Stilt house home to new conceptual art

Published: 21/02/2009 05:00



The facade may symbolise tradition, but Duc’s stilt house art gallery is a haven for modern thinkers.

Artist Nguyen Manh Duc bellieves that contemporary artists should have a good background in traditional culture.

The facade may symbolise tradition, but Duc’s stilt house art gallery is a haven for modern thinkers.

From the outside, Nguyen Manh Duc’s stilt house has an ancient facade, but inside there’s a a shocking, arty, contemporay atmosphere. The old-style house is used as a gallery of alternative modern art and stands out prominently beside the multi-storey blocks of Vinh Phuc District.

Today is the “10+” celebration. As the title suggests, it’s about marking the house’s 10th year as a museum for alternative art.

Over 20 well-known artists are attending the celebration. Key attendees include Tran Luong, the first curator of Viet Nam; Truong Tan, one of the the country’s first performance artists; and Vu Nhat Tan, Viet Nam’s much-lauded sound & noise musician. Foreigners familiar with the domestic art circle, like Veronica Radulovicis, were also in attendance.

In one of the rooms, soft watermelons inside a square frame cover a wooden bed. The fruit has not been cut out in pieces, but chewed carefully. The crimson scence is intended to provoke strong feelings of passion in the viewer.

On another table, the statue of a man tries to escape from a cubic box surrounding him on all sides. The man has been moulded into the same cubic shape suffocating him, as though to mimic feelings of powerlessness.

Visitors are taken in most by Lai Thi Dieu Ha’s quirky creation. In it, bread dangles from the wall. The artists note below it reads:

“My son was born with a penis, and I am proud of this. I want to mould bread into penis shapes so people can enjoy the image.”

A tray of bread is placed behind the wall for people to touch. The artist wants people to feel and taste the bread, so they can feel stimulation not only from their eyes, but from their tastes and senses too.

“Is there any message behind such a scene?” I asked the eccentric artist.

Obviously, every piece has some message, she says.

The clearest one can be understood straight away: together, the art pieces draw out a miniature picture of the development of contemporary art in the past decade in Viet Nam.

Duc’s stilt house became the first-ever studio in the country to exhibit works of this genre; for that reason, the art form is only as old as the house that gave it its first home.

The odd owner

A piece by Nguyen Hong Hai made from waterballoons and a work by veteran artist Nguyen Hoang Long and Vu Hoai Thu made from headphones.

This stilted Muong ethnic minority house was taken from Hoa Binh Province to the western suburbs of Ha Noi. The owner is an audacious Hanoian artist.

The Vietnamese Art environment has been evolving since the turn of the 90s, when the maket economy was established.

By the end of the 90s, positive signs that contemporary art was beginning to spread sprouted up all over Viet Nam. Passionate contributions were made by creative artists like Tran Luong, Truong Tan and Minh Thanh. The pioneering artists endeavoured to pave the way for a brighter, more refreshing art culture in a rapidly-changing developing country. They had a tough road ahead.

At that time, the galleries around Ha Noi only paid attention to profitable projects. Contemporary artists didn’t attract much interest back then. Most places refused to give a the budding artists a chance.

In such a bleak period, Duc ’s stilt house came as a welcome saviour. At the time, artists hailed it as the “big bang” of modern art.

The house is one of the capital’s most active centres for installation and performance art. It’s not as well known, however, that the house was once a place for traditional art performances, like cheo (traditional opperatta), tuong (classical drama) and folklore tunes.

Duc has enormous passion for traditional life. This is evident by the house, the appearance of stone guard dogs in the garden, Buddha statues and holy paintings on the walls inside.

“I don’t think there is a contradiction between traditional culture and contemporary art,” says Duc.

When he’s asked about the house’s strange and eclectic decor, Duc explains that the first story is contemporary and the second showcases his collection of ancient artefacts.

Duc probably inherited his love of heritage. His late father was famous Vietnamese writter, Kim Lan.

“Traditional culture is the soul of everything around us. It is like the blood in our vessels, and appears in life around us. So how can one give them up?” Duc asks.

However, his love of ancient art couldn’t keep him occupied for long. His father thought him the most senstive of his five artist brothers and sisters. As a child, Duc had difficulty expressing his innermost feelings.

“The traditional style can bore me. I want to do something new, something to satisfy my desire of creating, right to the bitter end.”

Duc has been successful. So far, his house has staged almost 70 contemporary art performances, and it is a popular rendezvous point for new artists. Duc is the first port of call for anyone in search of an emerging contemporary artist.

Duc has proven that today’s aritsts don’t necessarily need to be able to draw.


Vistors are lucky to bump into Duc. He’s always willing to clarify messages behind each piece.

Duc’s interpretation of the man in the cube is as follows: “There is a saying that ‘stay inside a melon, get a round shape, stay in a tube get a long shape.’ (O bau thi tron, o ong thi dai).

The work emphasizes our responsibility for creating an environment that the youth can grow in. People create frames for their surrounding environment, and these frames shape them.”

He also clears up the meaning behind the baffling bread wall. Duc says the work reflects our attitude about gender equality, particularly regarding sex. In past years, women have taken on newer roles and have become stronger and more powerful sexually.

“It is said that arts on the easel is for aestheticism; contemporary art is for the message. I don’t agree with that.” he says.

“In fact, contemporary art is also for aestheticism, but it sometimes re-defines people’s ideas about aestheticism.”

According to Duc, the hardest thing for a contemporary artist is thinking up a new idea. Suprisingly enough, to be successful, they need a good background in traditional culture and lifestyle.

“I believe that no one can work well in the field of art without knowing about traditions. Those who want to bring about change should know what needs changing and what does not.

“Traditional art is about preserving the past, contemporary art moves forward towards development. Sometimes development means that some old rules need to be broken for new ones to be born.”

Contemporary artists still have challenges - they have yet to conquer their audience. But Duc and his friends say they will never give up trying. The artist jokes sometimes that he will sell the stilt-house and buy another on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. There, he muses, he can live in creative freedom with all his arty friends.


Provide by Vietnam Travel

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