MODERN ART IN VIETNAM: MODERN ABSTRACT ARTISTS, PROPAGANDA, GRAFFITI AND VIETNAM WAR ART

MODERN ART IN VIETNAM

Art is taken very seriously in Vietnam. This can be attributed to Vietnam’s ancient traditions, the infusion of the French love for art, and the artistic inclination of the Vietnamese people. Works by Vietnamese artists were very fashionable in the 1990s among foreign buyers who paid thousands of dollars for painting and sculptors by Vietnamese artists. One collector told Time that Vietnamese art "is a wonderful combination of the mystery of Eastern art and the familiarity of Western Art."

The Vietnamese have been influenced by both Asian and Western traditions. Old Vietnamese art has been influenced by the Chinese, Khmers and Chams. There are also examples of Chinese, Khmer and Cham art in Vietnam.

The history of modern Vietnamese art began with the opening of French-established ecole des Beaux-Art de Indochine in Hanoi. Vietnamese art has experienced a rebirth since Vietnam became liberalized in the 1980. In pre-reform days, painters had to rely on state-supplied supplies such as East European paint that dried up in their tubes and canvas made from jute paper.

Since the economic reforms in the 1980s, the art scene in Vietnam has opened up significantly. Artists feel freer about expressing themselves and lots of art galleries have opened in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The independent art scene in Hanoi in the early 2000s was centered around the Stilt House art gallery and performance art space and the Contemporary Art Center. In Saigon the scene there at that time was centered around the Blue Space Contemporary Art Center and the Small Stage Theater Company.

Vietnamese Modern Art Boom

AFP reported: "Vietnamese visual art, influenced by ancient Chinese and modern French styles, awoke in the 1990s from a long slumber during which the communist regime allowed only socialist realism, art for political purposes. As Vietnam's "doi moi" (renewal) reforms kicked in and the country reopened its doors to the outside world, a wave of painters emerged to the delight of art lovers who hailed the works as both fresh and uniquely Vietnamese. The vibrant and abstract landscapes of Le Thiet Cuong, Thanh Bien's dreamlike depictions of women in traditional ao dai dresses, and the Cubist-influenced lacquer works of Thanh Chuong all earned praise from foreign collectors. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 10, 2006 //\\]

"In 1995, a canvas by Do Quang Em sold for more than 50,000 dollars at Hong Kong's Galerie La Vong, one of a number of galleries devoted to Vietnamese art that sprang up around the Asian region. The commercial success of Em, whose naturalistic still-lives are said to recall the old Dutch masters, was the spark that led collectors and critics to take the movement seriously, say some experts. It showed that "Vietnamese art is unique and different from that of other Asian countries", says Shirley Hui of Galerie La Vong. "It combines local culture and traditions, the French legacy and ancient Chinese philosophy." //\\

"Many Vietnamese artists have continued to explore new creative avenues, dabbling in new styles, motifs and media -- but for others the overnight success has amounted to a creative kiss of death, say critics. "We have some great artists who are doing well and don't produce too much," says Hui. "But a number of others become commercial and then just keep copying their own work. They will ruin their future in the market." //\\

Censorship and Repression of Art in Vietnam

In 2006, Kate McGeown of the BBC reported: "When Vietnamese painter Tran Luong tried to take a group of students to China last year, his aim was to find artistic inspiration. Instead he found censorship, when the culture police confiscated his materials and refused to let him leave Vietnam. He is not the only contemporary artist or writer to fall foul of the ruling Communist Party's strictures. [Source: Kate McGeown, BBC News, December 1, 2006 /~/]

