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Ba Dinh, Ha Noi, Vietnam
House on Stilts - Street address: Nhà sàn anh Đức, Ngõ 462, Đường Bưởi, Quận Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Việt Nam --- email: Telephone: 84 (0) 4 762 5452 This stilted Mường ethnic minority house (nhà sàn), relocated from Hòa Bình Province to the western suburbs of Hà Nội, is one of the capital’s most active centres for installation and performance art. The upper storey is a treasure-trove of old statues and other artefacts, many of which are on sale to the public. The ground floor area beneath the house is used for exhibitions, installations and performances by contemporary artists.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Digging for the Roots - Nguyen Minh Thanh

Nguyen Minh Phuoc, Exhibition in Nha San. Photo courtesy of the artist

This is the story of how Contemporary Art started in Hanoi in two small privately owned galleries, driven by the force of only four people. Hanoi had been a small city, but 15 years ago, with the application of “doi moi” (the open door policy of the Communist party), Hanoi’s population doubled. Everything in this city, including houses, shops, motorcycles and commercial goods, suddenly mushroomed. The open door policy also brought contemporary art to Hanoi: young artists of Vietnam started creating installation, performance, and video art.

Nha San

Nguyen Manh Duc started out as an artist in Hanoi, until some years ago, when he stopped making art and opened Nha San, Vietnam’s first experimental art gallery and meeting place. In 1990, he brought an ethnic wooden house from Hoa Binh province to Hanoi, and rebuilt it as his home and exhibition space. Duc collected antiques to resell, using the profits to operate Nha San. From 1990-1997, the gallery housed an installation by Tran Luong, which, despite its seven-year run, maintained an air of discovery and exoticism. Unfortunately, like a shallow pond in a field of wild grass, the gallery was hard to find. So remote was the location that Duc had to put up signs to show the way. Still, the people came and Nha San quickly became a success.

Tran Luong’s exhibition was titled “Rope” as jute ropes were the primary material he used to make the installation. Jute ropes were a very common material in Vietnam at that time, used in almost every aspect of daily work. This piece made a strong impact on the artists adn the public as Luong’s artwork had the feeling of real life. Viewing this “non art material” recontextualized in the gallery, visitors were challenged to reconsider the meaning of contemporary art. This marked the beginning of contemporary art in Hanoi.

After Tran Luong’s first exhibition, a torrent of shows flooded the art space, artists feeding off of this new energy. In addition to showing his own work, Tran Luong was instrumental in bringing younger artists and art students to Nha San. He also lead the way in initiating contact with the outside world, introducing many foreign artists to Nha San to work and exhibit. Nha San became the first private, non-profit gallery in Hanoi. The ethnic minority house of Nguyen Manh Duc became the primary meeting/exhibition space for young artists. People just called his house “Nha San” (a generic term which is used for all kinds of wooden houses with columns and two floors). Duc became known as Duc Nha San.

Nha San has become a nexus for international exchange and innovation in Hanoi; over the years it has housed many extraordinary works. One such show was that of Nguyen Minh Phuoc, who created an installation using half pieces of coconut shells, a thousand rubber gloves, and coca cola cans to explore the tangle of the western and eastern products and culture, as well as, more specifically, Western influence in Vietnam. A piece by Nguyen Manh Hung entitled The Uniform showed how innocence was lost in Vietnam after the war. He collected the uniforms of many former soldiers, now poor hard working men, and used a chemical solution to make the uniforms appear hard and wet. He hung the clothes on the wall in an assemblage, like bodiless campers, together again as a troupe.

The Nha San space grew to accommodate a variety of more interdisciplinary and non-traditional projects: artist residencies, including that of American artist, Rodney Dickson; housing performances; installations; and contemporary work in more traditional mediums. The space has shown the works of Le Vu, Pham Tri Manh, Hoang Duong Cam, Nguyen Ngoc Lam, Katie Lee, Nguyen Bao Toan. Nha San is also a place for experimental dance and contemporary music—the gallery has even fostered an authentic traditional music component, which has featured improvisation by young musicians and composers like Kim Ngoc, a female artist who is currently living in New York on a six month grant from the Asian Cultural Council. The support of the owners of Nha San has created an underground streamline for Hanoi’s contemporary art scene.


Ryllega is a new space for contemporary art in Hanoi. It’s located in the center of the city, between the Opera House and the Museum of the Revolution. The founders, Nguyen Minh Phuoc and Vu Huu Thuy, are two young contemporary artists who developed art in the company of Tran Luong and Duc at Nha San. Phuoc confided, he and Thuy took funds from their personal savings in order to run Ryllega for two years.

In the past year they have held 14 exhibitions, a few conferences, as well as several artist’s talks and music performances. From this successful track record, the gallery was able to get sponsorship for one year from Nguyen Diu of Dong Son To Day Foundation.

The first exhibition in Ryllega was an installation by Nguyen Minh Thanh who used more then 4000 needles and a lot of thread to create Small Fish. The artist explained, “these were small fish as humans—all have life, move around, absorb, and move ahead without knowing where to go in the future, they know only the past, the mark of yesterday.”

Nguyen Minh Phuoc created a performance in collaboration with street porters, the most impoverished population in northern Vietnam. They sat around in a circle of green grass and each person wrote his dreams and aspirations on the back of the person in front. The audience could see the sadness of these people, whose dreams were often merely to hope to have enough food to feed their family. This exhibition is one of the most groundbreaking to date in Vietnam as it empathetically, not exploitatively, considers the difficulties of the poorest section of a society. This kind of social commentary was not previously considered an appropriate subject for art in Vietnam.

Contemporary art in Hanoi continues to develop. Nha San was the beginning and Ryllega catalyzes the next stage; Duc Nha San and Tran Luong started the ball rolling and Nguyen Ming Phuoc and Vu Huu Thuy have continued to push forward—From one generation to another, contemporary art is on the move in Hanoi. Hanoi was a city almost forgotten. Its contemporary art has begun to redefine the city and given the world something new to look toward.

The NY Arts may - june 2005.