Challenging the status quo with his works since the early 1990s, Truong Tan is a trailblazer in Vietnam’s art scene. Sculptures, performances, drawings, installations, ceramics and paintings double as an intimate reflection of the artist while boldly speaking out about society at large. Perhaps best known for invoking themes that touch upon sexuality, Truong grew frustrated with Vietnam’s conservatism and moved from Hanoi to Paris in 1997, where he spent three years before returning home. Recently, as part of the New York Guggenheim’s “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia,” which traveled to Hong Kong’s Asia Society, Truong performed two works, Your Idea, I Dance For It (2014) and What is the Color of the Egg (2014), during the exhibition’s closing weekend. ArtAsiaPacific took this opportunity to speak to the artist about his work and his experiences being an artist in Vietnam.
Was there a particular incident that prompted your move to Paris?
In 1995, the government closed my show at the Red River Gallery in Hanoi. They said I couldn’t exhibit in Vietnam. The police went to the gallery and took away my works. They also came to my house and told me to stop painting. I waited for two years. Two years is a long time to wait for an artist. Many people in Vietnam don’t think my work can be considered art.
What were some of your impressions of the city?
Freedom! It was the first time I felt freedom in my blood. In Hanoi this was never possible. This concept of freedom was always on my mind, but I was unable to really feel it. When I went to Paris, my blood exploded with freedom. I could do anything I liked. I was full of ideas! I remember I bought ten meters of canvas and I just started painting. During my first exhibition in Paris, I sold 40 paintings but actually didn’t make any money because I spent it all buying more canvas. In Hanoi, I only painted on rice paper because Vietnam is a very poor country and we cannot import many materials from overseas.
What is Vietnam’s current censorship situation? Are there times where you still have difficulty exhibiting your work?
Artists still need to seek permission before any exhibition opening. Everything needs to be checked beforehand, particularly contemporary art. For me, it’s probably stricter because they know my name. I have very few exhibitions in Vietnam because of this. They tend to automatically reject my requests. This is why I turned to performance, because I can show my work very quickly. Before the police can even come, my work is finished. They want to control my work but they don’t know what contemporary art is.
Has there been progress? Are you hopeful for change?
No, it has been like this for 20 years. I have been negotiating with the government for so long, asking them to open up a little for art. I don’t want to hope because they don’t want to change. Even now they don’t show art to children. How is it that over 20 years later children still do not know about art? What does this say about our future? Many artists actually move away and exhibit outside of Vietnam. Within the country, there is no real place to show contemporary art. A space can open today but be closed tomorrow. We don’t have a sustainable contemporary art system.
Has this urgency prompted you to go back to teaching?
I taught at the Hanoi University of Fine Arts for eight years. One time, when I came back from Paris, I proposed that I would start teaching new media there but they said no. But even before that, when I was still lecturing there, I had many problems with the direction of the school.
How do you see the artist’s role changing as more attention turns toward Vietnam? And what are your thoughts on the younger generation of artists?
I see that the artists themselves have changed. They speak less about politics and society than before. But it may be because they haven’t been through the same history as me. The younger artists do artistic work but I don’t see much message. I hate to say this, but sometimes I don’t think they understand what art is.
There are common motifs in your works—flattened figures, phalluses, blood, ropes, etc.—can you speak a little about them and how you use such imagery to comment on the political and social landscape of Vietnam?
I use my works to promote contemporary art in Vietnam. They tend to be a little provocative in my country. It’s important for them to be seen and experienced by the audience, which can help trigger ideas for the next generation. People tend to think that I only want to speak about homosexuality but my works are about humanity in general. My private life is private. A reccurring motif in my paintings is the figure, which I use to convey a global sense of humanity. I want to communicate my feelings about war and how useless it is. What is the point of war, really? In my paintings you can see figures constantly in action, or fighting, with traces of blood. I feel like there is violence everywhere. And the rope helps convey the governmental restrictions we face in Vietnam.
Audience engagement is a key aspect of your practice. Can you speak a little about that?
It’s a source of inspiration. Every time I do a performance I get an idea for another one through my exchange with the audience. I believe this interaction with others is important because even if one person is physically close to another, they may still mentally be very distant. Technology and the internet is great for receiving information instantly, but we ever exchange ideas directly. We are always behind a computer. But during my performances, I notice audience members speaking and laughing with each other. These interactions are important for me.
How do your two performances at Asia Society, Your Idea, I Dance For It (2014) and What is the Color of the Egg (2014), relate to your work What Do We Want (1993–94) exhibited in “No Country”? Were they readapted for Hong Kong?
In all my works, there is a link to society. They are about the current condition of the world, not only looking at Vietnam. My performances are always new. I perform each work only once. My name, “Tan,” means new. I tend to have many ideas floating in my mind at once and I adapt these ideas for particular situations.
Truong Tan’s new installation Roots (2014) can be seen at Chapelle des Carmélites in Toulouse, France, as part of the group exhibition “Féminités” until March 15, 2014.
Sylvia Tsai is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.