The “Art Space” Nguyễn Văn Tiến & Trần Anh Quân (1997)

Patrick Raszelenberg*

The way people commented on the Affair of the Literature Temple gives me anxiety. It is not merely about the in-country reactions – discussed later on – but also the article by Mai Chi on the talawas Web site posted on December 12, 2002 in which the author expressed the anger, somewhat rather naively, about the question raised by the press in Vietnam about the so-called beauty of that art: “These articles in the press showed an aesthetic point of view rather simplistic and dangerous: the beaux-arts must be beautiful?” Though originated from dubious motives, the question raised by this article perhaps remains the most legitimate one in the history of art.

From Plato to Kant, from Diderot to Heidegger, from Winckelmann to Gombrich, even with Adorno and Danto, all in aesthetics revolves around a single question: What is Beauty? What is its definition? Is there really Beauty?
When the People’s Daily, the organ of speech of the [Vietnamese] Communist Party Central Committee, interrogated about the re-examination of the principles being taught in the University of Arts, – “Are the methods of teaching and training of the school rightly directed to the objective of service for social life or are they experiments of grotesque “creations” of lines, volumes, and colours?” – it is merely a natural reaction in the spirit of the school of socialist realism (regardless of its out-of-dateness) which is one of the tasks that this newspaper’s mission has to defend.

Of course, the reaction by Hoàng Hà in the Newpaper “Sports & Culture” (issue of April, 1997), under the title “Right in the Temple of literature of Hànội: Art or a grotesque play” – is very conservative but it is representative of a not minor part of the public in Vietnam – not only of the press and circles of critics, managers, and defenders of art.
Art in the public space usually has a dimension of provocation. Nobody likes to be pointed out as incapable of understanding a work of art. So the natural reaction is a straightaway rejection and outrage. In my opinion, not to be in sympathy with such a public is the expression of a bourgeois affectation. Only the circles of the salons d’art in their arguments are in search of the mysterious isle of the indefinable and declare that all-is-possible, as long as nobody asks about its meaning.
The rejection of the official criticism of Hànội, in my opinion, is not a credible attitude. Nothing is easier than calling the antipathy to art an antipathy to art. The Performance and Installation of the two artists in 1997 had been going on smoothly for many days before the predicted reaction took place. It did not happen sooner maybe because nobody understood it at all. It is the same as in another place people let Volker Braun act his way because “nobody would understand him any way” while the organism in charge of cultural management here was overcharged, on the one hand because they could not see any reason for direct intervention, and on the other hand they did not want to let another similar case occur again – it means that they did not know why they had to intervene, and otherwise they did not care to know, because they could jump in to intervene at all time without any reason to be cited.
This artistic event by itself contains all possibilities of powerful reactions. Because even though the Temple of Literature is the place of the worship of Confucius and especially the place where Chinese tourists could witness the glory of their country’s culture of expansion, but the National University, founded under the times of Lí Đạo Thành for the purpose of training future mandarins with Chinese classical texts, was at the same time the precursor of the modern Vietnamese universities of today and the place where the people of Vietnam show their respects before the achievements of the national culture.
The “desacralization” of the Temple of literature, as well as the cut-off its holy radius and the open search for another interpretation, is at any time considered as an act against the cult of cultural idols – the phrase “against the cult of idols” is perhaps not felicitous, because it reminds people of the fact that the Orthodox Church of Christianity forbade the artistic representation within the sanctuary since the middle of the eighth century, whereas there are here only the race of art against the statues of Confucius, Mencius, and so on… and the call for other steps into this museum-park.
The above action renders ineffective the place occupied by the Temple of Literature in national history, demanding the spectators another view and their much more valiant effort to approach the work of art. At first we only see a meaningless chaos because the meaning could only be obtained by the viewers – the viewers create the meaning, it could not be given by the Temple of Literature – and the viewers feel confused because they are forced to participate to a completely new dialogue. And thus the two artists have broken the system of ideas ruled by the state, because the state has the monopoly in the determination of the Temple of Literature’s meaning.