Performance artist Dao Anh Khanh has had several shows cancelled, while prominent young writer Do Hoang Dieu found her work was greeted by a storm of criticism. None of the three has produced anything overtly political, but their portrayal of subjects outside the traditional themes of love for family and nation was enough for the authorities to clamp down on them for being potentially subversive. Franz Xaver Augustin, the director of Hanoi's Goethe Institut, said that while Vietnam was undoubtedly changing in terms of its economy and global outreach, changes in politics and culture were happening at a much slower pace. "In Eastern Europe the art scene was the backbone of the movement to topple the old regime, but that's not the case here," he said. "There are very few artists who are really dissidents, and even then they are extremely cautious about what they do." In fact, many of Hanoi's contemporary artists and writers feel that Vietnam is less advanced in terms of artistic freedom than neighbouring communist China. "An artist in China can have a different view about a leader like Mao, and still their work will be accepted," said Dao Anh Khanh. "You couldn't do that here with [Vietnamese hero] Ho Chi Minh." "China is far more open than Vietnam," added Tran Luong. "We can't compare with them." /~/

"In many ways, though, the government lets its citizens have a fair amount of freedom. The media is still tightly censored, but life for Vietnamese people - apart from the country's few acknowledged dissidents - is not noticeably more restricted than in other South East Asian nations. That is why many of those who write, draw and perform in the country are at a loss to explain why the work they do is considered so dangerous. "The authorities never told me why they stopped me going to China," said Tran Luong. "I think they were just trying to say they were in control." "I never expected that my work would be so controversial," added Do Hoang Dieu, who writes mainly about the legacies of Vietnamese history. "My major theme is that this country is still living under the shadow of the past," she said. "But I'm not writing stories to raise a particular issue." Dao Anh Khanh should know better than most people what the ruling party fears from such forms of contemporary art and literature. Before becoming a performance artist, he spent 18 years in the police force - most of which he served in the cultural police. "We had to monitor artists and make them stick to strict guidelines," he said. "I felt nervous because I didn't know what was wrong with what I saw. I don't think the authorities did either. Maybe they're just scared of anything being different." /~/

Vietnam remains a very conservative country, and this is reflected in its art. "To criticise anything that's happening here is not seen as good behaviour," said Mr Augustin. "It's seen almost as a betrayal of your country." Most writers therefore stick to upbeat works about Vietnamese life, while artists produce traditional images of happy families, agricultural scenes or paintings depicting nature and beauty. Another popular form of art, at least as far as the government is concerned, is the production of propaganda posters. The amount of government support given to people engaged in such activities is noticeably greater than that given to contemporary artists. But, as in many other areas of Vietnamese life, the situation is slowly changing. Artists who left the country a few decades ago, because of the cultural restrictions, are now coming back, and according to Mr Augustin there is a new generation of young Vietnamese artists eager to break new boundaries. Do Hoang Dieu acknowledges that even though her work has caused controversy, it would have been far worse if she had written her stories a few decades ago. "If my writing had been published 10 or 20 years ago, I wouldn't have the freedom to remain here in Hanoi," she said. /~/

"Even Tran Luong, still angry about the restrictions put on him last year, has started to work with the government on a new contemporary art project opening soon in Hanoi. Meanwhile, a large international exhibition called Saigon Open City has just begun in Ho Chi Minh City, to promote awareness of contemporary work. As Dao Anh Khanh says, there is certainly a thirst for new forms of artistic impression in Vietnam, if the government will open up enough to let such art forms exist. "I don't need to advertise what I do - people just tell each other and I get plenty of people coming anyway," he said of his live performance shows. "Everyone in Vietnam is hungry for something new." /~/

Money and Fakes and Vietnam's Painters

AFP reported: "A decade after modern Vietnamese painting made a splash on the world scene, critics and galleries say rampant commercialisation and a glut of cheap copies are threatening the young art movement. The original works of Vietnam's best-known artists such as are fetching small fortunes in Hanoi, Hong Kong and Singapore. But for each authentic work, hundreds of reproductions are being churned out by craftsmen who have almost perfected a centuries-old Asian tradition of faithfully copying their masters. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 10, 2006 //\\]

