I studied fiction in Florida under Robert Olen Butler. He’s the author who wrote A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. He culled the short stories from the “mulch pile,” as he likes to call his memory bank, of when he was a translator in the Vietnam War. In the story “Fairy Tale,” set in present day New Orleans, a vet closes his eyes and remembers Saigon: “It’s hot and I’m sweating and I’m walking through your markets in the open air and when I get back to my quarters, my sweat smells like the fruit and the vegetables in your markets.”
I fly to Saigon on Cathay Pacific Airlines with no bond to the war. My hippie Vermonter dad never got drafted; in fact, I hardly know anyone that was “in ‘Nam,” save Butler. That same vet: “It’s hot in Saigon, like Louisiana.” He wasn’t kidding. On the backs of motorbikes, the cool air is respite. I try to imagine a war raging here, and our tour guide, Holly, a hardened ex-pat from Utah who thinks Saigon is Easy Street compared to hardscrabble Hanoi, points out various landmarks where American journalists stayed, and the rooftop of the CIA Station, which was famously evacuated by helicopter on the 30th of April ’75, ending nearly two decades of war.
Thirty-six years have passed since that day. The late ’70s in Saigon saw a city adapting to new identities. Those who expatriated to America call the clear April day “National Hatred Day.” But those who stuck around found solace in banned books, hidden truths in the propaganda, and character-building within the daily hardship of Communist rigidity. They drank fruit drinks and listened to forbidden psych-pop from the ’60s and talked about things they weren’t allowed to talk about.
On a suggestion from a fellow traveler, I happen upon Cuc Gach Café, a unique free space in District 1, built by Tran Binh, an architect who also cooks. Cuc Gach Café is modeled after a late-’70s Vietnamese home, and we sit on a mid-Century daybed next to a fridge that holds our drinks, but the atmosphere is neither forced or gimmicky—Binh is genuinely a man from a different time. Binh’s sister, Huong, helms the café while Binh is off at one of his other two restaurants, and she plays us some of that forbidden psych-pop on a reel-to-reel tape player and it sounds warped and beautiful. It’s still forbidden, she tells us.
Woozy on wine, I tell Huong about the trouble I’ve been having finding art. I not only came with no connection to the war, but I also came with no concrete ideas of how to look for art in Saigon. I tell her there have been a few trysts: I stopped into Craig Thomas Gallery, on the outskirts of District 1. There, some large ink-and-watercolor-on-silks leaned against the wall, mid-installation. The artist was Bui Tien Tuan, and the paintings depicted sexy Vietnamese nudes, touching themselves, smoking, in slight subversion of what is proper for a lady in Saigon. After chatting for a bit, the director, Mai, invited me to an opening at Sàn Art, an artists’ space on the other side of District 1. I accepted the invitation. I got the feeling there weren’t many other options that evening.
Outside Sàn Art, police officers milled about. It was a cute space, internationally-minded by curator Zoe Butt and Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who started up a conversation with me about the similarities between the emerging free market economies of Romania and Vietnam. Romania, he reminded me, is no longer Communist. He waved towards the police officers.
Huong stops me. Her artist friend shows at Sàn Art. She calls him and he agrees to meet me at a Coffee Bean, near where I am staying at the Park Hyatt hotel in District 1 at 8 a.m., before I depart.
The next morning, Bui Cong Khanh and I sit at the Coffee Bean. He pulls out his iPad and begins to show me his work. There are a wonderful series of ceramic sculptures upon which he has painted semi-critical scenes of Vietnam. There are logos and propaganda and old legends. The works remind me of Guadalajaran artist Eduardo Sarabia’s. Khanh has shown these works all over the world. I ask him if he’s been to America. He nods. “I was an artist-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center.” For those of you keeping score, that’s less than an hour from where I grew up. We laugh, and we both say, “Small world.”
