Zoe Butt is co-director and curator of San Art, an independent exhibition space and reading room in HCM City dedicated to the cultivation of contemporary art in Viet Nam.
Butt studied art history and worked in many countries before running San Art. She spoke with Culture Vulture about contemporary art in Viet Nam.
Considering your fine arts background, what is your opinion on the florescence of Vietnamese contemporary art in recent years?
Contemporary art is arguably internationally understood to begin at the close of World War II, thus my research has focused on the events following 1945, particularly post doi moi (renewal) in Viet Nam. I am interested in how the concept of ‘contemporary art' is understood here, to learn more of its local context.
Despite the impressive growth in artistic productivity in the last 20 years, I find there is a huge misunderstanding about what ‘contemporary art' is within Viet Nam among both the public and the culture authority.
As a curator, how often do you come to art exhibitions held in HCM City? Could you comment on them?
Art exhibitions and their openings are important events that give cause for celebration – for the artist and their work, but also for the community.
For me, as a curator, an exhibition should showcase an artist's vision. It should provide an experience that moves the viewer emotionally, intellectually and conceptually. How has the artist mastered a technique that engineers an emotion or a question in my mind? Ultimately I want the artist to tell me something about the times in which they live, to give me a unique insight that makes me reconsider my reality.
I have learnt about the history of the world through art and that is what I seek when I attend an art exhibition. I want to go home spurred to do research on a clue I have been given. Sadly there are very few art exhibitions in HCM City that give me such an experience. There are many artists here but there are too few opportunities to show experimental work and there are too few artists who critically engage the broader issues of the world in their art.
Is contemporary art understood clearly by Vietnamese artists and the culture authority?
The community of contemporary artists in Viet Nam is small, but it has a lot of potential. Due to the great lack of understanding about what constitutes "contemporary art", the art scene is not as vibrant or as large as that in other countries (such as Thailand, Indonesia or Australia).
This is because the universities do not teach contemporary art history and there are very, very few visual and textual resources in public libraries about contemporary art and culture. In addition, many museums in the country operate on a ‘for hire' basis and there is no public or private institution dedicated to nurturing and acquiring contemporary art.
Where does Vietnamese contemporary art fit into the regional map?
From an international perspective, there are many designers here producing fabulous products, but there are only a few artists endorsed to produce brilliant cultural objects or experiences.
The great lack of supportive infrastructure for contemporary art and expertise means that Viet Nam is lagging behind its fellow Southeast Asian practitioners. For example in places like Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand there are universities whose teachers are internationally exhibiting artists, private collectors and businessmen who support artistic production and museums who employ curators that acquire and write about art.
Thus in Viet Nam there is an impressive number of contemporary artists within the country who must turn to opportunities abroad to nurture their practice.
Vietnamese contemporary art is increasingly being sought after for inclusion in international exhibitions and commercial art fairs. There is also a steady number of foreign collectors who are regularly visiting the country and watching very closely how the contemporary art scene may develop in parallel to the burgeoning art markets of broader Southeast Asia.
A common concern for all these ‘investors' is the lack of financial and educational support for artists in Viet Nam to better understand the international context of their ideas and production. — VNS