"Some of Vietnam's top artists themselves have added to the problem by mass-producing works that originally won them critical acclaim, leading to a creative stagnation and drop in art prices, say some galleries. "Many painters turned to the commercial production of their work solely for the marketplace and managed to make a good living doing this," says Suzanne Lecht, director at Art Vietnam, one of the main galleries in Hanoi. "Sometimes the influence of money weighs more heavily than the desire to produce a singular work of art." //\\

"Today the tourist areas of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City abound with hundreds of galleries that mostly specialise in detailed reproductions of famous Western artists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Vincent Van Gogh to Andy Warhol. Equally popular, and some say equally kitsch, are the Vietnamese paintings that depict a romanticised vision of a land of lotus flowers, conical hats and flooded rice paddies, of water buffalo and colorful ethnic minority markets. //\\

"Some top-end galleries sell original masters, typically for 3,000-5,000 dollars apiece -- but for each original artwork, a gallery down the street will likely sell a cheap imitation, leaving many potential buyers baffled. For those not intimately familiar with what's real and what's not, the Vietnamese art market can be a minefield. "Many people are frightened of buying without being sure that it is an original," says Art Vietnam's Lecht. "There is no governmental body that can provide a certificate of authenticity." Despite the plagiarism and the heavy hand of state censorship -- Vietnamese artists still need state permits to mount exhibitions -- not all is gloomy. A new generation of more edgy artists is emerging in Hanoi, and increasingly in the bustling southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City, eager to adapt their styles to depict the rapidly changing society around them. //\\

Contemporary Painters

Bui Xuan Phai is one of Vietnam’s most highly-regarded painters. He produces realistic paintings during his long prolific career. His works sold for around $100 in the early 1990s but now they sell for thousands of dollars. One South Korean collector paid $36,000 for one of his paintings. He died in 1988.

Highly-regarded Vietnamese painters include Le Bein, trained as an architect and known for his abstract renderings of house interiors; Lee Thiet Cuonh, a minimalist painters whose works have sold for $40,000; Tran Luong, famous for his underwater scenes; Dang Xuan producer of lovely Matisse-like works; Tran Luu Hua, a European-style abstract painter; and Dinh Y Nhi, known for her dark portrayals of women.

Nguyen Tu Nghiem renders eastern images such as pagodas, villages and Chinese astrology symbols in Western-painting styles. "When I paint, I am not concerned about national character or dignity," he told Time. "My soul is Vietnamese."

Highly-regarded modern artist include Dao Anh Khanh, a painnter and performance artist form Hanoi; Tran Luong, a artist and entrepreneur; Nguyen Thi Monh, an actor and playwright who plays a leading roll in promoting the arts in Ho Chi Minh City. Some of these artist are still watched by the secret police.

Vietnam also has some great copycat artists. They produce copies of works by Renoir and Van Gogh and Monet primarily for Vietnam nouveau riche, as well as for some foreign buyers. In the early 2000s there was a large studio with six artists who churned out 400 works a year and charged about $50 per square meter. Ngo Dong, a former Viet Cong soldiers and sign painter, makes a good living painting exquisite copies of masterpieces by Monet, van Gogh, Manet and other artists.

New Generation of Vietnamese Modern Artists

AFP reported: "The surrealist works of one rising star, Hanoi's Nguyen Manh Hung, touch on the country's bloody history without being overtly political, using images such as military jets pulling carts filled with rice stalks. Another newcomer creating a buzz is 32-year-old painter and video artist Hoang Duong Cam, whose bold and vibrant exhibition "Filename.disan" (heritage) has been shown at Ho Chi Minh City's avant-garde Galerie Quynh. Described as a comment on technology and culture, and the blurring of East and West, the abstract works mix traditional and modern images, such as the "ao dai girl" and modern bras, under layers of bold color. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 10, 2006 //\\]

"When I was at university, we were supposed to paint buffalo, ethnic minority people and ao dai girls to get high marks," says Cam. "As for art movements, we were taught only French impressionism and socialist realism. "My generation had little access to information for a long time. Now young artists look on the Internet or ask foreign friends to send art magazines to discover what is happening abroad." In his works, Cam explains, he tries to depict "the Vietnam of today -- between tradition and consumer society". Cam, who previoulsy made ends meet as a graphic designer, says proudly, "I am at last a full-time artist. But he has sympathy for those who primarily paint to pay the bills. "There are many who have to earn their living another way."

