This is Vietnam’s Renovation Generation. In episode 5 we talk to Lê Thuận Uyên.
I was born in a generation Vietnamese people consider to be quite blessed because I didn’t experience any of the trauma of the war as well as the difficulties of living under the ‘bao cấp’, the subsidized economy.
Uyên is one of a handful of contemporary art curators in Vietnam. Equipped with a curious mind, a politics and arts background and a fantastic shoe collection she is establishing herself as one of the most informed and intelligent voices in the art community.
I am an independent art curator, I teach and write articles on the side and I do a bit of translation to keep my art career going.
We went round her family home where she lives with her parents and two younger siblings to talk about investigating the truth, contemporary art and the freedom to make choices
I had two cocktails and three glasses of wine for lunch.
Uyên is not a political activist but she thinks people should make an effort to know what’s going on. She says most of her peers who have grown up in the cities choose to stay oblivious.
They don’t know what people in the mountainous region live like. People don’t have enough warm clothes in the centre. In the southern part of Vietnam every year the flood takes away everything and they have to rebuild their houses.
Stories like these often don’t make it into the mainstream news so whenever Uyên questions what she hears she goes straight to the source and finds out for herself. Like this winter when she suspected farmers might be struggling with the unusually cold temperatures.
I went to the vegetable garden to see how they grew it. I am not an agricultural person, I work in the arts and humanities field, but I feel like I should know.
I wondered if she’d always been like this…
I wanted to be a cultural diplomat. In a way I still am I meet with people from different museums around the world with politicians as well and I would tell them about what’s going on in Vietnam.
Ok but do you think you are representing the Vietnamese government.
I would be a diplomat for my country not for my government.
A couple of days after Tết I met Uyên at the Fine Arts Museum. It’s state-run and I wanted to know what she makes of the art that is displayed there.
I don’t know, this one is just…
It’s all the bamboo. Look, here…
But it is so subtly and gently done and it’s so brilliant like the change, the fading of colour from the top to the bottom and you see…
She is talking about a silk painting of a buffalo and a couple of farmers called ‘Going to the Field’ by Nguyễn Phan Chánh. He was one of the first modern painters in Vietnam.
Not too long ago I saw it about 5 kilometres away from my house…
What? Like buffaloes?
Yeah buffaloes and people going to the farm.
My mum was preventing me from encountering any artistic activities.
She was afraid that I would turn into an artist or something.
Despite her mother’s efforts to keep her daughter from doing something creative, Uyên discovered her interest in contemporary art when she was studying and working in the UK. It was one exhibition in particular that made her pursue a career in the field.
….the Bauhaus exhibition. I think it left a really big impression on me. It’s just a feeling when you went in and you see that… wow.
That German school that briefly existed in the 20s and merged fine art and craftsmanship. They were forced to disperse around the world by the Nazis who thought the school a hot bed for communist intellectualism.
It’s the spirit of the Bauhaus design overall that really made me think about the role of art in society.
Which is what?
It’s the means the way people communicate with each other.
It’s everything for me. It’s everyday life.
Social reflection to raise a certain issue. At least with the people I work with it is.
For the last year she was the director of Nhà Sàn, Vietnam’s first experimental artist collective, co-curated exhibitions with Hanoi’s most established curator Trần Lương and organized various other projects at home and abroad. That makes her the perfect person to tell you the state that Vietnam’s art world is in.
There are more and more art spaces, more galleries, but it doesn’t mean that the art scene is flourishing. It’s quite blurry and messy. I feel like it’s making a transition.
Speaking of which, time to transition to the dinner table for a Tết feast.
It’s dinner time.
Ok we will be down in a bit.
So we have the pork roll, deep fried spring roll, caramelized slow-cooked fish and then we have ‘bánh chưng’, spring onion pickle… Have you ever seen this? This is pickle, cabbage pickle.
When we were at the museum I asked Uyên what she thought the biggest difference between her and her parents generation was…
I think choice, being able to make choices.
She had already told me at dinner two days earlier that having been born in 1991, five years after Đổi Mới definitely came with some perks
I was born in a generation that the Vietnamese people consider to be quite blessed cause I didn’t experience any of the trauma of the war as well as the difficulties of living under the ‘bao cấp’, the subsidized economy.
I wanted to know if that shaped who she is today.
It affects my work ethics and my morale as well. It made me more responsible as a person.
Rationed food, a city of bicycles, 3m2 of living space per person… Those are just stories she grew up with.
My parents and their friends and my grandparents would tell me all the stories about losing their rice coupon and people queuing, people lived in tiny places raises pigs inside their house.
I wondered if she would bring anything back from that time if she could.
The quiet streets of Hanoi.
And let’s stay on those quiet streets for a moment… and pretend Đổi Mới had never happened.
What does Uyên think life would be like now?
I think there are two scenarios. One is that I would be living like one of those kids in North Korea. The other scenario is that people would be frustrated enough to start another revolution and then now the country would be in chaos and I would still be doing the same thing I am doing now.
Do you think you would have been part of a revolution if it came to it?
Oh yeah I think so.
Revolution aside. If she could change one law or policy now what would it be?
Remove the article that says that the party is above everything.
And while we’re on wishful thinking, Uyên would also rehang the museum if she could.
Probably take everything down and rebuild a new one..
It’s nice to be here it’s such a shame they’ve done such a bad job.
This is has been The Renovation Generation. Follow us on SoundCloud or subscribe to The Renovation Generation on iTunes, Stitcher or Mixcloud to never miss an episode.
It is produced by Eliza Lomas and Fabiola Buchele. Our production assistants are Trang Nghiem and Trang Ngo. Jacques Smit is our photographer and research is done by me, Maia Do.
An & Of Other Things production.
In episode 6, we’ll speak to Dan Ni, a mixologist and a general man-about-town who happens to be Hanoi’s most flamboyant dresser. Be sure to listen.