Connecting Flights: Day 8 - Styles and Aesthetics

We were aware that Hà Nội would be considerably warmer that HCMC. In the Old Quarter, tourist quarter, where we stayed, everyone congregates around the lake at night to enjoy the cool breezes. And while it’s hotter, there’s noticeably less air pollution here that HCMC. Stylistically, people are more formal. Women are mostly wearing black pencil mini skirts and a formal shirt. Less high heels than HCMC. The men sport polos instead of T shirts. That city feels wealthier. 
After breakfast we go to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum. For presumed logistical reasons of a body rotting in the heat, we aren’t allowed to see the corpse because the mausoleum is open only from 8-10 am. It’s alright because the museum is better. It’s a brutalist-scale building and exemplary of this country’s obsession with concrete. So much is made of concrete. Even in the pagodas there are concrete walls painted to look like bricks; there are concrete fences in the form of wood; concrete plaques made to look like, well, concrete. Brutalist architecture is appropriate for Ho Chi Minh because its bulk demands authority and presence. 


Walking in feels like entering the lobby of a modernist hotel; the vaulted ceiling is traded here for an ascending stairway that frames a huge statue to the man. At the top a rotunda orientates one to begin the historic tour of the man, the myth and the revolution. It’s an immersive experience that imports the zeitgeist in which he lived. A wall of pop icons—Charlie Chaplin, Lenin, Marx and Engels (yes, I know: are these actually pop icons? Here they’re presented as such). French slogans of Liberté and égalité straddle a post. Images of the technology of the time are shown amidst advertisements of the day, all on glass panels not unlike an installation of one I saw in MoMA in 2014. 

So there’s the personal and political narrative of Ho Chi Minh. But really what’s most notable is the manner and style of this presentation. It’s immersive. The German’s called it gesamkunstwerk or the total artwork. There’s something stylistically out of the chronology here. And it reverberates in the Museum of Fine Arts. There one finds anthropological relics on the first floor, some buddhist sculptures then on the second a full on Marxist, proletariat, everyday man laboring Viet-style in the rice fields and woods just before Uncle Ho shows up and liberates everyone from their fucking misery. What’s interesting about the proletariate paintings is not the content but the appropriated styles from artistic movements that were happening or had happened in other countries. It’s actually not unlike most countries’ art; given that most countries experience the current of art either outside of whatever art center there is: Roma, Paris, New York, etc.; or after the movement has disseminated itself outside of the site of origin. I recall the National Museum of Cataluña where I first realized this phenomena: most of the artworks portrayed stylistic copies of impressionism, cubism, pointillism, or even AbEx, but by Catalan artists who were never included in the canon. 

What’s notable about the immersive, installation approach to Ho Chi Minh is that the style is inherently Soviet. At least in the context. Meaning, the free world (aka United States of America) also has installation art, but it arrived much later, around the 1980s. Still, there’s a distinction that should and must be made between installation art and an art installation. Installation art is not just something that can be entered. Usually and to my chagrin people call any collection of works that is hung in such a way that a person can walk around between two or more walls an “installation.” There actually quite specific criteria for what is an installation and that criteria changes depending on where you are. For example, the artists of the Bay area in the 1970s and 80s were focused on a sensorial approach to art, coming out of the expanded cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s. Given that LSD was in research just across the Bay, and the hippie, New Age and yoga movement (cults also) were also questioning how perception, sight, feeling and sound were experienced, installation art was framed anthropocentrically and, more specifically, with the human audience’s body in mind. This can be distinguished from what East Coast, mostly New York, refers to as “installation,” which is more about an exhibition style that is both dependent on and resentful toward the fact that exhibition sites are comprised of walls. So you have hundreds of photographs, some books, a video, and plants that all sort of go together. They’re a project. You put them up on the wall—maybe the photos don’t have frames, maybe the video is projected not an entire wall, maybe the plant is placed in the center. This is the East Coast “installation.” It’s often project-based. In the example, everything revolves around this plant that his historically important. 

Plaza dedicated to the woman

Plaza dedicated to the woman

Then you have the Soviets. This installation is an environment that purports. It’s making a truth statement, which makes it especially useful for propaganda. Russian Constructivism had five principals: No color but rather tone is it’s pictorial reality; no line as a description of a thing, such as an illustration, but only a direction of the static force in the object; no volume but rather depth; no mass; and nothing static but the kinetic. Each tenant is argued based on “real world” or sciences. The principals are published in the “Realistic Manifesto.” As a movement, Constructivism is an affront to Italy’s Futurism and France’s analytic cubism. Both were political movements: Futurism was supported by Fascists whose ideology aligned with the need for speed. 

“Art is not a sanctuary for the idol.” Art should be everywhere, in all parts of life. This is the installation form. Art everywhere. Be in it. Liberate art from the elite spaces and give it to the everyone in their everywhere. This is the prototype of installation art. Or even a more ambitious version of installation art; one that is outside of the elite white boxes of the galleries and museums and in the world. The Ho Chi Minh museum took the life story, the world of the man and made it into a spatial experience. 