Abstract Painter Tran Nhat Thang

Abstract painter Tran Nhat Thang thrives on defying borders with his art. Cam Giang wrote in Viet Nam News, "Thang does not design or decorate houses, but give him a blank sheet of A4 paper and ask him to draw freely, he will definitely draw beyond its borders. He is an artist, a painter who loves to work with over-sized toile as his canvas. Among the crowd, Thang is easy to recognise: he has a pony-tail, big eyes, and a collection of tinkling silver bracelets on his wrist. He is known as a collector of ancient motorbikes; a follower of Indian philosopher Osho; and a faithful disciple of abstractionism. [Source: Cam Giang, Viet Nam news, March 22, 2009 \^/]

"Thang’s latest exhibition included 39 over-sized paintings (the biggest was at least 10 square meters). However, the size is not what left the most impression. Mostly in black and white, only a few dotted with red and brown, the paintings looked as if they had been created with raindrops of black ink from out of nowhere. The ink spots were extremely lively, as if they were still spraying fiercely into the air, extending even much further beyond the edges of the paintings. A feeling of freedom invaded my soul, and a question was provoked. "Did everything come together with the intent of the artist, or was it all by accident?" \^/

"I drew that painting when my brush was out of ink," Thang grins while explaining how he created one of the works I like best among his 39 paintings. I found the lines in this piece very ethereal, for it looks as if a waft of grey smoke has just passed by. Contemplation of Thang’s black-and-white paintings may lead to the feeling of travelling to a supernatural region, but to learn about the toile he uses to create his art leads one to the ordinary: he uses huge brushes, bamboo brooms and even feather dusters. According to Thang, anything can be a tool, as long as it fits well in his hands. "I think the size of the tool or the brushes is not important. What does matter are your ideas," Thang says. \^/

"Sometimes, Thang confides, he has no ideas and no inspiration. He even stopped creating art for several years because he couldn’t find them. Fortunately the ideas came back; Thang has had eight solo exhibitions, and is currently working with a sense of freedom. "It has actually been a long process. In my first exhibition, I remember I used most of the colors I had. But the more I painted, the less colors I used and the less complicated the layout became. The simplicity in my paintings now is what I like best," Thang reveals. \^/

"As a graduate of Hanoi’s Fine Arts University in 1996, Thang immediately shocked the public with his first abstract painting exhibition, which he shared with an Australian artist. Apart from the huge sizes, his paintings used strange materials, which included tatters, paper and fabric. "I threw everything I had into my paintings," Thang says. After more than 30 exhibitions abroad, it was not until Thang read the works of Indian philosopher Osho that his paintings became simpler in the use of colors and materials. It was these paintings that helped Thang be selected as one of the top 30 finalists for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize in Hong Kong and Singapore. To Thang, his paintings do not follow the rules of reason and experience. \^/

"Well-known artist Le Thiet Cuong once remarked, "Thang only paints his feelings, his heart, his soul – he scrutinises his inner-self to this effect. Such things cannot be expressed in any other way but abstraction." "My fondness for abstractionism was inspired by a teacher at Hanoi’s Fine Arts University. However, it took me 13 years to thoroughly understand abstractionism. Many of my viewers still refuse what they see." Thang says that it’s not common for an artist to earn his living with abstract paintings. Many people only like paintings they can understand, while abstractionism is difficult to capture. Luckily Thang successfully sold some of his works. In Thang’s exhibition "Alone," 11 out of the event’s 20 paintings sold. However, none of them were bought by a Vietnamese. \^/

