Vietnam is home to a vibrant cultural scene despite its authoritarian context, and the country’s contemporary art spaces should not be overlooked. We update our original guide to Vietnam’s top ten spaces – from Hanoi video labs to Saigon experimental art studios – revealing the dynamism of the nation’s contemporary culture.
If you’re after an unusual contemporary art experience in Hanoi, give DOCLAB a try. Focusing almost exclusively on video art and documentary film, the space is less of a gallery and more of a laboratory, as the name implies. Founded in 2009, the space has since garnered acclaim for its non-traditional ‘exhibitions’ of experimental documentary. DOCLAB also roundly supports the learning process, offering workshops, courses, and discussion groups to film students. Screenings of films by local video artists are open to visitors and students alike, as are accompanying discussions.
The Institut Français de Hanoï aims to promote cross-cultural exchange through language classes, lectures, movies, debates, readings, performances, and exhibitions. All five floors of the building’s space are occupied with cultural offerings from within a former printing house in the heart of Hanoi. Past programming has included exhibitions of landscape photography, talks on architecture, and jazz cabaret nights.
Similarly, the Goethe Institut offers a dynamic range of cultural projects in Hanoi. Concerts, film festivals, art exhibitions, and dance performances all regularly feature on the agenda at the expansive space. Funded in part by the German government, the Goethe Institut specializes in projects of cultural exchange between Asia and Europe – Vietnam in particular. Supported programs see Vietnamese artists on trips to Germany and vice versa to spark a running dialogue between the two regions.
It can be easy to forget that Vietnam is still a Communist country with heavy restrictions on the spread of information and freedom of expression. But since 1998, artist-led non-profit Nha San has been highlighting the difficulties of creating art under such rigid circumstances, providing materials and emotional support to artists in an effort to combat this. The contemporary space has a determinedly experimental approach to creating and viewing art; Nha San Studio showcases the likes of sound and video installations in what’s considered an ‘underground’ gallery.
Artist-run space Sàn Art is a hub for creative minds in Vietnam. A platform for experimentation (sàn meaning ‘platform’ in English), Sàn Art is led Zoe Butt, whose pan-Asian curatorial expertise results in projects that both challenge and highlight regional art forms. Sàn Art kickstarted some of the country’s most innovative programs, including Vietnam’s only long-term artist residency program: the Sàn Art Laboratory. The space also runs Sàn Art Productions, working with art businesses to find resources for underfunded projects.
Zero Station is a tiny space, but its impact on the Saigon art scene has been immeasurable. The process-based gallery offers two ground-breaking residency program: the Packed Program for non-locals who wish to visit Ho Chi Minh City, and the Intensive Program that offers the opportunity to work with a local artist on a project. Through these initiatives, Zero Station has become one of the city’s most exciting institutions. Founder, curator, artist, and writer Nguyen Nhu Huy is renowned for his innovation; he also founded the artist-run space Blah Blah, and from 2003 until 2005 he co-founded and edited vnvisualart.com – the country’s first visual art magazine.
Nguyen Tan Loc is the founder of the country’s only modern dance company, Arabesque. From the Saigon studio, the company gives performances and workshops in classical, modern, and contemporary dance, and offers courses in everything from audition techniques to stage lighting. Incorporating the culture and history of Vietnam into the vernacular of contemporary dance is Nguyen’s raison d’etre, and Arabesque’s annual international tours bring the Southeast Asian nation’s culture to a broader audience.
Away from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s two major cities, the nation’s artists need support and space to flourish. This is where organizations like Art House Vietnam Gallery, with bases in Danang and Hoi An, play a vital role. The only national gallery focused on young contemporary artists from Vietnam, Art House Vietnam has supported local talent since it opened in 2004. Founder Vu Trong Anh uses the initiative to represent locally established artists, such as Dino Nguyen and Vo Xuan Huy, as well as emerging artists like Bui Tien Tuan, Siu Quy, Mai Huy Dung, and Tu Quyen. All the work in both Hoi An and Danang spaces is available to buy and offers a peek into the contemporary visual art scene of Vietnam away from the big cities.
Saigon’s Dia/Projects is more than a space – it’s a ‘contemporary art experiment.’ Established by local artist and academic Richard Streitmatter-Tran in 2010, Dia/Projects eschews official programming and therefore funding. Instead, Dia functions flexibly, providing space for artists to research, plan, and play with their practice. Packed with almost 3,000 books on everything from art theory to Asian history, Dia/Projects is an oasis away from the city’s busy streets. Tran himself lectures at the city’s university, writing for a range of national art publications and producing his own sculptural works.
Sao Lao is backed by both the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Museum and Galerie Quynh. The project sees these two organizations combine to create a non-profit operating from the ground floor of the museum, with the bi-fold mission of making contemporary art accessible to the public and supporting the country’s nascent arts community. By organizing everything from exhibitions to film screenings and workshops, Sao Lao is a sign that contemporary art and the Vietnamese authorities are perhaps finding genuine places of connection – a change from which artists and the public can only benefit.