Art of meaningless abstraction was, according to the Constructivists, “busy doing nothing.“ 

"Toward the tarmac," 2016

"Toward the tarmac," 2016

The rejection of color in favor for tone seemed to default into three hues in the Socialist Reality: Black, White, and Red. The mausoleum largely follows this pattern. Outside of the museum walls another color is predominant: yellow ochre. Painted walls, buildings and even the Communist star set in socialist red are subdued yellow. I asked a tour guide why it was so common and he explained it help soften the brightness of the sun. I noted that many of the structures that were painted this yellow ochre were plaster walls of French colonial buildings and barriers. Those structures—schools, hospitals, offices—left is disrepair in Sài Gòn are almost exclusively this color. 

French influence is seen throughout the larger built structures that predate the socialist brutalist style, which itself predates a global steel and glass aesthetic of high rises in the urban cores of Sài Gòn, Hà Nội or Đà Nằng. In each structure and style I read a different economic model, which may not be that different and may even be strongly related or codependent. In the flat French, two or three story administrative buildings the extractive economy of colonies. Parts of these buildings just don’t make sense in this climate. The walls and prohibit movement of air that is absolutely necessary during much of the year, especially in Hà Nội. These have ceramic tile roofs, plaster walls. Some have porches or balconies. The roof, as I assume most of the structure, supported by wood. 

In the brutalist style it’s mostly concrete. Whether this is a good idea, or has or will pass the test of time, especially without the support of a ruling government, that is, should the communist government be supplanted as it almost invariably will as foreign investors demand more from their money, will the architecture and method of construction hold up? My suspicion is predicated on the questionable construction skills of the Vietnamese. On one hand, with the absence of a winter that freezes and expands water in concrete, it might last. On the other hand, a climate so warm and humid leads to the growth of moss and plants that breakdown even granite and limestone. But the buildings are massive. Their very size presupposes an economic model of land acquisition. Deaccessioning of private property into the hands of the (ruling) government. The economic model of the country from 1975 to about 2005 was, how can I put this? backward. I wouldn’t call it communist because when only a fraction (less than 20%) of the society participates in governance and/or receives social welfare or any sort of fiduciary responsibility, that’s not communism. It’s more feudalist. And in trajectory of the dynastic battles of the country, the 1975 economic model was disenfranchisement of the many for few. It wasn’t even capitalist. There wasn’t a real circulation of capital. The disenfranchisement can be seen not only in the commandeering of property from Vietnamese of Chinese descent in the 1980s, but also land acquisition of the Montagnards people for the growth of coffee. 

But even with wealth accretion for 40 years, the wealthy Vietnamese have not reached global wealth level. No Vietnamese are in the top 100 wealthiest people in the world, according to Forbes. The bar is set at 10 billion and led mostly be American business men. So the model of exploiting 90 million people for pennies can’t compare with gently exploiting 340 million people for dollars on the dollar. 

So the transition to, or mimicking of China, in pursuing a socially-oriented market economy (SOME) is a fancy way of Vietnam saying, “Hey, we want in also.” This is where the high rises come in. Chronologically, these buildings may have existed before, but statistically its negligible compared to the rapid develop that is currently going on through Sài Gòn and aiming to change not only the city’s skyline, but the economic ranking of the country. There are high hopes: “The new Singapore.” “Silicon Valley of Asia.” I don’t think either of those two dreams are possible without a functional private market, which is hindered by the current government. But buildings are going up, just the same. 
Some tweaking to the model include allowing foreigners to buy private apartments. A three-bedroom, 135 square meter apartment in a luxury high rise recently sold for $438,000 in Sài Gón. There are also the changing relation with the 3.1 million Việt Kiều, i.e. Vietnamese living overseas. Since most live in countries that tout around ten times the Gross National Income of Việt Nam, the hope is that some of those Australian, French, Canadian and U.S. monies will trickle back in a sort of, “Alright, I’m willing to overlook the historic political issues that broke up my genealogy for the possibility of getting brick rich.” On side of the Communist government, this is sort of a flaccid, “We apologize. (Can we borrow some money?)” 

SOME follows the Chinese in a strange stylistic return. The metal gates. The metal window guards. The buddhist lions. The dragons. The spiraling lines of hair clumps; spiraling eyes, the fish scales made of a smily face with vertical lines for eyes; the parallel lines running in fish fins. The Chinese influenced the Vietnamese (Kinh) culture to the extent that it’s questionable as to whether the latter is anything more but a scion of the Song Dynasty. 

The writing system and literature of Vietnam was Chinese until Portuguese, Spanish and Basque missionaries arrived and made the transliterations in order to ease the printing by European publishers. The Vietnamese scholars had been previously trained exclusively in Mandarin, and even through French colonization, a mastery of Mandarin pictograms was a requirement for the highly educated. Vietnamese and Mandarin share linguistic structure and cognates, as well as religious mythology, iconography, metal work and architecture, particularly in the pagodas. 

Notes 

The Realistic Manifesto,”Naum Gabo, 1920,http://ubumexico.centro.org.mx/sound/aspen/mp3/gabo.mp3

Vietnamese Coffee and the Plight of the Montagnards People,” Mark Pendergrast,http://www.teaandcoffee.net/0603/special.htm

Australian Couple first to buy property under Vietnam’s new laws,” Jimmy Thomson, http://www.domain.com.au/news/australian-couple-first-to-buy-property-under-vietnams-new-laws-20150704-gi4tva/

GNI per capita, PPP,” http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.PP.CD

“Origins of the peculiarities of the Vietnamese alphabet,” Andre-George Haudricourt, 2013, https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/file/index/docid/920064/filename/Haudricourt1949_Peculiarities_MonKhmerStudies2010.pdf