Propaganda Art in Vietnam

In 2001, Associated Press reported: "With modern Vietnamese art making such a splash, it's no wonder that Luong Anh Dung's pieces are being displayed in some of the best spots in the city. What is surprising, though, is his artistic specialty: propaganda. Little more than a curiosity elsewhere in the post-Cold War world, propaganda paintings remain alive and well in Vietnam, one of the world's few remaining Communist outposts. Part of a dwindling club that counts Cuba, North Korea, Laos and China as members, Vietnam has staunchly proclaimed its devotion to socialist ideals. Propaganda signs trumpeting government policy have been elevated to a specialized art form that is taught at art schools around the country. Trained at Hanoi Industrial Art College, Dung, 53, has been painting government-sponsored propaganda since 1968. In his pictures, workers in hard hats, soldiers in uniforms and bespectacled intellectuals alike stride arm and arm into a dazzling future, as a modern cityscape rises behind them. [Source: Associated Press, January 31, 2001 <<<<]

"Of course, the idealized utopia that Dung creates comes with government slogans emblazoned below: —"Firmly advance toward socialism.'' —"Strongly promote industrialization and modernization for the goal of a strong nation, prosperous people and democratic society.'' —"Long live the glorious Communist Party of Vietnam.'' Its messages are rhetorical, the style rigidly formulaic, but the bright colors and simple forms are reminiscent of American pop art. For Dung, one of a handful of artists who create original propaganda pieces, inspiration comes from his faith in the system. Even as other colleagues cash in on the newfound popularity of contemporary Vietnamese art, Dung feels he has a greater calling. "I believe in the socialist ideals. If I didn't, I could not create my paintings,'' he says. "I don't make much money but I have enjoyed respect.'' <<<<

"In Hanoi, the government reserves the most prominent spots in town — around central Hoan Kiem Lake, in the Old Quarter, near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum — for propaganda pieces. Dung's works are meticulously transferred by other painters onto thousands of signs and billboards around the country. Canvases are used over and over until they are threadbare, repainted with multiple scenes and messages. Most last about six months in the tropical heat and humidity. Government policies are also relayed through state-controlled media and in daily reports over loudspeakers installed in urban areas. <<<<

"Before 1975, the focus of propaganda was to encourage people to join the war effort, says Hoang Sinh, 70, an artist who has been painting since 1960. After the Vietnam War ended and the country was reunified, the Vietnamese worked "night and day,'' he says, to push messages about rebuilding a nation. Now officially retired, Sinh continues to paint. "I don't have to paint anymore, but I love it,'' he says. Still, Sinh and his colleagues are not unmindful of the rapidly changing world around them. Globalization has made inroads here. The propaganda posters that once claimed the public's undivided attention now must compete with neon signs and flashy billboards from Sony and Canon, Coca-Cola and Xerox. <<<<

"Propaganda painting itself, taught as part of the applied graphic arts programs at fine arts schools, is now billed as propaganda and advertisement painting, Le Huy Van, deputy director of Hanoi Industrial Art College, says. "There is huge interest in graphic arts, because most of the fourth-year students already have job offers,'' Van says. But most of the jobs rest on their abilities to advertise products, not policies. Times are getting tough, and competition is fierce, acknowledges Dung. "Honestly, those in politics or government look carefully at propaganda, but ordinary people pay little attention,'' he says. Asked whether he sees long-term security in painting government propaganda, he shrugs philosophically and says, "In the long run, I don't know what changes in society there will be, but I remain an artist.'' And if Dung cannot be a government artist, there is clearly a future as a private artist. Hundreds of visitors coming through his small gallery have proved there is a market for propaganda art. His original works, which range from $10 to $50 apiece, are especially popular with customers from the United States, Australia and Europe. "I'm not sure why they like them so much; perhaps because they don't have this in their country,'' Dung says. "They are very curious.'' <<<<

