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Free of art or freedom of art: Nha San collective’s struggle for space in Vietnam

It was the artist Tran Luong and a red scarf. It does not take more to make the Vietnamese police raid the German cultural center in Hanoi. An interrupted installation in a space that is actually protected by diplomacy. I saw Tran Luong’s performance in full, uninterrupted, in Berlin, far away from the country he was from my interpretation commenting on by throwing a red scarf around, playing cheerfully with until the scarf tied his hands behind the back and he was unable to move. A video in the background of  more free floating red scarves that turn into weapons as they hit naked flesh and leave bloody lines.

Tran Luong belongs to the world’s famous contemporary installation and performance artists. He made it into big museums, as the Singapore National Museum of Art. But his legacy and impact goes far beyond international admiration from the artist community. He was a co-founder of the Nha San Studio, the origin of what is today an artist collective in Hanoi that has just celebrated Nha San’s 16th anniversary. 16 might not be a regular number for throwing a big party but the fact that Nha San is still alive is a reason to celebrate. It has been shut down countless times, changed homes, always looking for some space. Space as in a place to work but also space as freedom to work under the Vietnamese authoritarian government.

Today, Nha San can be found in the middle of the old quarter, in a backyard, hidden away a bit from the tourists passing outside. 24 Ly Quoc Su has turned into a creative space in Hanoi that is unique for Vietnam’s capital. Also it is unique as it is completely run by volunteers. Young people in their twenties who are willing to dedicate most of their time without being paid for it, they organize art exhibitions, workshops, guest talks. It is not all about freedom of expression here. At the moment, it is mostly a fight for art that unwillingly often turns into an action of political opposition as the space for contemporary art has been widely neglected under the rule of the communist party.

Art for art’s sake was declared an intellectual luxury that could not be afforded during the revolution and fight for national independence in the 1970es when all powers were needed to defeat France, the United States and China. After the success and the unification of what we know today as Vietnam, this notion did not change. Art was a tool for propaganda, beauty only allowed in order to make money by selling pictures of beautiful Vietnam to foreigners. Creativity did not find a space, not in education on a school level nor later on at the School for Fine Arts in Hanoi. Art is communist, traditional or not apparent in the Vietnamese Society. So Nha San is fighting and balancing a thin line when offering art education for schools and a room for artists to reach a public audience. Uyen, who is widely in charge of managing Nha San’s business, says that they found a way to work with the authorities by not working with them. Nha San won’t register as proper institution so that technically it cannot be shut down, only public activities will need permissions. Still, there is this worry in the back of everybody’s mind as they are aware that they are challenging the official definition of art.

With Vietnam’s opening in economic terms for the outside world, it cannot reject a flow of ideas next to the flow of goods and foreign direct investment. Uyen, graduate of King’s College London, is the best example. And the government does not have decided yet on how to react to young people raising questions on definitions, politics and demanding their space in society. Bloggers get arrested and threatened; other writers live widely undisturbed, yet with occasional phone calls from places. Critique of the government is omni-present in Vietnamese society but it only seems to get governmental attention when it claims space on the same level as politics. Not in everyday life, on the market and in the villages but on by-law governmental territory: newspapers, online magazines, academic writing on Vietnam’s history. What to do with the arts seems to be in constant negotiation and so Nha San has to live with constant closures and re-openings. For now, it is one of the few outposts out there that is demanding and getting space and therefore earns respect and support.

About the author: Julia Behrens (24) is a graduate in Southeast Asian Studies and Environmental Communication, currently based in Bangkok. She spent two years living in Northern Vietnam, partly working for a daily newspaper and a TV channel. In her Bachelor Thesis she wrote on critical art and literature and the question if Vietnam’s politics is opening up for critical ideas. During the research process she met Tran Luong in Berlin and was inspired by his art.