Contemporary Vietnamese Arts and Culture
By Carol Dance
Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam performs À Ố Làng Phố at the Sydney Opera House June 12 to 15 and promises to be a mesmerising mix of circus, acrobatics, eclectic music, contemporary dance, and theatrical visual art. Reviews from around the world praise the circus. A dazzling array of aerial work, contortion and juggling; a spectacular blend of genres fusing physical theatre, dance and live music; a soundscape of traditional Vietnamese instruments mixed with hip-hop beats.
The Sydney Opera House Head of Contemporary Performance, Olivia Ansell says: “I am delighted to bring Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam’s unique physical theatre and circus production – which juxtaposes Vietnam’s rich traditional culture with Hanoi’s bustling metropolis – to the Opera House stage. Tuan Le’s À Ố Làng Phố is a dynamic and humorous spectacle, full of youthful joy and theatrical brilliance. Prepare to witness the transformation of a quiet hamlet into a modern and tumultuous city through a stunning mix of circus skills, acrobatics, live music and beat boxing.”
The piece starts off calm and collected as we are transported to peaceful villagers and as the story unfolds we voyage into the noisy and restless city – showcasing how Vietnam has changed rapidly as the pace of life has increased. The facts are impressive, if not scary!
The population of Vietnam was 50 million in 1975 at the end of the American War, 58 million in 1985 when I first visited, and now it is 97 million.
The once stridently communist country now has a stock market. Saigon is a huge commercial booming city. 23,000 Vietnamese come to Australia to study, many to get commerce degrees or an MBA. Vietnam is proving to be the hottest destination for both budget and luxury travelers as resorts are popping up all along the coast and in the mountainous regions. In 2018, Vietnam received 15.5 million international arrivals, up from 2.1 million in the year 2000.
Set in a small farming village, the performance eschews the extravagance of traditional circus with performers navigating an intricate set constructed entirely of bamboo and rattan. Woven through the production is a theatrical narrative on the gradual disappearance of farm life and the widening division between generations. In the absence of spoken language, a dazzling array of aerial work, contortion and juggling is performed against a soundscape of traditional Vietnamese instruments mixed with hip-hop beats to deliver a unique and dazzling blend of genres fusing physical theatre, dance and live music. Directed by Cirque du Soleil alumnus Tuan Le, and featuring a dynamic cast of 15 acrobats and five musicians.
Contemporary art has exploded in Vietnam probably because 40% of Vietnamese are under the age of 25. The work is not derivative of their past colonisers. Contemporary artist Ly Hoàng Ly is featured in this year’s Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery-Gallery of Modern Art (closed April 28). Ly Hoàng Ly is a multi-disciplinary artist working across poetry, painting, video, performance and installation. She studied painting in Vietnam, later earning a Masters of Fine Art in sculpture through the Arts Institute of Chicago. Ly’s installations highlight human emotions and our relationship to place and nature. Recurring motifs of boats, houses and water allow her to express these ideas around home and movement, the fragility of memory, and the importance of community and human connection.
Vietnam Eye, by Serenella Ciclitira, published 2018, is a comprehensive book on contemporary art in Vietnam today. Vietnam has developed rapidly in the last ten years, with a new generation of contemporary artists who balance cultural and social issues with a very contemporary outlook, and who bring awareness of international world trends to their artwork.
Tran Luong is a pioneer of performance art in Vietnam, but he also works in other media, including painting and installation. The Hanoi-based Tran is now highly regarded for his performance art experience. His work has been exhibited worldwide and his latest performative video work, Lập Lòe is part of the New York Guggenheim permanent collection. The work explores themes of history, politics, personal and collective memory and uses symbols such as the red scarf or rice to develop his personal narrative. Tran was a senior curator at the Singapore Biennale in 2013 and was responsible for selecting some of the best young artists from Vietnam to participate in the event, including Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011.