Graffiti’s Art in Vietnam

Thu Huong wrote in Viet Nam News, "Shortly after crossing Chuong Duong Bridge over the Red River into Hanoi one is suddenly struck by the mass of spray-printed images on the uprights of the overpass. These murals are nothing more than graffiti – the Western street art of the hip-hop urban youth. As an art form, graffiti evolved in the West but has since spread across the world. Just over two years ago, it appeared in Viet Nam for the first time on the walls of Yen Phu, the narrow dyke running along the eastern corner of West Lake. [Source: Thu Huong, Viet Nam News, December 18, 2006 \\\\]

"The first six members of our crew chose Yen Phu’s walls as the first place to practice writing our tags (signatures) with marker pens or spray paint. And those first paintings cost us VND200,000 in fines," recalled Nguyen Hoai Linh, a 24-year-old student at the Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts. He is one of the country’s pioneering graffiti artists and leader of Street Jockey, the earliest and most famous Vietnamese graffiti crew.Linh’s love of "street art" was kindled three years ago when he saw an American movie depicting graffiti on public walls and subway trains. \\\\

"I searched on the Internet for more information. By the time I found out what it was, shortly after our first ‘incident’, I realised that it wasn’t a hobby any more, it had become a passion," says Linh. Like Linh, many hip-hop adoring teenagers in the country have taken enthusiastically to the art of drawing graffiti. Inspired by effervescent rap music and break-dancing, graffiti has rapidly gained a foothold in Viet Nam that is impossible to ignore. Tags are everywhere, no hard surface is safe: wall, trees, benches, hats, shoes, clothes – even motorbikes – are all fair game. \\\\

Graffiti art has been likened to mural-painting. Undoubtedly patience and great skill are required. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that defacing public property is illegal and for many, unacceptable. But such is the enthusiasm of its practitioners that the police are kept busy erasing the unsightly scrawls. And those unlucky enough to be caught in the act, face heavy fines. Which is why many graffiti artists work at night in the dark to avoid detection. But that has done nothing to improve their image, and many consider them vandals and hoodlums, or at best, idlers with nothing better to do with their time. \\\\

Luckily, the intrinsic beauty of the colorful and complex designs is beginning to be recognised, and the work of graffiti crews all over the country, such as Hanoi’s Street Jockey and Ho Chi Minh City’s B Crew, are finally being rewarded. And many multinational corporations and organizations like the British Council or Yamaha Motor Viet Nam are using graffiti artists in their advertising campaigns. \\\\

A further outlet for artistic expression has come from annual graffiti talent competitions. In addition, cultural centers such as the Youth Cultural House in Hai Ba Trung District and the Friendship Cultural Palace have made areas such as playgrounds available for graffiti crews to work. "It is only a matter of time before hip-hop graffiti artists are being compared to the great artists of the world," said Bui Le Dieu Linh, an 11th grade student at the Marie Curie High School, and a member of Street Crew. "I think graffiti art is one of the most intricate, creative, and impressive forms of art, and it is becoming more and more popular each day." \\\\

American Vietnam War Art

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, "As the Vietnam war eviscerated Southeast Asia, it also tunneled into the American psyche like a devouring worm and made the country crazy with pain. The war, though not the craziness, ended in 1975. To a generation of young Americans it is ancient history, as distant as World War II was to their parents. For some, like Nancy Spero and Martha Rosler, the reponse was intense and sustained. The explosive calligraphic paintings in Ms. Spero's "War Series" (1966-70) are like notes jotted from nightmares. Helicopters swarm like stinging insects. Mushroom clouds sprout club-shaped heads and genitals, linking Vietnam to Hiroshima. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, December 9, 2005 +++]

"Ms. Rosler, a generation younger than Ms. Spero, also developed a serial form of protest art in collages titled "Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful" (1967-72). She made each from magazine photographs of model home interiors onto which she pasted news images of Vietnam combat. Wounded Vietnamese civilians hobble through suburban living rooms. Marines crouch in spotless kitchens. Picture windows look out onto battlefields. Ms. Rosler intended the collages for mass reproduction; she is exhibiting the originals here for the first time. But they have achieved something they never sought: the status of art historical classics. To unsettle such monumentalizing and keep the work current, Ms. Rosler recently added new collages, with 21st-century homes invaded by phantoms from Iraq. +++

