The image of a bird in a cage is familiar across cultures, but when artist Lai Dieu Ha took off all her clothes, smeared herself in oil and got covered in blue feathers, for many Vietnamese watching, the medium obscured the message.
The performance “Fly Up” was part of the first In:Act, a series of lectures and performances by young experimental artists inVietnam.
Co-organiser Gabby Miller says the plan was to create a platform for “something that doesn’t have space now”.
But in the wake of bad press following Ha’s show and others, organising it a second time was not so easy.
When gallery Nha San Duc applied for another licence in 2011, it was denied.
Instead, In:Act was taken to a private home in the mountains and all photography was strictly controlled.
Curator Hung Nguyen Manh says he thinks authorities cracked down because they were afraid following public criticism the year before.
Ha, praised for her bravery by other experimental artists, was attacked on television and the Internet for being an attention seeker.
“I’m quite sure that the police and Vietnamese people haven’t opened their minds to art and culture,” Hung says.
“They hate what they don’t understand.”
It isn’t easy to test boundaries in a country known for repressing freedom of speech but, for many artists, censorship is both a curse and a blessing.
Artists usually have to apply for licences to show their work in galleries and submit details with explanations of what they mean.
Painter Pham Huy Thong says no one dares to be direct.
“When we feel we want to make a comment on society we do that, but we’re not illustrators.
If we did that, we could end up in jail,” he says.
There is no list of topics forbidden by censors, says Luong Xuan Doan, deputy head of the Culture and Art Department under the Communist Party’s commission for education and communications.
But artists are advised not to show work that opposes the party and the government, or goes against traditional customs.
According to Thong, that often includes full frontal nudity.
For some, the censorship actually nurtures creativity, since people find new ways to circumvent restrictions.
Many pieces that could be interpreted as subversive find clever ways of obscuring the meaning.
It’s not a priority for all.
Fellow co-founder of In:Act Bill Nguyen, whose mother works for the Propaganda Department, says he’s more interested in “art for art’s sake”.
He used the space to wash people’s hair.
“My mum came to see my work and she just didn’t get it.
She said, ‘Why are you washing people’s hair?
How is it art?’
I was like, ‘That’s the point, mum!'”
Challenging cultural taboos is the agenda of much performance art the world over, but in Vietnam the taboos are quite different, says Almuth Meyer-Zollitsch, director of the Goethe Institute there.
“The moral norms here in Vietnam and other countries like Thailand and China are much more conservative than in the West,” she says.
“That’s part of the strong family values that are absolutely contrary to what we experienced in the 1960s sexual revolution in the West.”
Being naked in public in the West wouldn’t shock anyone, Meyer-Zollitsch says.
“In fact it would be boring because in the late ’70s and early ’80s everyone was jumping naked on the theatre stages.”
Another barrier is the different concept of private and public space.
Art historian Nora Taylor says people in Vietnam are constantly “on display” because they live in crowded areas.
So people don’t show their feelings spontaneously, but rather through accepted channels, like funerals.
Ha ended her performance in 2010 by opening her mouth and releasing a live bird, an act that could be interpreted as freeing an idea.
If artists are denied a safe space to perform, there will be no room even to show that metaphor in Vietnam.
Miller remains confident.
“We might just have to find a different format or change the name if it’s the name that’s getting us into trouble.
Maybe that’s why performance art works so well, because we bring a bunch of artists anywhere and it will happen.
It has that flexibility.”
By MARIANNE BROWN
Source: The Nation (Thailand)