in storage just hours before the exhibition was due to open. “Not allowed to exhibit” signs were mounted in place of the photographs, quoting from the Ministry’s licence to the gallery.

Phan Quang Space Limit exhibition1Installation view of the exhibition before the works were taken down. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang Space Limit exhibition2
Installation view of the exhibition before the works were taken down. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Installation view Phan Quang San Art
Installation view of the exhibition before the works were taken down. Image courtesy Sàn Art.

On the opening night, viewers were confronted with NOT ALLOWED FOR EXHIBITION signs, the signs themselves serving as a kind of post modern art.

Arlette Quỳnh-Anh Trần, Assistant Curator at Sàn Art, explained that the gallery also set up an information table with photos of the installed exhibition. She said “We hope that by providing these documentary photos, the public can get a sense of how the show should have looked and experience Phan Quang’s works, even if indirectly.”

Phan Quang -Space Limit Opening1
Signs in place of Phan Quang’s photographs.
Phan Quang -Space Limit Opening2
Not allowed to exhibit signs, quoting directly from the Ministry’s licence.
Phan Quang -Space Limit Opening3
A photocopy of the licence and its translation were pinned to the door in Sàn Art. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang -Space Limit Opening4Installation view of the exhibition at the opening of Space/Limit. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan Quang -Space Limit opening5Installation view of the exhibition at the opening of Space/Limit. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan_Quang_bamboo_installationInstallation view of the exhibition at the opening of Space/Limit. Image courtesy Sàn Art.
Phan_Quang_bamboo_installation_3
Viewers physically experienced restriction at the opening of Space/Limit. Image courtesy Sàn Art.

The exhibition opened, despite the ‘limits’ set upon it. With the bamboo structure almost blocking the entry, the viewer’s experience of the gallery space is confined in much the same way, ironically, that the state restricted the exhibition.

Sàn Art was the most exciting and innovative gallery that I found throughout my travels in Vietnam and if you are travelling there, it is well worth seeking out. Although the political climate is challenging, it is a very active artist-run space. I learnt one of its founders is renowned Vietnamese artist Dinh Q Le whose extraordinary Erasure installation at Sherman Gallery in 2011 was made in response to the debates about refugees and asylum seekers in Australia. Sàn Art’s current curator is Zoe Butt who worked as Assistant Curator in Contemporary Asian Art at Queensland Art Gallery and assisted in the development of the successful Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.

Phan Quang - Space Limit Exhibition - San ArtPhan Quang at the opening of Space/Limit.

Phan Quang (b. 1976, Binh Dinh) currently lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. He studied Economics, graduating from University of Economics HCMC in 1999; subsequently working for various well-known photographers before starting his own commercial photographic studio ‘Stop & Go’ in 2004. Drawn to the power of photography as a medium that can both disturb and reflect ideas of truth, Phan Quang’s artistic practice today also encompasses sculpture, installation and video, often produced in close collaboration with local artisans and farmers in Bao Loc. His work was given solo feature at Galerie Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010, in addition to inclusion in recent group exhibitions hosted by the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco, USA and the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, Vietnam in 2012; the Institute Francais of Cambodia and Kumho Museum of Art, South Korea in 2011. (From the San Art website)

The exhibition concluded last week but I hope this post, in some small way, helps to introduce Quang’s brilliant photography to a wider audience.

Space/Limit by Phan Quang
28 Feb – 25 April 2013
San Art, 3 Mê Linh Street, Dist. Bình Thạnh
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
www.san-art.org
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4 thoughts on “Cages within cages – art censorship in Vietnam

  1. Thank you for posting this, and for letting me finally see the artworks what we couldn’t see ourselves at the exhibition. San Art is such a wonderful space and despite the hurdles thrown at Vietnamese artists by the government, the art scene is growing, and it’s so exciting to witness.

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