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Q&A: Making art and getting in trouble in Vietnam

February 29, 2012 |  4:30 am

Gabby Quynh-Anh Miller is a Vietnamese American conceptual artist who jets from California to Vietnam, bouncing between the live-and-let-live lifestyle of the Bay Area and the strictures of a single-party state slammed by human rights groups for cracking down on peaceful bloggers and activists.

Her work is currently showing alongside that of other artists who are from, or trace their ancestry to, Southeast Asia. The group exhibition in New Jersey is titled "Me Love You Long Time." 

The Times talked to Miller about making art in a country where speech isn't always so free.

What is the art scene like in Vietnam, and how is it different from California?

It’s so different. There’s a huge amount of commercial galleries that mostly cater to tourists. Then there’s the fine arts university which is government-run and really based on early 20th century French teaching methods mixed with Socialist realism, mixed with advertising techniques, I guess you’d say.

Wait, let’s stop for a second. What does 20th century French mixed with Socialist realism mixed with advertising look like?

Weird. You spend five years honing the craft of drawing and painting in a very classical style. And with every new regime, the art school got taken over. The communist or revolutionary government took it over and it became a production center for propaganda and Socialist realist art.

Nha San Studio, the space we’re running, is separate from the commercial realm, purposefully separate, and intentionally separate from the state-run way of doing things. It opened in 1998 and it’s the first and longest-running artist-run experimental space in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, you have to ask for permission from the Ministry of Culture to do any public exhibition. So that means you give documentation of your work, what it’s going to be ... some kind of explanation of the work's meaning to the cultural police, and you say, “Is this OK?”

So we register every event as a family gathering to circumvent that.

 Do you have a sense of what would get you shut down?

The way things in Vietnam operate, you don’t really know what the repercussions are. It’s at the whim of whoever is in charge at whatever gate you’re trying to get through.

A lot of international businesspeople doing work in Vietnam will complain about the hoops you have to jump through to get something approved. The rumor is that you need to get something stamped 17 times -- and the implication is you maybe have to pay off 17 people.

The art world is just part of that bigger world. We’ve gotten in the habit of not even asking for permission because it opens you up to possibly having to pay a bribe.

How did you decide to go to Vietnam?

My mom is Vietnamese, and in 2005 I was going to college, and I didn’t want to go to college anymore. So I bought a one-way ticket [to go] there and I started working in art galleries. I ended up going back to school and doing my anthropology thesis on experimental art in Hanoi. It got me hooked.

People forget that Vietnam is a police state because you can go there so freely now. There’s repression of all kinds. Then you have these artists who are doing something totally strange -- experimenting with performance and doing installations -- which isn’t necessarily weird in America, but in Vietnam it’s definitely weird. That’s inspiring for me –- people trying to express themselves despite considerable potential repercussions and lack of understanding and support. Vietnam really needs artists.

If people are worried about getting their art approved, does “weirdness” play a different role for Vietnamese artists? Is it safer to do something weird?

There’s a lot of doublespeak in Vietnam. Journalists and lawyers are, on a regular basis, being silenced or taken away. Everyone knows that’s happening. No one talks about it that much. So everything is pretty oblique in terms of the way that artists are trying to communicate.

They’ll say, “I’m talking about my personal experience.” They won't say it’s about society. Or they don’t want to explain their art -– because, if they put it into words, that gives [authorities] fodder for you to be chased after or hassled. Any artwork in that sort of context has a real power to it, a potency to it. You know that people are using these ways of communicating because they’re not really allowed to speak freely.

There are also debates about national identity that very much have taken place in art. The debate about what is art is really a debate about what is Vietnamese.

What kinds of things do people fear are not Vietnamese?

It’s not just the authorities, it’s within artists’ circles themselves. Two years ago, we founded this performance art symposium where we invited artists from other countries to work with artists in Hanoi for five days. More and more people came every day to watch the performances.

On the last day, we had a packed house ... and we did a string of performances. In the final one, artist La Thi Dieu Ha did a performance in which she took off all her clothes, put a live bird in her mouth and released it. Pictures of this flooded the Internet, and it sparked debate about public decency –- contending that this performance was neither Vietnamese nor art.

There were repercussions from authorities -- questioning of the artists, and the studio’s permission to hold any events was put on a temporary hold. But we opened back up with a beautiful installation.

At the same time, I can see that also freaking people out in some parts of the U.S. What kinds of things are sensitive in Vietnam that might not be sensitive here?

Nudity, politics, history. ... But in the past six years, art that was taken immediately off the walls is now OK to be on the walls. The painter Ly Tran Quynh Giang submitted a painting of two women having sex to an exhibition of young artists hosted by the Fine Arts Assn. After the first day of the exhibition, the work was taken down. Now, Giang is in a book that’s a canon of 12 contemporary artists in Vietnam. I would say that conversations about sexuality are changing much more rapidly and openly than conversations about politics.

Do you find the art you make in Vietnam is different than what you make in California?

I’ve gotten more interested in performance art -- which I don’t really identify with. In Vietnam, performance has become a really potent medium because it can be economical and can take place anywhere.

For instance, [fellow artist] Phuong Linh Nguyen and I made these business cards, which are really silly, but they’ve become this continuous performance in our daily lives. The photos make us look like call girls. [Each has a business card with a racy photo that says they’re a “personal assistant” to the other.]

We gave those out at a performance art event, joking about our relationship because we’re always helping each other. And within a few hours people were calling us, saying, “How much do you cost?” We’d hang up and they’d call the other one and say, “How much do YOU cost?”

When we tried to get them printed, the little hole-in-the-wall printing press told us, “We can’t print that.” It’s legitimate to be afraid of getting into trouble. The business card started as a joke -- but the joke reveals real issues of working as an artist, of power and sexuality.

Recently I wrote this interview for an English-language magazine based in Hanoi with MEN, a [gay] Brooklyn-based dance music group that is playing a show in Hanoi in March. I did an interview with them and sent it to the magazine and they said, “We need to change the angle because we can’t have any mention of homosexuality in the article.”

Within the same week, I published a very open interview about being gay in a Vietnamese-language magazine with no problem -– the editor of the magazine actually commissioned me to write it. As far as I know, there is no actual rule, but they were afraid of the consequences of broaching social taboos.

So what did you do with the article?

First I sent them back a joke version where I just blacked out all the words like “gay." Eventually I rewrote it and sent in these very handsome pictures of the band, differently gendered or just different, that alone should spark people’s interest.

I feel weird about it. I self-censored. But you have to try as many angles as possible. The band is all about visibility and gay liberation. I was trying to find a way to play a joke on the rules.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Video: "Dream of Lakes" by Gabby Quynh-Anh Miller, a video painting shot at the Nha San Studio that was part of the In:Act performance art symposium. Credit: Gabby Quynh-Anh Miller

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