Vietnamese Vietnam War Art

Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, " six artists included - Nguyen Cong Do, Nguyen Thu, Nguyen Van Da, Quang Tho, Truong Hieu and Vu Giang Huong - were either in, or associated with, the North Vietnamese Army, and they made sketches and painting while on active duty. Most of the pictures are unremarkably illustrational in style. What's striking is their tone. Although the reality of war is evident in images of soldiers cleaning guns, scenes of fighting are absent. Instead, troops engage in edifying group activities, from cooking to taking drawing classes in a jungle clearing. This is political art too, but the opposite of critical. Its purpose was morale-building and psychological cushioning under fire. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, December 9, 2005 +++]

"The definition of "political" is even more complex in recent work by two contemporary Vietnamese artists, Dinh Q. Le and Bihn Danh, back at the Drawing Center. Mr. Le, born near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border in 1968, came to the United States in 1975 to escape the Khmer Rouge. A decade ago he returned to Vietnam to live, and his art since has been about reimagining events in Southeast Asia that most of the world seems glad to forget. He is known internationally for his pictures woven from cutup strips of various photographs. And with this technique, used in Vietnam for making palm-leaf mats, he has produced several series of extraordinary composite images. +++

"In one, faces of Vietnamese citizens merge with stills from "Apocalypse Now," forcing reality and fantasy into a confrontation. Another series combines portraits of doomed prisoners in Khmer Rouge death camps with images of bellicose sculptures from 12th-century Angkor Wat temples, built as tributes to victorious kings. The message is clear: art has always been as much an accomplice as a deterrent to human brutality. +++

"Bihn Danh was born in Vietnam in 1977 and raised in the United States. He regularly visits his home country. On a recent trip, he collected large leaves from native plants which he uses as a ground for photographic portraits. The portraits are from the same terrible Khmer Rouge prison archive that Mr. Le drew on, though Mr. Danh contextualized them differently. He surrounds the faces of doomed men and women with the forms of butterflies, symbols of souls in transit. By imprinting the portraits on leaves he suggests that the memory of violence is now part of Southeast Asia's natural fabric. +++

"Mr. Danh's art is a retrospective act of witness. Can it, or any other kind of political art, effect change? And what would effective change be? Did the drawings by the North Vietnamese artist-soldiers do what they were meant to do? Are they art, reportage, propaganda, all three? Do artists from different cultures inevitably see different things when looking at the same political "reality"? Such questions are raised in catalog essays by the show's curators, Catherine de Zegher and Katherine Carl, and with unusual grace, by the art historians Moira Roth and Boreth Ly. And the Drawing Center had its own reality check in a recent brush with the American culture wars, when conservative groups protested its relocation to the World Trade Center site because, the charge was, it had exhibited art critical of the war in Iraq. +++

Vietnam War Zippo Lighter Art

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, "The Zippo is a humble, utilitarian object, a chrome-plated brass oblong 2.2 inches high and 2.05 ounces in weight that can be flipped open and lighted with one deft movement if you practice long enough and produces a gratifying thwink when snapped shut. But in Vietnam, Zippos were more than lighters. Like miniature versions of the crests of medieval knights, they bore the mottos that defined what many soldiers understood, deep down, to be an absurd mission.In a way they were akin to tattoos, and often the engraving was done at small roadside parlors."This is pure," the artist Bradford Edwards told the New York Times. "Pure art without ambition, a real and honest venting of feelings: ‘We are the unwilling led by the unqualified doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.’ " [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, December 7, 2006 ***]

Messages were often etched on the sides of Zippo lighters: "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for I am the evilest son of a bitch in the valley."—"Death is my business and business has been good."—"I’m not scared, just lonesome."—"Please! Don’t tell me about Vietnam because I have been there."—"I know I’m going to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell: Vietnam."—"Ours is not to do or die, ours is to smoke and stay high."—"You’ve never really lived until you’ve nearly died."—"If you got this off my dead ass I hope it brings you the same luck it brought me." ***

