Book Review: Vietnam Eye – Contemporary Vietnamese Art

Nguyen Dinh Vu artwork, featured in Vietnam Eye book, with men in suits painted on newsprint in acrylic paint with blue floral embellishment

Before I read Vietnam Eye, I didn’t really know or understand Vietnamese art. It wasn’t covered in my History of Art A-Level, or the Fine & Applied Arts section of my undergrad degree (both were unfairly weighted towards Western art, except for a token glance at Japanese woodblock prints), and I’d never knowingly learned about a Vietnamese art movement in galleries around the world.

However, the coffee table book Vietnam Eye (published by Skira) is a chance to understand contemporary Vietnamese artists, and the enduring themes they deal with. Many of the artists are graduates from the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, and their work now sits in galleries around the world. Here are some of my favourite discoveries from this new coffee table book.

Dinh Q Le, Vietnamese artist, crouches above his artwork: strips of photographs in layers on the floor of his studio.
Dinh Q Le at work in his studio. Credit: artasiapacific.com.

Dinh Q. Lê: Conceptual Vietnamese Art

Dinh Q. Lê’s Barricade (2014) immediately grabs my attention. It’s an installation of French-Vietnamese colonial furniture: desks, chairs, speakers, a microphone, all in a dark wooden finish, stacked haphazardly between two walls. Even in the pages of a book, it’s effective. The pile looks precariously balanced.

Some quick internet research reveals that Dinh Q. Lê is well-known in the international art world (yes, I feel naïve). He was one of eight Vietnamese artists profiled in a group show, Residual: Disrupted Choreographies, at Carré d’Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Nîmes, in 2014. The Mori Art Museum, in Tokyo, staged a major exhibition of his work, called Memory for Tomorrow, in 2015.

The entry for Dinh Q. Lê could perhaps have gone further to explore what Barricade involves: it’s a collaboration with French-Algerian rapper Hame (Mohamed Bourokba). A mixture of propaganda and Hame’s rapping filters through the speakers. There’s an interesting profile of Dinh Q. Lê on Art Asia Pacific, which mentions the historical connections to his work, and his documentary pieces.

He also collects second-hand photos, as I do, only he’s far more inventive in using them as source material for art. The Scroll of Thich Quang Duc and The Scroll of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (2013) are featured in Vietnam Eye, but it’s hard to tell what they represent. As another internet search explains, these are stretched iconic photos from the Vietnam War, printed onto film and woven into scrolls (a spin on the grass mat weaving techniques he learned as a child, before emigrating to the USA). You’ll have seen Thich Quang Duc before, but you won’t know the name: he was the monk who set himself on fire in Saigon, 1963, as a political protest. Malcolm Browne’s photo, The Burning Monk, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Nguyen Dinh Vu Paintings on Newspaper in Blue Acrylic Paint and Gold Decoration
A selection of Nguyen Dinh Vu’s paintings.

Nguyen Dinh Vu: My Favourite Artist from Vietnam Eye

If I had to pick one artist from the entire Vietnam Eye book, it would be Nguyen Dinh Vu. He paints chintzy-looking blue and white scenes, that could have come straight from vintage tea sets, onto newspaper. He drops black and white painted men into these scenes, with cardboard boxes on their heads and sharp suits on their bodies. It’s some kind of brilliant Magritte-slash-Pop-Art-slash-Banksy mash-up.

His work is available via Saatchi Art, under the name Vu Nguyen, where you can see more of the brushstrokes and raw application of acrylic paint than in the book (though personally I prefer the polished versions in Vietnam Eye, because they seem more other-worldly). Though the newsprint is unintelligible, it almost bleeds through in certain sections, making you wonder which pages he used.

Nguyen Dinh Vu’s artwork has appeared in group shows in Korea, Germany and Laos, as well as Vietnam.

Burnt wood artwork by Vietnamese artist Ngo Van Sac depicting man in sunglasses next to animals.
Land of Memory 2, by Ngo Van Sac, made by burning wood. Credit: Craig Thomas Gallery.

Ngo Van Sac: Exploiting Materials in Vietnamese Art

Wood, newspaper and metal all appear in Ngo Van Sac’s work, but he’s best known for literally burning images onto wood, to create striking portraits that cleverly exploit the wood grain. There’s something so hypnotic about his wood burning pieces – they say more than his mixed media work, which can feel too busy. He started working in this medium after being unhappy with his conventional paintings on wood panels. As he burned his work to destroy it, Ngo Van Sac realised the potential of the burning process itself.

The artist describes wood burning as ‘the human-like shape appearing on the wooden surface after it has been burned with fire, the contrast of the rusty iron plate, which deposits an engraving onto natural wood’. It reminded me of Cai Guo-Quiang’s Black Fireworks: Project for Hiroshima (2008), which used gunpowder, shown at the M Museum Leuven in Belgium.

Ngo Van Sac writes in Vietnam Eye about his interest in human storytelling through art: ‘Nothing is more interesting than telling stories about human relationships and nature, and doing so through the use of the natural materials.’ You can see plenty of his work at Craig Thomas Gallery, in Ho Chi Minh City, where he’s staged two solo exhibitions and several group shows. His more recent work includes wood burning pieces with colourful backgrounds and clothing, as well as large woodcuts overlaid with iron grills.

Nguyen Trong Minh painting of Vietnamese schoolgirl with red tie, saluting.
Nguyen Trong Minh makes dramatic political paintings. Credit: Skira/Vietnam Eye/the artist.

Other Great Artists in Vietnam Eye

  • Ha Tri Hieu’s surreal oil paintings are intriguing and quite childlike. He plays with proportion and form, particularly in the HTH Portrait series, seeing himself as a Picasso-like recurring figure in side-profile. He was a founding member of the Gang of Five, in Hanoi (the first art collective to gain public acclaim after Vietnam opened to the rest of the world in the 1980s).
  • Nguyen The Hung uses acrylic, ink and gold leaf to create intricate, illustrative paintings. Those featured in Vietnam Eye were made on Vietnamese Dó paper, with dominant colours including turquoise, jade green and teal. Many were shown in a solo exhibition, And Flowers Showered, in 2011.
  • Nguyen Trong Minh used to be a secondary school art teacher, but he quit when he realised art wasn’t a core part of the Vietnamese school curriculum. A graduate of Vietnam University of Fine Arts, he makes very political realist paintings about education, conformity and order – not to be sniffed at. His first solo exhibition was staged in Helsinki, Finland, in 2013.

What do you think of Vietnamese art? Do you have a favourite artist from this list? Tweet me with your verdict.

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