Lost in music: Đào Anh Khánh performs during a meeting with the media at Gầm Trời Valley in Hòa Bình Province prior to the art festival Đáo Xuân Chín. — Photo courtesy of Đáo Xuân Festival
by Bảo Hoa
Stood erect in a valley some 50km from Hà Nội are three sculptures made from concrete that resemble three giant penises.
Twenty-five metres tall and painted half white, half grey, they are the trademarks of Gầm Trời Valley, a 10ha area in Hòa Bình Province where one of Việt Nam’s biggest and most-anticipated events of the year is taking place this weekend.
Đáo Xuân Chín, roughly translated as ‘New Year Meeting Number Nine’, is the ninth edition of a series of art festivals called Đáo Xuân held by Vietnamese contemporary artist Đào Anh Khánh at the beginning of the year over the past 20 years.
It is the biggest and the last of its kind, as the artist said this would be the last time Đáo Xuân would be held.
|Symbol of fertility: Two concrete sculptures that resemble male genital, known in Hinduism as linga, at Gầm Trời Valley. — VNS Photos Đoàn Tùng
Known as the weirdest and most outstanding performance artist in Việt Nam, Khánh has an obsession for symbols of fertility.
He envisioned 25 male genitals adorning his beloved valley, the land he bought 20 years ago, which has now been turned into a space that connects humans, art and nature.
For about 15,000 visitors, this weekend is the opportunity to enjoy hundreds of performances, dancing, music, installation art, body painting, sculptures and other art activities offered by 300 international and local artists for free.
For Khánh this is his dream come true, but it’s time for him to start a new, quieter journey.
“I have found other areas in life that I would like to focus on in the time I have left, which requires as much investment as I have made for the Đáo Xuân series,” he said at a press meeting prior to the festival.
“Đáo Xuân Chín is the peak of everything I have been striving to do over the past 10 years to turn my dreams into a reality. It has been a difficult process, not only in terms of intellectual investment and physical requirement but also financial capacity.”
Even though his artistic journey does not end here, he would like to spend time getting to know himself better, Khánh said.
If Đáo Xuân is one long performance with which Khánh has made a name for himself, Đáo Xuân Chín is his grand finale. And he sure wants to be remembered for it.
|Nature art: Red cotton tree flowers adorn Gầm Trời Valley.
One of a kind
Looking at Khánh feels like watching Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. He is peculiar in every way, and in a good way.
Long-haired and most of the time dressed in tight clothing with paint stains on his fingernails, he gives off the impression more of a house painter than an artist.
When he talks about nature – his inspiration – he talks about things like ‘energy from the universe’, ‘power of nature’, ‘the magical language of nature’.
His performing style strangely resembles Yoko Ono in “Cut Piece” (1965) and Marina Abramovich in “Rhythm 0” (1974) in a sense that the artist was vulnerable to the public throughout the performance.
He didn’t go to the extreme and let people cut off pieces of his clothes or let them do what they wanted to him, but often with his eyes closed, his body moving to the music and incomprehensible murmurs coming out of his mouth, the audience could feel he was letting loose and letting go of the basic instincts of self-defence.
But as contemporary performing art is still new in Việt Nam, Khánh’s performances did not receive high praise from the majority of the public.
They were often characterised as ‘weird’, ‘strange’ and ‘incomprehensible’. And Khánh’s name and the adjective ‘crazy’ go in hand like a cute couple in the Vietnamese media.
|Back to nature: An overview of Gầm Trời Valley, a 10ha area in Hòa Bình Province that Đào Anh Khánh purchased and turned into an open art space.
In 2003 he was detained by police in the middle of a fire performance by Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hà Nội for performing without a licence or ensuring his own safety.
In 2012 he took a whole day to walk around the lake, moving only one centimeter with each step.
In 2013 he and his colleagues were shooed away by farmers while performing in the Middle Island of the Red River, because they were blocking the way and destroying their crops.
But as his good musician friend Lê Minh Sơn put it, Khánh’s craziness is ‘fake’ and he has ‘the soundest mind of them all’.
|Like a dream: Decorations prepared for Đáo Xuân Chín art festival.
|Stage 2: Đào Anh Khánh introduces an area in Gầm Trời Valley that will be turned into a stage during Đáo Xuân Chín.
Khánh knows he is crazy and owns it.
He said: “For artists, to be able to find something they can be proud of is a victory which comes at a great cost. It requires immeasurable effort to create something that tells the world who they are and conveys their finest qualities.
“What people often consider ‘weird’ and ‘strange’ depends on different perspectives. Such things can come from the artists themselves who want to create something they can feel proud to claim as their own. And whether the public says it is ‘weird’ or ‘strange’ depends on their awareness, knowledge and cultural backgrounds, which most of the time have not reached a level where they can appreciate the emotions, information and artistic values that artists want to convey.
“Weirdness is not a provocation. It is a motive, a development purpose of art and artists.”
At 60, Khánh has had 20-odd years of practising art.
For him art is larger than life and it is what makes life worthwhile.
“Some say art is life. That’s not wrong, but for me art rises above life thanks to its fierceness and its power and ability to lead the soul,” he said.
“Pioneering and innovation is essential in every field, but I want to emphasise the positivists, strangeness and uniqueness of art because without it we would exist just as some dull, still boring curtains.
“Life may be art in itself, I know, but true art must rise above life so that it can take the human soul to new places. Because our need to feel, to enjoy, is endless.”
"I don’t want young artists to see me as a role model and do what I have done because everyone is different," he said.
“One important lesson I learned after all these years is to always stay true to your soul, and always strive toward having a beautiful soul.
“Offer people only what is really, truly, strongly yours. Don’t even think about giving millions of people what you don’t have and don’t love, because that’s faking it.”
Staying true to himself is what earns Khánh respect from his fellow artists in and out of Việt Nam.
Japanese sound artist Kazehito Seki, music curator of Đáo Xuân Chín, said: “[Khánh] is a really unpredictable guy. Like noise. Like contemporary art itself. He is really art.”
Đáo Xuân Chín is coming to an end, but Khánh and his art will always be something to remember, even if just as a big question mark to the general public.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because art is not meant to be understood. It is meant for one to question oneself and to know of other ways of being, of seeing things. — VNS
With only hours left before avant-guard artist Đào Anh Khánh’s final show, Đáo Xuân Chín, the ninth in a series of events that take place every spring, may have the plug pulled on it.
Việt Nam News reporters travelled to Gầm Trời Valley to attend a press briefing and interview the artists, and hours before we go to print, news from the Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism in Hoà Bình Province, where the performance is scheduled to take place, said the organizers had not been granted a licence.
An exhibition titled Đáo Xuân Chín, an international arts festival, one activity included in the 24-hour show, had received a licence from the Department of Performing Arts under the Ministry of Culture and Information, which is responsible for providing licences for public performances.
On January 30, Đào Anh Khánh and his Kỳ Phát Trading and Service Company submitted an application for a Music and Performance Festival License for March 23-24, 2019.
On March 19, the department received a letter dated March 14 from the same company withdrawing the application, saying the event would be a celebration of the artist’s 60th birthday and would not involve music performances.
But Hoà Bình authorities were quoted as saying they needed the artist to present a licence for a large gathering of people and for activities that would take place past 10pm.
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