Open Academy: Encounters at the Culture Laboratory Hanoi
Professional eye: Hanoi Art Academy students at the video workshop (Photo: Aya Bach/Deutsche Welle)
31 December 2010
Electric guitars meet Vietnamese string instruments. The Year of Germany in Vietnam offered room for experimentation. Germans and Vietnamese collaborated at the Open Academy; a potentially difficult – but also enjoyable – undertaking. By Aya Bach
“I feel pretty alone in Vietnam,” sighs the young composer Kim Ngoc. It’s no wonder – she’s her country’s only avant-garde composer. “When I have a performance, there’s no one who can give it a qualified critique,” she relates during the rehearsal break at the Nha San Duc art studio. Today, there is an opportunity for dialogue; Michael Vorfeld, an experimental drummer from Berlin, and two Vietnamese peers have come to the workshop of the Open Academy with their electronic equipment and electric guitars.
The Nha San Duc is the right place for it. For ten years now it has been the meeting place of the independent art scene of Hanoi, surprisingly tolerated by the official cultural authorities that otherwise watch diligently over the doings of the arts people. Away from the major streets, hidden between crouched houses and surrounded by barking dogs, the Vietnamese-German quartet quickly develops its own sound; booming and droning and rocking, sometimes reaching the pain threshold. Elf-like Kim Ngoc, too, takes her traditional Vietnamese string instrument adamantly in hand.
The results of the rehearsal will be heard later at a concert at the Goethe-Institut Hanoi. The cultural institute is the organizer of the series of workshops with the programmatic title Open Academy, which unites artists of various disciplines from Germany and Vietnam. The academy stretches from Hanoi in the north to Hue in the middle to Ho Chi Minh City in the south and over a number of weeks. This makes it one of the largest events of the Year of Germany in Vietnam, which offers an extensive programme – including environmental conferences, dance, music and film series – to celebrate the resumption of diplomatic relations 35 years ago.
From state art to the independent sceneThis kind of support is highly welcomed among the artists of the independent scene. The field, which Kim Ngoc is a part of, is a tiny minority in Vietnam. “Unlike in Germany, there is hardly anyone here who works in experimental music,” she says. One of the causes, she believes, is the conservative training at the conservatories. “But, it’s also a chance to initiate something new and to break down barriers. It gives me special energy for my work and my life.”
She will need it, since the cultural policy landscape cannot be turned over very quickly. For decades, art in Vietnam was exclusively controlled by the state. The independent scene, for instance in the visual arts, has only been evolving since the 1990s. After the country’s long isolation, stimulus from outside is now desired – but cautiously.
One of the astonishing signs of things opening up is that the Open Academy is a guest with some workshops at the time-honoured Hanoi Art Academy. This is owed not least to curator Veronika Radulovic. The Berlin artist lived in Hanoi for twelve years and was a guest teacher for the DAAD at the Art Academy.
Something besides lacquer and oilPerformance, video, installations – all of these are not a part of the usual training, which, in the Confucian tradition, focuses on copying the honoured maters. As ever, lacquer and oil painting are the chief disciplines. And now, all of a sudden, workshop director Andreas Schmid enters with fluorescent lamps and coloured tape. The young artists are sceptical, but then get to work with enthusiasm.
Something like this is new in Vietnam, where every exhibition has to pass through the censors and there is no public cultural debate. Training at the Art Academy also remains within traditional strictures. The lacquer class, for example, produces works some of which look as if time stood still shortly after the founding of the academy in 1925, during French colonial times. Yet the students have great visions for the future. “I’d like most to be a famous painter in Vietnam, that my pictures would be shown overseas,” one of them says, “and that everyone in the world would be familiar with art from Vietnam. We all have the same dream.”
Many of the paintings produced would have no chance on the international art market. But, how can the artists judge it? Their country prevented outside contact for a long time, so it’s hardly possible for them to define their own location. That is one of the concerns of the Open Academy.
Clichés put rightThere’s no lack of curiosity about the rest of the world. Even a workshop with music by Richard Wagner offering an off fusion of opera, sculpture, performance and video has an audience. For days, the young Vietnamese students suffered along with Isolde, leapt cultural rifts and became familiar with the latest trends in performance.
Their hunger for international recognition is just as great and the Academy can at least satisfy it bit by bit, for instance in Maria Vedder’s workshop. The video medium is almost new for the students, but with artists’ trained eyes they produce street scenes, one of them a terrific slapstick of a woman trying to get on her bike and repeatedly failing because something snags or jams.
The results are striking and Vedder puts one cliché right that she brought along with her about the importance of copying in the Vietnamese education. “I thought that if someone copies well, they wouldn’t be able to make their own good pictures. I had to set this prejudice aside.” Ultimately even the musicians, who rehearsed to dog protests, find a surprisingly large audience. There are not enough seats for them all in the courtyard of the Goethe-Institut. One day, it seems, the loneliness of the avant-garde musicians in Hanoi may come to an end.
With kind permission of Deutsche Welle