My trip then takes me to one of the other four remaining Communist countries in the world: China. Where Saigon was dirty and quaint and rustic and we rode boats into the Mekong Delta, Beijing is the new neo-Tokyo all the way. A fellow traveler and I point at futuristic objects scattered throughout the megalopolis and remark to each other, “Are we in Tokyo circa 2003?” The last time I was in China was in 2003, and it certainly didn’t feel like it does now. The Park Hyatt here is a massive skyscraper with all mod cons (and more). Sure, drive a few miles, and the Great Wall still provides some tourist-y adventure—not to mention the fact that Chinese drivers punch first and ask questions later upon fender benders—but otherwise Beijing is a fashion city at this point.And it follows that Beijing, as opposed to the virtually non-existant art scene of Saigon, has perhaps the single most developed art market in the world. Imagine my surprise, as a member of the “dying” print industry, upon noting not one, but two, editions of mainstream magazines focused solely on the arts—L’Officiel Art and Harper’s Bazaar Art—neither of which have Western counterparts, and both of which have really boring looking artists in suits on their respective covers.
That’s the trouble with Chinese art: it’s so market focused as to take most of the fun out of it. There’s no “discovering new artists,” because there’re hundreds of art journalists and critics and curators feeding off the industry like piranhas to a sacred cow. Perhaps it has much to do with the state of the market economies in the comparative cultures. Vietnam’s đổi mới (Renovation), their shift into an officially “socialist-oriented market economy,” only happened during reforms that began in 1986—and relationships to the U.S. only normalized in 1995. It still feels new and exciting, and the art market certainly hasn’t even really been understood by the citizens (viewers), business people (collectors), or government (subsidizers) yet. China’s economy shifted to a mixed market after Mao’s death in 1976, and has been full steam ahead ever since. Everything, hence, is predictable. People who hate what the art market represents in America, will hate even more what it means in China: pure investment.
But it’s not all bad—artists will always come up with interesting work no matter where you are—and it’s truly unfortunate I am only able to scurry around Beijing for one day, trying to absorb as much art as possible. If you’re time crunched like I am, the 798 Art Zone is probably the best place to mosey, though there is a neighborhood not far from 798 called Caochangdi that goes by the nickname “Ai Wei Wei Town” to everyone that mentions it, as in Ai Wei Wei, the most famous artist in the world and the recently named #1 on Art Review’s Power 100 list.
798 itself is a Soviet bloc-style factory complex, which makes for dazzling art viewing, as each of the buildings has massive amounts of space within which artists can create to their heart’s desire. Feng Zhengjie’s Floating Floras installation in Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art is a huge road with overhanging flowers canopied over it. Surplus Goodlookingness and It Won’t Happen Again, group shows at Tang Contemporary Art and Galleria Continua respectively, feature museum-sized works. The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a massive structure that serves as the main non-profit space in 798, houses both a multi-room show from Tatsuo Miyajima—a Japanese LED digital light artist who’s HOTO (2008) piece in the entrance stands about 18 feet high—and a bloated version of Vice and Intel’s the creators project, which features something like 60 artists. And the Pace Gallery, the Manhattan institution who opened their groundbreaking offshoot gallery in the Olympic year of 2008 amidst the so-called “Asia Art Boom,” lending a globalized legitimacy to 798, is installing a show by Los Angeles artist Sterling Ruby, who is best known for his gargantuan Lincoln-Log-like sculptures.
It’s safe to say there’s a vast disparity between the two countries. Beijing’s overdeveloped largesse has many artists and purists turned off by the focus on the market. Conversely, there’s no market to be found in Saigon, no local buyers, no governmental aid. It’s easy to find a scene, or a reading, or a book launch in Beijing. It’s hard to even unearth a gallery in Saigon. Neither is better, neither is worse.
On my comfy Cathay Pacific Business flight back to L.A.—a city where there’s both a little bit more space and a little bit less market (though the powers that be are vehemently trying to change this) than our counterparts in New York—I think again of Butler’s “Fairy Tale.” The narrator is a Saigon bar girl, who has moved to New Orleans. When in Saigon, apples were a delicacy, which she equates to sex. “You take a bite now and you can make yourself remember that apples are sweet, but it is like the apple in your mouth is not even there. You eat too many apples and all you can do is remember them.” Perhaps we can savor Vietnamese art now, before it loses its special rarity to the market.