Emerging artists have an unexpected new space in the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum to experiment with new contemporary art. By Ruben Luong. Photo by Vinh Dao.

It was an auspicious night to have a classy affair, and Saigon’s underground community of beatniks, bohemes and academics felt so, too. By sundown, a palpable anticipation filled the modest courtyard of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, where a crowd of winsome folk convened for the grand opening of new experimental space, Sao La.

Referencing in name the rare and eponymous Asian bovine, Sao La is essentially a non-profit breeding ground for young and emerging artists in the city. Under the aegis of commercial space Galerie Quynh, it’s an unusual addition to the conventional exhibits displayed throughout the museum’s colonial-era hallways.

So invitations were sent and curiosities were peaked. If not already acquainted, there was a sixth degree of separation between all the Sao La guests, with plenty of them part of the established art community. Spotted, for instance, was the chic French-Vietnamese artist Sandrine Llouquet in the courtyard and also artist, curator and RMIT lecturer Richard Streitmatter-Tran.
But the evening was not a nod to the established artists or curators of Ho Chi Minh City’s contemporary art scene, but rather to 10 exclusive and relatively unknown Saigon artists of the hour, most of whom have not yet been publicly exhibited.

Their grand debut in Sao La’s inaugural exhibit Out of Nowhere was ultimately a chance to inspire a new and young generation of Vietnamese contemporary artists. Cultivating these young minds are local artists Tung Mai, 29, and Kim To Lan Nguyen, 32, who will organise workshops and art talks at Sao La to improve contemporary art education.

“The university education of art here is all very old and has been kept the same for a long time,” says Nguyen. “Many young Vietnamese misunderstand art and there’s a lack of foundation for young artists, so they don’t have the resources or proper methods for executing art.”

Since 1996, local and Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) artists such as Dinh Q Le, Tiffany Chung and Nguyen Manh Hung have earned international prominence in major bienniales, exhibiting large-scale works with themes of historical memory and loss, cultural difference, urban space, power and rebellion relevant to their generation.

But while most established artists continue to focus on piecing together the complex realities of Vietnam’s pre- and post-colonial contexts, the current generation of young Vietnamese artists at Sao La seem interested in disparate ideas and practices, dabbling in a range of media from painting and photography to video and installation.

Freedom (Tu Do) by Hoang Nam Viet, 29, was among the first pieces to be seen inside the Sao La space. Viet’s two-panel oil-on-canvas painting was unlike many of the historical, romanticised works in the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, showing a garish representation of a nude, genderless figure cradled in the hands of a monster-like Creator.

“It’s an image from my graphic novel about genderless people,” Viet explains with bright eyes through thick-rimmed vintage glasses, his hair tied back in a nonchalant ponytail, as we sit in the open terrace of his shared studio on Nguyen Cong Tru Street, a few blocks from Sao La.

“I’ve read a lot about how people perceive gender and I studied about the fetus and when you can determine the sex of a person. In my story there’s a man with a mental problem. He thinks he’s God and can give people the freedom to determine their gender before they’ve developed,” he says.

Another emerging artist, Nguyen Duc Dat, 35, exhibited three kitschy works at Sao La, consisting of two 120 x 150cm ID portraits in oil-on-canvas, Kim Hung and Thach Thao, and a mixed media installation titled Cabinet (Cai tu).

“I found a small folder in my studio with old ID cards. Some people use it when their family member dies and they put it onto the altar, so I was fascinated with that,” he says, leisurely blowing puffs of tobacco from a pipe.

A sense of humour is reflected in Dat’s installation, which is a play on the spiritual life of a Vietnamese family. A four-tiered cabinet is arranged according to a hierarchy of local traditions and norms. The top shelf houses incense and a Buddha shrine. Each descending shelf contains paraphernalia from a typical Vietnamese home. But suddenly on the bottom level are cabinets that, when opened up, reveal two small paintings of people having sex.

Whether deeply existential or tongue-in-cheek, these are themes and subject matters covered in Sao La that wouldn’t otherwise be featured in the Fine Arts museum, despite its role as one of the only major art institutions in the city. For awhile the museum has had a lackluster reputation.

“If you go to work for the art museum, it’s like you are not an artist anymore,” says Nguyen, who worked at the museum for three years. “You are very boring. But when you stay outside you don’t know what happens on the inside. I worked in the research and collection department so I understand that they want something like Sao La but they don’t know how to do it. They have difficulties also.”

Realising the community of contemporary artists is growing larger, the museum wants better programming but suffers from limited funding. Galerie Quynh also attempted in 2009 to create a program for emerging artists which also stalled several years later due to a lack in funding.

But with money no longer an issue, the crucial moment for experimental contemporary art has finally arrived for both parties, and with it many ideas, hours of coordinating and pressure for art curators who will need to provide continuous interaction and collaboration for young Vietnamese artists.

Programming at Sao La is still in its early stages, but it wants to engage with the public and will soon offer graffiti performance art, new media and other experimental projects atypical of traditional art.

“I consider this a kind of challenge, a bridge between the establishment and the art community,” Nguyen says. “We don’t want to be against the system. It’s not like that. But we expect to help as many young artists as possible.”

Out of Nowhere runs through 27 July at Sao La, 1 Le Thi Hong Gam, D1