Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Trần Lương, _Sun Reflection, 1997, ink and natural color pigments on dó paper, 24 3/8 x 32 1/4". From “Gang of Five: Chancing Modern.”

Trần Lương, _Sun Reflection, 1997, ink and natural color pigments on paper, 24 3/8 x 32 1/4". From “Gang of Five: Chancing Modern.”

Gang of Five

Factory Contemporary Arts Centre

The Gang of Five are “a very famous yet mysterious group of painters,” according to Lê Thuân Uyên, curator of “Gang of Five: Chancing Modern.” Though they are widely known in Vietnam as pioneers of abstraction, their practices are not well understood, and their early works in particular have rarely been shown. Formed in Hanoi in the late 1980s, the group comprises Hồng Việt Dũng, Hà Trí Hiếu, Đặng Xuân Hoà, Trần Lương and Phạm Quang Vinh. (Lương is better known to international audiences for his performances and videos, which have been exhibited extensively in biennials and museums across Asia, Europe, and the US.) These five men first gathered to share ideas and exhibit together, finding strength in a feeling of community within a political and cultural climate that was inhospitable to abstraction or any other experimentation not sponsored by the Vietnamese state.

Comprising twenty-five paintings, all but five of which were from the 1990s, a key period for the group, this was the first exhibition ever to attempt a historical survey of the Gang of Five. Given the artists’ longevity and their growing prominence in emerging narratives about the development of contemporary art practices in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia, the exhibition was therefore overdue. Helpfully, each artist’s work was exhibited alongside excerpts of texts originally published in the 1990s by Vietnamese and foreign critics and curators, indicating the artists’ stature even at the time. Because contemporary art is absent from official education in Vietnam, the simple gesture of reproducing these 1990s texts in the exhibition, and situating them alongside a historical time line and a small selection of archival materials contributed to the show’s impressive pedagogical value.

Less effective was the exhibition design, which placed each artist’s work in a separate room. This obscured the connections among the artists’ practices, making it impossible to visually experience resonances between the works. For example, if the paintings had been shown together in a more open space, we might have been able to speculate about the shared quality of wateriness, seen in the soft staining used in all of the exhibited works by Lương and in the delicate shadows and reflections in two of Hiếu’s paintings.

The most compelling works in the show were those by Lương and Hiếu. In Lương’s four works, all from the 1990s, the subtly varying textures created through the use of cardboard and Vietnamese paper worked in tandem with quite evenly distributed stains and inkblots to create allover-ground surfaces that were faintly illusionistic, while still nonrepresentational. Floating on top of these fields of muted, earthy tones was a repeating motif: a usually black-and-white shape resembling an elongated eye with two pupils. The repeating forms were quietly menacing: Did they speak of the paranoid, watchful eyes that characterize repressive societies? Or of fish, or human organs? Or perhaps of more intangible punctures, obsessions, or disruptions? By contrast, Hiếu’s paintings, like those of Dũng, Hoà, and Vinh, were broadly figurative in composition, yet also featured distorted forms and flat swaths of color that were radical and risky for their time and place. Hiếu is known for his distinctive figures, but his depictions of both interior spaces and landscapes were especially beguiling.

“Gang of Five: Chancing Modern” was the second in an ambitious series of projects about artists’ groups in Vietnam, commissioned by the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre under the title “Spirit of Friendship.” Last year’s inaugural presentation featured the Gang of Five as one of twenty-two artists’ groups that have shaped contemporary practices across the country since the end of the war there. The curation of “Chancing Modern” privileged education over aesthetic and affective experience, but this groundbreaking and thoroughly researched exhibition had much to offer new generations of artists navigating Vietnam’s still repressive systems of censorship and control.

Roger Nelson