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Vietnamese Artist Tran Trong Vu -- Torn between Two Worlds

Vietnamese Artist Tran Trong Vu -- Torn between Two Worlds

Looking back at his homeland from Paris his cartoonlike images explore bureaucracy and entrepreneurial conformity in a burlesque of socialist realist style.

By Rashaan Meneses

In Vietnam, I wanted my own space but I could never have it. In Europe, I had a room with a key. I could lock the door and no one would enter.

Tran Trong Vu is a Vietnamese artist who is well acquainted with the myriad of paradoxes life presents. His artworks are embodiments of oppositional ideologies and aesthetics. On Thursday, February 12, he came to UCLA and talked about "What Can Happen When You Are a Vietnamese Artist," sharing slides and videos of his work in a presentation sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Vu gave an eloquent and intimately sincere talk. He was frank and open about the challenges he faced as an emerging artist in Vietnam and candidly discussed how the pressures of sticking to tradition and the emphasis on collectivity which were impressed upon him during his training years greatly shaped and affected the themes and ideas he deals with in his artwork today, now that he is living in Europe. He went through an incredible transformation when he moved from Vietnam to Europe, all of which is quite evident in his work.

According to Vu, "Vietnamese try to find a formula that will last across time and across fields." Much of the art aesthetic is centered and based on collectivism. There is no room for individuality or experimentation here. Tradition prevails and those who adhere to these standards are aptly rewarded.

"The more that I conformed, the more awards I won"

Vu attended the Hanoi University of Fine Arts from 1982 until 1987. While in school, he said that he never saw "instructors encourage individual developments" -- instead they insisted upon formulas. At that time, Vu diligently followed these standards and excelled as an art student, winning many awards and gaining approval and recognition from the Vietnamese art community. "The more that I conformed, the more awards I won and [I] became a favored student. It wasn't until I left Vietnam for Europe that I realized everything in Vietnam was left behind by the rest of the world."

In 1989, Vu was awarded a scholarship to continue his studies at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It is in Europe where Vu was confronted with a completely different perspective of viewing the self as an autonomous and private individual. The idea of possession was something altogether new for Vu.

"In Vietnam, I could say 'my country' easily and anything else didn't belong to me but rather to a 'we.' In Europe, I experienced a phenomenon where everyone would say 'my room,' 'my dog,' 'my car' -- everything was individually owned. In Vietnam, I wanted my own space but I could never have it. In Europe, I had a room with a key. I could lock the door and no one would enter."

The idea of space and individual identity was astounding to Vu and transformed not only the way he perceived himself and his place in the world but also dramatically changed his approach to and expression in art.

Studying and practicing his craft in Europe, Vu also came to the realization that the history and progression of art movements happened precisely because artists allowed themselves "to betray" everything they were initially taught and to experiment with form and content. Vu took this idea of "betrayal" and ran with it in his art. His pieces became more self-reflective and he abandoned the bucolic and sentimental portrayals of rural life in Vietnam that so many other colleagues of his were still depicting back in Vietnam. Instead, Vu ventured into exploring the ideas of identity and individuality. Once Vu's artwork changed and he took to individual expression and experimentation, he said, people back in Vietnam began to lose the respect they once had for him. He was no longer a prized artist back in his home country. Yet living in Europe as a foreigner had its consequences as well. Professor Nora Taylor, who helped to bring Vu's "Blue Memory" exhibit to Arizona State University, says: "Vu's position in the diaspora allows him to view his country critically but it is also a source of great anxiety. In-betweenness is not a desirable condition in a world that strives for individuality and personality."

A State of In-Betweeness

It is this anxiety and state of in-betweenness that defines and inspires Vu's art. His diasporic background allows him the ability to slip in and out of different perspectives, scrutinizing the ideas of identity and space with a critical and transnational eye. His current work is a combination of installations and paintings that are both liminal and subjective in their content and creation. At first glance, Vu's work appears crude and almost pop artish. His two recent installations, "Good Morning Vietnam" and "Blue Memory," basically consist of repetitive panels of Vietnamese faces and figures, which hang from ceilings. These figures are larger than life. Some of them have mouths gaping open. Others appear coquettish and shy and still others seem as if they are about to shout at the viewer. As Nora Taylor explains: "These figures represent anonymity and conformity in an increasingly global and transnational world. By hanging them in a space, the artist has placed them in limbo."

In "Good Morning Vietnam" the faces are supposed to be the image or the identity that is literally and figuratively 'captured' in photographs taken for passports and identity cards. They are the "selves" that are portrayed when one's image is captured by government officials who scrutinize and question our presence. Yet conversely, at the same time when a viewer looks at all of these faces staring back, there is a feeling of role reversal. As a viewer, it is as if these faces are scrutinizing you, especially because many of Vu's figures carry cameras or are even holding their cameras up as if they are about to take a picture. In many ways, the viewer may feel as if they've been transported and become themselves the stranger where they are now the objects of scrutiny. The colors (bold reds and yellows) and style Vu uses in portraying these people intentionally recalls the poster art of the socialist era in Vietnam.

Faces and figures are again repeated in "Blue Memory" but instead of depicting whole human figures, these people are cut off at the hip and the rest of the body becomes watery blue lines that evoke a sense of liquid murkiness. For Vu, the blue water lines are representative of memory and vagueness. Above the water are portrayals of what Vu calls the entrepreneurial Vietnamese male, which is a new role that has just emerged back in his home country. These men wear white shirts with black ties and seem to be the "epitome of conformity." "Blue Memory" has more than one hundred panels of these figures, each of them separate and painted on a soft clear plastic. With all of his work, Vu uses an oil-based paint solution that he makes himself.

Vu creates an interesting and dynamic relationship between the viewer and his artwork. The themes and issues he depicts are complex dialogues of national identity, diaspora and space. Understanding these issues and the journey Vu has taken put deeper meaning into his pieces. But instead of providing answers, what Vu manages to do is pose a series of open-ended questions and it is left to the viewer to respond and come to his or her own conclusions -- but only after fully taking in the breadth of Vu's work.

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Tran Trong Vu was born in Hanoi in 1964, the youngest son of Tran Dan, one of the best known dissident writers of the 1950s. He graduated first in his class at the Hanoi School of Fine Arts in 1987 and in 1989 won a scholarship to study painting at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He now lives and works in Paris. His most recent projects include "Good Morning Vietnam," a project of more than one hundred paintings on plastic, paper, and canvas, and "Blue Memory."

Center for Southeast Asian Studies