Vietnamese diaspora contribute greatly to the Vietnamese art, too. There are 4.5 million Vietnamese living outside the country, many of whom return to Vietnam permanently or for holidays or to visit family. There are 185,000 Vietnamese in Australia (2011 census). The most famous Australian-Vietnamese are Anh Do, television personality and author of the best seller The Happiest Refugee, and the chef Luke Nguyen whose television shows and restaurants have us giving up the traditional meat-and-two-veg for spring rolls and pho (Vietnamese soup).
The Colombo Plan initiative saw the emergence of progressive diasporic liaisons and mixed marriages as early as the 60s. As such, Australia is home to Kerry Nguyen-Long, author of Arts of Việt Nam: 1009-1945 (2013), acknowledged by Dr Ann Proctor as “the pre-eminent researcher writing in English on this subject” (2013). This beautiful book captures the phantasmagorical religious and spiritual arts of this nation, described by Professor Nora A Taylor (2013) as bringing us “a multicultural view of what is surely one of the least monolithic cultures in Asia”. Accomplished Australian-Vietnamese contemporary artist Mai Nguyen-Long, recently returned from fieldwork in Vietnam where she observed “an incredibly vibrant arts and culture scene that is challenging, diverse, energetic, and inspiring”.
Vietnamese Writing and Film
Most people, young and old, know the basic history of Vietnam’s long struggle against the Chinese, then the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans. How the West views Vietnam has been explored in the many films and books about the American War. Probably the most famous is The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s 1955 classic, read by most high school students in Australia. It’s the story of a war correspondent uncovering a US attempt to blame the Communists for a bombing in Saigon in 1943 in order to garner support for the War. In 2002 Australia’s Phillip Noyce made a multi-award-winning film of the novel, starring Michael Caine.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s current exhibition Artists Respond is the most comprehensive exhibition to examine the contemporary impact of the Vietnam War on American art. The catalogue states “It brings together nearly a hundred works by fifty-eight of the most visionary and provocative artists of the period. Galvanized by the moral urgency of the Vietnam War, these artists re-imagined the goals and uses of art, affecting developments in multiple movements and media: painting, sculpture, printmaking, performance, installation, documentary art, and conceptualism. This exhibition presents both well-known and rarely discussed works, and offers an expanded view of American art during the war.”
Many Westerners involved in the war find solace by returning to Vietnam, not as tourists, but to seek closure or to support the many veteran-run and other charities in aid of victims of the Agent Orange, the dioxin that remains in the soil and still causes birth deformities, cancers and other severe health issues.
There are dozens of American films about the American War in Vietnam: Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Green Berets, Deer Hunter, Odd Angry Shot, Good Morning, Vietnam. There have been few French films about the French War that ended in defeat in 1956, until now. This hole has been filled by To Ends of the World , a brutal exposition, dredging up France’s colonial past.
Perhaps the most famous writing by any Vietnamese from any time period are the many letters the nationalist Ho Chi Minh wrote to American Presidents begging the U.S. to support the Vietnamese independent movement. Many people now know of these letters pleading for support to rid his country of its French colonial rulers. You can read them online. Ho admired America. He even worked in New York and then in Boston in 1911. As a cook! Then he cooked up his revolution, won, and became known as Uncle Ho, revered by millions of Vietnamese and despised by much of the diaspora.
Australia has a long and complicated relationship with Vietnam but in 2017 we both signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Total two-way trade between Australia and Vietnam in 2017 was valued at $12.8 billion. Vietnam is Australia’s fifteenth largest trading partner, and Australia is Vietnam’s seventh largest trading partner. The Australian Government will provide an estimated $84.2 million in total aid to Vietnam in 2018-19. Alarmingly, Transparency International ranks Vietnam as the 117th most corrupt country as ranked by the perception of its residents, that’s 117 out of 180 countries. Australia ranks 13th.
The peaceful waters of Ha Long Bay beckon. The mountainous jungles of Sapa summon. The art of the young people astounds. Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam’s production of À Ố Làng Phố at the Sydney Opera House 12 to 15 June captures the mood of this beautiful modern country.