At the same time, this cutting into cultural thought approved by the state creates new forms of theory, capable of temporarily nullifying the monotonous purposiveness of the socialist culture with its familiar obligations. The most important point is perhaps the fanatical tradition of reflection in realism is nullified; the doctrine built on a form of mere re-edition and never allowing the individual eye to require a strange understanding and through it to cause a change in the language of official art, but in contrary always needing the passive recognition from the viewers. Thus these two artists acted truthfully on the words of Trotski, one of the few Marxist-Leninists who know how to think independently (“The methods of Marxism are not the methods of art”, and “Art is not a domain that the Party has the authority to command” [1] (*) There is none among the four pillars of socialist realism: (narodnost, klassovost, ideinost, and partiinost) [2] nationalness, classiness, ideologicalness, and partiness, in this work of art. As in many other activities of Vietnamese artists during the 1990s, it goes against the hypothesis of Engels that “an artist moves in a particular way in a social environment where the ruling laws have no relations at all on his prevailing psychological motives.” [3] The acerbic reactions of the public when it is in direct contact with art in a place that nobody expects to be artistic are not to be surprising, thus the behaviour of the cultural organism in Hànội should be seen rather more tolerantly. We might imagine that in this affair the state and solely the state, took the initiative, but all examples of public art in the West showed that such incidents were also the expression of common and popular antipathy towards art of political parties. In February 2001, when the court of justice in Blelefeld ordered the city of Minden to remove the “Kell-Stuck” statue by Hagelbolling from the center of the city, this decision was at the last period of a conservative campaign [4] lasting more than ten years based on a simplistic conception of public art, that is popular art.”
The sin, leading to the consistent handling of the state, may be the clashing with the clear-cut areas where the behaviour is either regulated or at least implied in the orthodox canon.
Those who openly raise their voices against the wrongdoings of the Party in an outdoors eatery will encounter problems and those who piss on the national flag will be executed by a firing squad. Those who attack the tradition without using the language of the orthodoxy, or that of the opponents against the orthodoxy, as well as those who attack without a clear-cut degree of aiming, will only put the defenders of that tradition before a puzzle. Thus, it turns out that that tradition is only a kind of phoenix, hard to be seized and ever changing in its form.
The orthodox circles in Hànội did not follow the correct way, because there was not any correct way to follow. People have begun to keep their distance an increasingly believed less in the enlightened-like knowledge conducive to the crazy feeling of merging with the truth.
The show of Tiến and Quân is remarkable because it is related to the obligation of change in the direction of the artists’ expression. If formerly they could aim at the entire public of the capital through the direct clash with their works (at the Temple of Literature), now they are forced to change their public and make exhibitions to ever smaller groups of viewers [5]. Even though these groups of people still preserve their abilities to assimilate art, to assimilate beauty (as defined by German idealism: “There could not be an objective rule in the use of concepts to define what is beautiful…. Since all statements here bear an aesthetic nature… It is deduced from that the highest model, the original image of feeling, is only a concept that everybody has to create for themselves… Beauty is what causes pleasure in according (not through the senses judgment to a concept of knowledge” [6] These groups have become much smaller and undergone the risk of being completely separated from the works of artists.
This is a typical case of the step-by-step enccircling of the art worker, to cause their loss of public just as a poet in exile loses their language’s native land. He or she could no longer quote oneself before the public and perform one’s own ephemeral theories. Art in terms of production and destruction, packaging and unpackaging, work and history of work is the survival of the artist in the memory when they are gone – for instance, the destruction of all materials in use at the end of the performance in 1997. Thus, quotation as a means of art (Christo and the cult of packaging, Oldenburg and the ostensible consumption [7]) is a capacity for taking new paths without punishment [8]. When taking André Malraux to say that, the freedom of an artist is not to do all things possible, but to do what they want to do – and to do it in harmony with the surroundings, that is with society [9],” Trần Anh Quân showed that the harmony was inexistent, had been inexistent, and probably would be inexistent for a certain period of time in the future, because there was no direct discussion between the artist and the society, and there were between them only the forms of connecting bridges, all controlled, directed, and organized.
Since all forms of connecting bridges are under the control of the Party, in the present flourishing art exchange – even if somewhat unstable – people have to find out ways of “silent talk” and “interrupting” to reach a mutual understanding.
It is fortunate that this form of soft exchange could be put in a vast space: the space of the culture symbolism of the Literature Temple. Phạm Thanh Hà quotes the two artists’ words: “The space of the Literature Temple is an Oriental space of nature” and also mentions “the sacred Literature Temple”.
A public space with such a sacredness causes the spectators in rapture before beauty. In this custom was broken everybody would show their anger: “… it is unpleasant to the eyes of the spectators; it cannot prevent untoward associations (People’s Daily). Of course, politics demands a functional art – that has been the task of politics sincethe time that [Napoléon] Bonaparte built huge national museums to store stolen works of art [10]. But art must seek a way of opposition, even though through to veiling of the German Parliament House, or the desacralization of secular temple of literature.
The shock caused by Tiến and Quân is one of the few good news from the art environment of Vietnam within the last fifteen years; at the same time it rejects the claim of Nora Taylor that Vietnamese art is essentially apolitical. (“The Vietnamese artists have reason not to raise political issues in their art and that may be the characteristic of Vietnamese art, with only paintings of innocent and harmless subject matter. Another reason is perhaps, in Vietnam, politics and art could not fuse with each other.” (January, 12, 2003)

