In the lead-up to a group exhibition of artists from Vietnam on 19 March, Shamus Sillar spoke with REDSEA Gallery owner Chris Churcher about his close connection with that enigmatic country and its art.
How many Vietnamese artists has REDSEA Gallery represented?
We’ve had the pleasure of representing some of Vietnam’s finest emerging and leading artists over the past 10 years. At present we have five artists who feature regularly at the gallery and one or two guest artists whose work we feature from time to time – including at our upcoming group exhibition.
What are the backgrounds of the artists?
Most have graduated with fine art degrees. Two artists who we’ve represented from Day One are Nguyen Dieu Thuy, also a professional musician who now performs and teaches classical music in the US, and Bang Sy Truc, who lectures in art history in Hanoi.
What draws you to their work?
The beauty of Vietnamese art is the serenity and calmness it brings. It’s easy on the eye and not complicated to understand. I’d say it’s almost a form of modern-day impressionism. In today’s fast and edgy art world, not everybody wants to stand in front of a piece of art and wonder what they’re really looking at. Some do and some don’t – I like both – but some people prefer to see and relate to art immediately. Vietnam’s art scene is a joy to discover. It shows that life doesn’t have to be difficult and nor does art.
How do you source art from Vietnam?
Like all the artists we represent at Red Sea, we have to like the work ourselves. Sourcing art is always a pleasure, and though my time is now spent travelling to all corners of the world to discover talent to bring to Singapore, Vietnam remains a favourite as it was the first place from which we sourced art. We have very established contacts there; in fact, it’s the artists themselves who introduce us to other artists. Language can be a barrier, but we get by. There’s always an English-speaking nephew or sister nearby to help out! Whether the translation is actually what has been said is another story, but at least we have some understanding.
What do you like most about Vietnam?
It’s a world away from Singapore and the rest of the developed world, and even though Hanoi and Saigon (as I prefer to call it) are modernised and commercial centres now, Vietnam’s heritage and culture are still very apparent in these two cities and throughout the country.
To me, there’s a kind of romance in Vietnam that I can’t describe; one that perhaps doesn’t exist anywhere else. I think that comes from my personal interest in its recent history since the war. I often wonder how we would cope or recover if our country ever suffered in the way Vietnam did. I admire the integrity and the self-belief of the Vietnamese.
Has the widespread copying of original works in Vietnam damaged the reputation of its art scene?
Ahh, my favourite topic of conversation. There will always be copycats – trust me, it’s not just artists who get copied. Even things we do at the gallery get copied. If only people could come up with their own ideas!
It’s okay, though – originality in whatever field will always win the day. Original artists are the thinkers in their world. In fact, if an artist is being copied, it’s a sign of respect.
Copying goes on all over the world – not just in Vietnam. It’s just more obvious there because it has become an easy tourism destination with really only two major cities of choice. So, it’s in your face. But it happens in China, too – not to mention Europe.
Certainly, though, if you are buying Vietnamese art – any art – be sure you know whom you are buying from – even at the source. It’s my job to represent original artists. Be it artist or art dealer, I ask questions and keep on asking.
One of my favourite stories comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York. Beside a painting of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is a small write-up and a story about the artist. It goes something like this:
Van Gogh was painting in his studio one day, when his understudy came running in, gasping for breath. “Master, Master” he gasped. “What’s up?” asked Van Gogh. “Master, please come with me – an absolute outrage is happening; somebody is copying your Sunflowers!” So, Van Gogh was dragged along to where his understudy had just come from. They peered through the window of a dark and dingy studio and, sure enough, there was somebody painting exactly the sunflowers Van Gogh had painted previously (77 Van Gogh paintings in the Sunflowers series are accounted for in the world today). Van Gogh turned to his understudy and said: “My boy, yes, I can see that this man is most certainly copying my work. Not only is he copying me – he is doing a better job!” The man was Claude Monet.
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