Kurtz reigned supreme in his jungle hideaway.
When Joseph Conrad invented the character of Kurtz, set in the colonial ivory trade, he aptly critiqued the economic mechanism of tradeploitation. The poignant ending in which Marlow returns to England to deliver the final message to Kurtz’s wife finds him struck by the pettiness of urban life, which he reduces to the simplistic advances stilted on meager cheating of fellow men. It’s exploitation’s homecoming.
Francis Ford Coppola rehashes the character of Kurtz set a century later within the police action of Vietnam. The making of the film was as epic as the story it recounts. Filmed in the Philippines, beset to disaster both natural and financial and nearly unmade by superstar Marlon Brando’s prima donna attitude and price tag. But somehow it worked and we get a glimpse into a geospatial treaty of the same exchange, on a different continent and different agents, but are are still asymmetrical. The military commander in another context, far from home, far from the average origins of a man in uniform, he becme a cult figure. The story, like the 19th century version from which it was adapted, contests a “flat world” argument. And here, in Ho Chi Minh City, Zoe Butt’s SanArt, reminds me of Kurtz, in a good way.
I was connected with her via Facebook and, after a few exchanges and time arrangements, she wrote to me just before I arrived asking, “What is it that you want? I can’t remember whether I need to prepare something or not.” I didn’t take this as an offense, but rather a hastily written plea to abide by some sense of professionalism. That was her intention, in the context of the message chats, and this clarification, now, shows both how context is necessary for understanding as well as blinding. So after telling her I was just interested in learning about San Art and the cultural landscape here, I started to ask myself what it was that I wanted. And I concluded that I naively (and I felt naive) just wanted to information. I was curious. I felt naive because I wouldn’t have had such a loose introduction in another context; the purpose would be more concrete. The imperatives would be obvious. But perhaps that’s the attraction of Vietnam: the open space of the unknown and unrealized. And how introductions here, made in passing online, leave doors open.
Across the bridge from District 1, where commerce and tourism make flags with shining new high rises, just beyond Golden River Towers, a luxury complex development that is underway, into a tiny side street, SanArt is on a mission. And Zoe Butt is a believer. I sat down with her on a Tuesday, just before the next big install.
Painting by Nguyen Quoc Dung, part of Non-Finito exhibition, SanArt
Zoe says there are basically no commercial galleries (save Galerie Quynh) in Saigon; basically no 501c.3 model non profits. Barely alternative spaces, which they more nearly resemble, as there isn’t much from which to alternate. Still, the hours of operation conform to having Monday’s off, and opening at 10:30-6:30 pm (about 3 hours after the rest of the city gets going for business). She’s Australian and refers to the Viet Kieu as if she’s not included, since she lives here. This pertains specifically as to why and how San Art got started. As she put it, a group of well educated Viet Kieu wanted to return to Viet Nam in order to establish a place that could act as a bridge with the locals. Those individuals were Lê Quang Đỉnh (Dinh Q Le), members of Propeller Group and a few others. So they’re part of this international art world, participating in the Venice Biennial and being the token Vietnamese artist representatives for the country and heritage. They were educated in U.S. MFA programs.
And while she’s deep in her canned response of the history, mission, and recent developments (Vietnam politics) and shows, that tone of being on autopilot makes me wonder just how much this is an expected move in the cultural colonization that is going on in the world. She lapses into international artspeak occasionally and even mentions how the absence of ‘contemporary’ plays into the communist hands of local traditions and craftwork. Meaning there isn’t contemporary art here and only craftwork and non-contemporary art is made. She brings up the canonical MFA artspeak theorists: Foucault, et al. and mentions how she’s working on a catalog that places key texts next to Vietnamese theorists who haven’t got international attention. It’s in English and Vietnamese and she hands me a proof. It’s a tome. I feel by its weight that should the political bonds be overcome in this country, this text will be for a generation the reader that brings everyone “up to speed.” I rifle through and for some reason can’t recall any of the authors or essays there. I want to say there’s something by Jameson but I could be wrong.
She mentioned the educational program of the schools here being craft-based. There is some collection of that work by the social elite here. That’s almost reassuring. At least they are buying some artworks…how many degrees is it to get them to buy something that may increase in value?
At the same time I’m happy that there is some cultural producers returning here, and they’re not making identity politics work. Vietnam, like many middle-income level countries, suffer from the brain drain. They send their elite off to study in the U.S. or Europe, in the most elite schools, and then have trouble employing them here, so the educated go where the economic infrastructure supports them. Cultural producers, in a way, have an advantage, as their base of production isn’t tied to the markets of exchange, both cultural and financial, in which they operate. (Or at least I want to believe) And as Singapore (Freeport?) and Hong Kong (Basel), as well as Shanghai gain cultural esteem and sway, Saigon may become an potential center for cultural production. (The contenders, globally, include Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Bombay, Istanbul, et al.) With the exception of political speech, the absence of safety regulations, inexpensive materials, space and labor make it an attractive location. And the food’s great.
Zoe continues talking about how the space is under shrinkage due to funding being cut and new laws rolling out in regard to foreign cultural producers and audience members. Surveillance. She states the recent landslide re-election of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. I don’t quite understand why it’s a political crisis, as it seems to be forging forward on a staid course, but the cut of two of her three spaces equates to crisis and so I don’t interrupt her familiar art world negativity. Don’t get me wrong: she’s a pleasant person to be around; I just expected a more optimistic and positive outlook without all of the too-cool for school, Williamsburg, LES, Chelsea, designer fashion wearing, VIP list-ism of North America and Western Europe. She’s accessibly brilliant and I’m compelled to sort of offer a note of encouragement about the battles she’s fighting: I mention, would be and are seen as assets in the New York context.
Introducing Euroamerican cultural thought (really Frankfurt & Birmingham schools) and practices by returning refugees and their children is not unlike Ho Chi Minh bringing Russian Socialism back to Vietnam. I’m not propounding a nativist viewpoint or contending this is ethically wrong; this is how diaspora and cultural pollination have worked for 2,000 years. Viz. Chinese mythology, French architecture, American smartphones (made in China). What’s curious about this is that the actions are set within a developed post-colonial critique. (One on hand I’d be happy to toss out the failing framework of post-coloniality, as it’s been shown to be either 1) pseudoscience in terms of how its “theories” are not falsifiable and 2) contextually inaccurate depending on the geopolitics. I’m thinking particularly of Indonesia (killings of communists highlighted in The Act of Killing, which was completely misinterpreted by Western audience who weren’t familiar to the Southeast Asian perspective of communism that’s shared throughout Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia) as well as Colombia’s FARC and relations to Spain, and even the expelled Jews settling in Medellín. But yeah, doesn’t really hold water in this country.)
Walking out and past the security guard at the door, I wonder if my suspicion is itself one of these international artworld reflexes. It’s the gag reflex that we learn to fight while on panel discussions, openings, group critiques, reading reviews. Pure acrimony. Genetically unfounded but environmentally cultivated.
As I get on the uberMoto that will whisk me back over the bridge, I realize that SanArt, as a mission, will be an integral part of connecting the people of this (artworld) remote location with that global network…regardless of contradiction. And that even my presence and motivation meeting her isn’t any less contradictory to these points than her mission. Complicity.