The Arts Used To Get Around Censorship

In Vietnam,
performance art is gaining favor as a way to push boundaries while evading
censorship. In the last couple of years, performance artists have tried to move
out of the shadows and present their works to a wider public, thanks to funding
from the Denmark-Vietnam Cultural Development Exchange Fund, writes Newsweek.
    At first
glance, the little red scarf that Vietnamese performance artist Tran Luong is
snapping through the air appears innocent enough. But for some members of his
Vietnamese and Chinese audiences, it brings back memories from primary school,
when they wore scarves just like it in recognition of their support for
communism.
    Tran Luong, 47, still remembers with mixed feelings being the last
boy of his class to get one—something of a worry for his parents. As the
performance progresses, the Hanoi-based artist invites the audience to
participate by taking the scarf and whipping his bare torso. The repeated
action eventually leaves deep red imprints on his skin.
    “They might be
timid at first, but actually when they see the red on my body, they do more,
like a wild person waking up,” he says, describing the reaction to
“Welt,” which he has performed in Beijing
and Ho Chi Minh City
this year. “I think the red makes people think.”
    And that is
not something readily encouraged by the artistic censors in Vietnam. Performance
art is still largely viewed as a decadent, foreign art form, far removed from
the classical values of the academic beaux-arts painting style favored by
Vietnam’s cultural police. But in recent years, the genre has been steadily
gaining ground. Because of its inherent mobility and fleeting nature—the artist
needs few materials and can perform the impromptu work anywhere—Vietnamese
artists have been using performance art to quietly push the boundaries of
acceptable social and political commentaries while avoiding the censor’s
watchful eye.
    “As a form of expression, performance’s ephemeral nature
offers visibility to a wide audience but invisibility to the authorities,”
says Nora Taylor, the author of several books on Vietnamese art and a professor
at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
    Indeed,
censorship of the arts remains rife in Vietnam. Major art projects and
exhibitions need official permits from the cultural police, and shows can be
shut down with no warning. Last year an installation by Truong Tan, involving a
giant diaper lined with pockets resembling those worn by traffic police
officers—a reference to the absorbent pockets of corrupt officers—was abruptly
removed from an exhibition at the Goethe-Institut in Hanoi. But performance art, which remains
primarily “underground” in Vietnam, is much harder to control.
Performances often happen without any prior advertising. Instead, artists rely
on text-messaging and e-mailing a close-knit network of friends and fans who
congregate at a handful of private spaces, most notably the stilt house of
Nguyen Manh Duc, a longtime supporter of the art in Hanoi.
    Performance
art first took off in Vietnam
in the mid-’90s. Tran Luong began his artistic career as an abstract painter, a
member of the renowned Gang of Five, a group of young artists who rose to
pre-eminence after the Communist government finally opened up in 1986. But he
fell out with his peers, whose increasingly commercial works disillusioned him,
and switched to conceptual performance art in the mid-1990s. Often acting as a
mentor to younger artists, he is now considered one of the fathers of
performance art in Hanoi,
along with Truong Tan and Dao Anh Khanh.
    In the last
couple of years, performance artists have tried to move out of the shadows and
present their works to a wider public. In 2006, Tran Luong organized the first
“Dom Dom Performance Festival” in Hanoi, thanks to funding from the
Denmark-Vietnam Cultural Development Exchange Fund.
    Twenty-two Vietnamese
artists participated in that inaugural festival. Last year several artists
engineered “Sneaky Week,” a series of impromptu performances on the
streets of Hanoi, Hué and Ho Chi Minh City. Some of the works were
quite provocative; Vu Duc Toan paid for anything he needed that day using money
in a sealed envelope—a commentary on the country’s ongoing corruption—and
captured in photos the various reactions of the people he crossed paths with.
    Though they
don’t require a permit, street performances can quickly attract the attention
of the police. “You learn how to run fast,” says one artist who
performed in “Sneaky Week.” Dao Anh Khanh, who once actually worked
for the cultural police, has stopped counting the number of run-ins he has had
with them. Over the years, he has been arrested several times, some of his
shows have been canceled and some of his works destroyed. When young artists
sought permission to organize a new “Dom Dom Performance Festival” in
Ho Chi Minh City
in May, the cultural authorities asked to see advance videos of the performance
work—a stretch for an experimental art form that is meant to be performed
spontaneously. They are now trying to organize the festival for August, but
some of the artists who had originally committed have backed out, maybe fearing
the censors.
At least they’ll have new fuel for their art.

 

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