Never before has the photography scene in Vietnam blossomed like last weekend when four photo exhibitions simultaneously opened across the capital city of Hanoi. Photos of premiers full of visitors, flowers and congratulations flood Facebook. Not yet knowing about the content of these exhibitions, one can somehow tell from the titles: “Hanoi’s Little Corners”, “Hanoi & Film”, “Vietnam My Country” and “Go Explore Vietnam”. Since nobody can judge a book by its title, I decide to do a tour and see for myself.
Go Explore Vietnam (Heritage Space, 27/8-1/9/2017)
The exhibition is the outcome of a cross-country road trip by a group called Go Explore together with some foreign photographers, opened with the goal of “expanding your vision of Vietnam”. Despite such friendly introduction, viewers have to pay an entrance fee of 50.000 VND to enter a space where not so new works are exhibited. Half of the venue is dedicated to Rehahn, a big name and a living example of how famous you can get without having neither innovation nor creativity here. On the opposite wall lies a chunk of photos by a few foreign photographers arranged in an irregular and quite eye catching manner. Again we see a dreamy Hoi An, dirt poor children in the highlands and old people photoshopped in a way that make their wrinkles stand out as much as possible: just exoticizing views about the country and its people.
Besides are bird-eye photos by Pham Phu Nghia and 4K videos by Nguyen Tan Dung not much different from online commercials we are so used to seeing. In a closed and neat space where medium-sized flycam photos were hang and 4K videos projected, I looked hard and still failed to find how to “immerse in an artistic scene of travel photos and videos”.
I regretted not attending the opening with a live show of electronic music and light performance, can anybody point out how such “interactive experience” helps to push the art scene forward?
Hanoi Little Corners (29 Hang Bai, 25-29/8/2017)
This personal exhibition by Nguyen Xuan Chinh consists of 30 images about Hanoi made over many years. Neither ideas nor the execution is novel, the venue is even more historical. However, the exhibition still comes out as satisfying for some viewers thanks to the consistency in content and professionalism in production. The author himself shared that “I am not as good as other photographers so I just want to find my own vision from shooting the most familiar things”. Most notable is perhaps the carefully composed polyptych that depicts 4 seasons through 4 symbolic trees. The romance of flowers and young women in ao dai still has its own audience, as Hanoians always retain the need to exclaim “Oh, Hanoi actually has such beautiful corners!”.
Vietnam My Country (50 Dao Duy Tu, 26/08 – 12/09/2017)
I was looking around for a leaflet, an introduction or someone to ask about the exhibition, but there is none to be found. The only available information is the names of 3 photographers. So for now let’s agree on a generic topic “as old as this S-shaped country” that is the beauty of the land and the people. The exhibition is unimaginably poorly organized: images are carelessly hung and sequenced with name tags even glued directly on them on walls full of dirty marks; some prints even have watermarks on them while even amateurs know this is an obvious no-no. It offers a hotpot of visual styles: if a super wide lens does not look impressive enough let’s use a fisheye, if the coast guard doesn’t appear resilient, let’s add a layer of our national flag fluttering in the wind. Is this just another event put together in a haste to celebrate Independence day?
Film & Hanoi (2 Le Thai To, 26/08 – 03/09)
This event is causing quite a stir on social media recently, partly because it is featured a lot on online news channels, partly because the film community itself has a large and loyal following. It is a joint effort by Classic Film Camera & Photography, Film Vietnam and Lab 36+, multiple organizations who know little about setting up an exhibition. The venue right at Hoan Kiem lake is an advantage, and an outdoor exhibition in a place with a lot of natural foot traffic can attract curious tourists and passers by. However, it is arguable that displaying 100 images with greatly diverse visual styles in such a cramped place with too many distractions is ideal for viewing and contemplating the works.
The effort to find an alternative outcome to show photos other than Facebook is laudable, but this exhibition is probably meant to be a gathering, with works loosely collected following a general theme of “Hanoi” and “film” without a specific artist statement.
I suddenly see a familiar photo of a group of children gathering around a tohe craftsman by Hieu Tran. It sure looks familiar, because a similar one is on display that very moment at “Hanoi Little Corners” exhibition by Nguyen Xuan Chinh only a few hundred meters away. One taken on film and one digitally, so the “value of analog cameras that digital ones can never reach up to” is too much of an overstatement by the media here?
Enough said! Multiple exhibitions going on at the moment generates a certain positive effect in bringing photography closer to the community. Nonetheless, quantity does not equal quality and it is hard to say when most organizers are amateur photographers doing it for fun. According to veteran photographer Long DT, “Events like that should be referred to as “photo display”, calling them “photo exhibition” devalues the word!”.
Nobody is against having fun, but to make fun a priority and neglecting the presentation of your work is not advisable. Respect for your own photos and the audience should be taken into consideration once they are to be shown publicly. In these circumstances, the role of a curator proves more vital than ever and the absence of one in Hanoi for many years accounts for the substandard shows that we see. The content is just more of the same, and while single images with cheesy names abound, a serious long-term series is nowhere to be found. After a tour of 5 photo exhibitions, I wonder: When was the last time Hanoi had a truly exciting show to set an example for both image makers and the audience?
Linh Pham is a Hanoi based independent photojournalist whose work focus on human condition and community-centred issues.
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