"The Zippo Manufacturing Company in Bradford, Pa., says about 200,000 were used by American soldiers in Vietnam, though Mr. Edwards said he was convinced that the number was much higher. Most of those that were left behind were lost or given away, he said; it was rare for a lighter to be scavenged from the body of a soldier."They used them to provide light, to light candles, to burn a hut, to light a flame thrower," Mr. Edwards said. "They were utilitarian, but they were very personal items." "They are powerful documents," he added. "These documents are etched in metal. It’s not sterile, it’s not flighty, it’s not pen and paper. It’s etched in metal. The only thing closer to eternity is stone."" ***

A particularly meaningful Zippo that Edwards has "carries on one side an official emblem, the military insignia of a riverboat with a skull and crossbones and the legend "Give no quarter." Turn it over, and four words have been etched into the chrome that seem to embrace the wisdom of all the other Zippos he has collected: "You can surf later. Riverboat duty was some of the most dangerous in the war, Mr. Edwards said, riverboats and helicopters. And how many surfers, really, ended up on Vietnam riverboats? "This guy on the boat, we don’t know who he was," he said. "We don’t know if he survived. But we’ve got this Zippo. I like it because it’s not enigmatic. It’s not ironic at all, it’s not tragic or sad. It has no deeper meaning. "The only way he can get through this every day, the firefights. He gets his lighter, and he lights his joint, and he looks at his lighter and thinks to himself: ‘You can surf later. I’m going to get through this.’ " ***

Modern Vietnam War Zippo Lighter Art

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, "Bradford Edwards has used Zippos in designs like "Zippo Abacus." He collects the metal lighters by the hundreds; he studies them; he celebrates them as tiny symbols. He searches for deeper meanings in the epigrams etched into their shiny sides by the American soldiers who left them behind. With grave whimsy he turns them into art. Starting in the early 1990s, he said, he bought them on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, where they were sold as souvenirs until the supply of genuine wartime lighters ran out. "I have handled thousands of them; I have handled maybe 10,000 of them," he said. "I’m really deep into this. I’m saturated with it. But I still haven’t lost my belief in the significance of the Zippo." [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, December 7, 2006 ***]

"Mr. Edwards is an American artist who spends much of his time in Hanoi creating art mostly from found objects and images. His father, Roy Jack Edwards, who died last year, was a fighter pilot over Vietnam, a distant, mythical figure to his son. The younger Mr. Edwards missed the war himself, and his obsession with Zippos obviously has to do with more than little silvery boxes used to light cigarettes. "My dad was a super-professional soldier," he said. "He was a serious cat who taught at the Naval Academy, worked in the Pentagon and taught weapons design. He was one of 100 Marine Corps pilots, and he did a couple of tours. I grew up with Vietnam in my life from Day 1." ***

"In his art Mr. Edwards has found more than 100 ways to present the Zippos, he said, using lacquer, mother-of-pearl, silk-screen printing, metal etching, stone carving, graphite drawing, silver leaf, photography, mixed media and more. With the help of Vietnamese masters in these arts he has arranged Zippos in grids, created steel-plate poems with them, photographed mass layouts of them from two stories up, used them to build an oversize working abacus. It all means something. "The Zippos were the witnesses," he explained, "and I am simply the messenger." ***

All this, he said, in the interest of "going deeper and deeper in pursuit of the meaning of the Zippo." That notion, so peculiar in its high seriousness, seems in itself to draw Mr. Edwards closer to the spirit of the men who poured their hearts out on the sides of lighters. "Tragedy and pop, kitsch and irony," Mr. Bradford said. "There’s a lot of raw emotions here. It’s not all tongue in cheek. Touching, sad, provocative, genuine expressions. There’s some strong juju here. Strong juju." ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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