If you want to take two rapid snapshots of Vietnamese art today, you need to go to Manchester and London. The Manchester Art Gallery is currently showing a retrospective of work by Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba. This show, which runs until 1 June, is work by what you might call a Vietnamese internationalist – born in Vietnam, raised and educated in America, and now living once again in Vietnam, Hatsushiba uses the most sophisticated of modern methods to make art which is, technologically speaking, sophisticated and of the moment.
One of his works, a meditation upon the Vietnam War, takes the form of an underwater ballet in which artists try and try again to make marks upon canvases supported by easels attached to the ocean floor.
The exhibition engages with issues of conflict world-wide – one installation consists of a series of globes into which you can peek in order to discover the exact location of sources of strife. The globes are on a tilt, and at different heights, as if to remind us of the state of moral vertigo in which we all swim. The outlook throughout amounts to an engagement with the local, though never without some sense that everything in the world impinges upon everything else.
Go to the Mall Galleries in London, and you will find work which feels much older in its influences, and seems to mingle elements from Vietnamese folk art, and remnants of an older French colonial tradition.
It is a quieter world altogether, almost a pietistic one, and an art which in its reserved mood feels sealed off, whilst acknowledging the influence of Western art, though it is usually art of a much older kind than Nguyen-Hatsushiba seems to be living among. What is more, where Hatsushiba's work often feels frenzied, the artists in London seem to be alive in a world which exists in a condition of strangely contemplative stillness where art can give them some kind of inner succour.
Take the curious paintings of Le Vuong, for example. Le Voung makes still-life paintings, and often on a huge scale. They look Dutch in their influence, and also French, although the props are unmistakably Asian. The dramatic, raking light seems to have fallen straight out of Georges de La Tour, except that its colour is not at all Northern. It is thicker, less clear, and somehow greener, than Northern light. This means that the carefully and harmoniously disposed range of objects which populate his canvases feel more disembodied than the objects in any Dutch still life. It is as if we are looking at the memory of a shell or of a two-stringed Vietnamese violin.
Even when Kim Bach is in the world, she still seems to be set apart from it in her watercolours painted on silk. This has something to do with the use of silk, of course. Silk adds an ethereal quality to the image. It seems almost to guarantee that as we take two steps forward, the painting itself takes two decorous steps back.
Here we have a scene of Horse Carriages at Ba Diem Market – 2007. Being a market scene in 2007, and knowing how noisy and sweaty and stinking markets are, we expect some atmosphere of fever and tumult. Not at all. The ground on which the marketers stand is perfectly smooth and unsullied. There is not a spot of horse dung anyway. Traders and customers seem to be in perfect rapport. It is as if all that awkward, nasty mess from the real world has been smoothed away in the interest of a kind of soothing sweetness. The market is idealised, if not prettified.
Ho Thu Thu is an abstract painter who works with lacquer. Traditionally, lacquer came in a very narrow range of colours. Not any more. These colours are making hay. The fact that he is using lacquer gives his abstractions an almost mineral quality. Sometimes they look like gently burnished metal. Abstractions often strike jarring notes. These do not jar in the least. This art from Vietnam is evidently sick of the mess and the mire of politics. Which means that it will be perfect for any Surrey mantelpiece.
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, to June 1 (0161-235 8888); Imagining the Source, ends today (01373 832 939)Reuse content