From 21st December to 20th February 2019, Vin Gallery in Ho Chi Minh City is showcasing Bài Học Đầu Tiên (the first lesson) by prolific Huế artist Trần Tuấn. This viewing forms Tuấn’s critical reflection upon his education in post-reunification Vietnam and the classroom’s purpose as a tool for social conditioning; to nurture the ideal law-abiding citizen.
Ho Chi Minh City Art Viewing:
Bài Học Đầu Tiên
Bài Học Đầu Tiên consists of sculptures that resemble classroom origami and enlarged pages from school textbooks, elements of the classroom all too familiar with people who went through compulsory education in Vietnam during the 80s and 90s. However, viewers will find that all these pieces have been subjected to the mercy of a classroom renegade. The enlarged pages have been vandalized with scribbles and juvenile drawings. The origami sculptures are of a paper gun, a paper crane and a paper boat; symbolic of a psychological desire for escape.
In what appears to be an introductory verse to an anthology, Tuấn’s featured artwork No. 12: The Slogan states; ‘This book will teach you how to study literature…a friend that will travel with you through a lifetime, a friend that will always stay right in the soul…’. The artist describes these learned childhood fables as being etched into the mind ‘like a scar’. It is notable to think that an educational institution can be used for instilling politically approved values and moral codes into children at an age when the human mind is at its most absorbent and uncritical. While students can rebel with passive acts of making paper aeroplanes and defacing workbooks, their resistance is futile and lessons will eventually be learned.
Bài Học Đầu Tiên is Tuấn’s ode to the classroom renegade; an individual fighting through passive resistance while losing the sovereignty of their own freedom of thought. Viewers will possibly come to recall their own battles in school or maybe those of other classmates. Ultimately, the classroom rebel never wins.
Although the public viewing of Bài Học Đầu Tiên is based in Hồ Chí Minh City, Tuấn is from the city of Huế in Central Vietnam. Huế was once culturally and academically prosperous under the Nguyễn Dynasty between 1804-1945 but its growth was stunted with the abdication of emperor Bảo Đại and the Vietnam-American war. While the city is currently home to numerous galleries and a biennial international arts festival, Huế’s art community pales in comparison to the modernity, financial backing and various venues available in Hồ Chí Minh City and Hà Nội. We asked Tuấn why Huế arts hasn’t grown like bigger cities and if he feels he is fulfilling some sort of ambassadorial role in representing Huế :
‘Artists in Huế are still prioritizing their independence and the integrity of their work. They’re introverts, not socialisers. Huế’s mentality is still ‘traditional’ and artists aren’t wholly considered part of the city’s fabric. Neither the city’s social demographics nor the artists are fully accepting of each other.
About Hue Artist Tran Tuan
‘I am proud to be a full time artist. There were lots of guys doing stuff before me but unable to make it full-time. I am part of the generation that grew up in the 80’s and during Đổi Mới (the significant change in national economics to a socialist-oriented market economy in 1986). For people of my generation, we now have access to things like the internet and independent learning while remembering how things were in the 80’s and 90’s. I can say I represent the people of my generation but not for anyone younger or older.’
This is far from being Tuấn‘s first public viewing. Aside from having public installations in Huế with the City Tumor, Altered Cloud and Imperial Mushroom his collaborative experimental film Abandoned has been shown in three different countries. His photographic series titled the forefingers was exhibited in Umea, Sweden. He also runs the art residency ‘Lang Art Dorm’ in Huế which hosts artwork and performances by travelling artists. Bài Học Đầu Tiên is only the beginning of an exciting year for Tuấn.
‘I will be lecturing at Chiang Mai arts faculty in Thailand for a year. It will be a great opportunity to meet artists from different countries as well as learn more about setting up and organising educational art programmes. Hopefully, I can bring something back to Huế with the experiences I have learnt there.’
Tuấn‘s art residency in Huế
Lang Art Dorm
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily relect the official policy, position or views of Vin Gallery.