© 2003 talawas

[1] Leon Trotski, Party Politics in Art in Proletarian Culture and Proletarian Art [in German, Alexander Verlag, Berlin 1991, p.9f.] Trotski goes a further step; see: André Breton, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotski – “For a free revolutionary art” in Wetterleuchtent, Manifestoes of Art in the 20th Century [in German, Edition Nautilus, Humburg 2000, p.56f and p.60).
[2] See Clark, Toby, Art and Propaganda, The Political Image in the 20th Century, DuMont, Koln 1997, p.86 [in German].
[3] Quoted from Hauser, Arnold: Art and Society, Beck Verlag, Munchen 1973 [in German], p136 (emphasis in the original).
[4] FAZ, Feb 12, 2001.
[5] For instance, in a coffee house on Nguyễn Du Street, Saigon, in the year of 2000.
[6] Kant, Immanuel, Kritik der Urteilskraft – in Works, Vol X, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt 1968 [in German] pp. 313, 314, and 357.
[7] A more interesting comment in this case is: the quotation in art has an important role and in socialist as well as in post-socialist countries representing an audacious turning point. We may think of the autoportrait of Wolfgang Peuker, a prize-winning painter and member of the Plastic Arts Association of the Democratic Republic of Germany, “Selbst im Smoking” (1985), quoting “Selbstbildnis im Smoking” by Max Beckmann (1927) and implying the article by Beckmann of the same year “Der Kunstler im Staat” (The Artist in the State) in which he says: “We want an aristocratic Bolshevik doctrine, a social balance where the basic idea is not to serve a pure materialism, but the conscious and organized instinct is to become God himself… Now we have to believe in ourselves. Each is responsible in the development of all to become God. Do not believe in anything outside of oneself.” See Wolfgang Peuker, Selbst im Smoking (Self in Smoking) in Staatskunstler – Harlekin – Kritiker. The Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and Information, National Exhibition of Art, Hànội, 2011.
[8] Trần Anh Quân reaffirmed this point.
[9] Malraux, André, L’attitude de l’artiste, in: ders., La politique, la culture: Discours, articles, entretiens, Gallimard, Paris 1996, S.110
[10] Xem thêm Belting, Hans, Das unsichtbare Meisterwerk, Beck, München 1998, S.63 ff.
* Patrick Raszelenberg was a researcher at the Institute of Asian Studies in Berlin. There he worked at the German Academic Exchange Agency in Hanoi.

Translation by Nguyễn Tiến Văn