Building a Yellow Light Commonwealth (Discussion)

Ho Chi Minh Trail

Gao Shiming, Lu Jie, Dinh Q Le, Nguyen Nhu Huy, Liu Wei, Richard Streitmatter-Tran, Wang Jianwei, Wang Jiahao


June 19, 2010, Ho Chi Minh City. On the seventh day of the journey, Long March Project and Himiko Café co-organized an extensive six-hour public discussion that closely examined the issues of institutionalized international exchange and collaborations, and discussed the proposition of a revitalized platform for effective inter-Asian dialogue. The following text is a partial transcription of this discussion.


Lu Jie: There are many critical periods within contemporary Chinese art, for example, the ’85 New Wave Movement. I am not saying that this movement is necessarily good or bad; it is a romanticized movement. Is there something like this in Vietnam? Was there an avant-garde that is represented as “the avant-garde” in Vietnam?

Dinh Q Le: Since the beginning of our struggle for independence, the development of art has continually stopped and started according to the status of war. Abstraction came to Vietnam before 1975, but developments like this always stop because of conflict. Doi moi (economic reform) opened it up more, particularly with literature, and writers started to write critically about society, which influenced the thinking of a lot of visual artists as well. This happened only for a brief period of time; the government shut it down because it became too critical. Many of the artists in Vietnam look at government policy towards contemporary art as a yellow light, unsure as to whether it will let art proceed or make it stop completely.

In terms of contemporary art, we have to talk about Hanoi; that is where it started. The Goethe Institute in Hanoi played an extremely important role in the development of contemporary art in Vietnam. In the last seven years, as Ho Chi Minh City began to open up as an economic power and as more and more Vietnamese who were trained overseas (business sector, lm, art, etc.) have come back to Saigon, there has been a completely different energy.

Lu Jie: Even in China. We have been intensively debating what we have gone through so far on our journey. We are cautious about the Long March Project’s optimistic ideal of engaging all kinds of organizations that operate with various strategies and agendas such as an alternative space, an NGO, or an official space. In Cambodia we visited a foreign space, an art space founded or run by a non-Cambodian, but the discussion was very much dominated by NGO voices. When we went to Ly Daravuth’s Reyum Institute in Phnom Penh, we were very touched by his practice of contextualizing the local situation.

Nguyen Nhu Huy: There are many faces of what we mean by community, the same as the word local. Both can be understood in different ways.

Gao Shiming: Thank you to all our new friends for their presentations tonight; it gives us a better understanding of the scene here. What we have just experienced is a very typical non-Western exchange of thoughts, but this kind of exchange can also be seen as a clichéd, superficial mode of communication. This is the reason we are doing the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project. We are not trying to go back to history; it is a project about today.

The people who are involved in the Long March Project themselves are not necessarily in agreement. We are not a fixed collective with consensus. We have to ask: What is the medium for the HCMTP? Perhaps contemporary art?

Contemporary art is not just a name but is also a system that has been internationally critiqued. If we say that thirty years ago, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Laos were connected because of a utopian vision, then today the contemporary art that arises from that legacy needs to be discussed. Everyone is constructing the HCMTP, this thing that can bring us together as a commonwealth. What does it mean to us? Of course, each country or person has a different narration of local or personal issues. These categories of art and their narratives are con ned within the logic of nation states.

In the presentations you mentioned many practices, spaces, and communities. Are all of these agents together building a commonality that represents contemporary Vietnamese art to the international community? Certainly the Ho Chi Minh Trail that was established thirty years ago was a temporary utopian vision. Is there any possibility that the HCMTP can help us move away from an obsession with the nation state categorization?

Dinh Q Le: Returning to Gao Shiming’s response in which he said that the HCMTP had a common goal among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Chinese artists and thinkers today, and I question now, “What is the common goal, and do we share it?” Honestly I don’t think we have a common goal. This is something we need to discuss. Why is art divided by nation? This has to do with who gets to write history. The way we could write history is not the way people internationally want to see things. Going back to the HCMTP, who is going to write the Project history? It seems like it will be China.

Lu Jie: We really do not represent Chinese art, and Chinese art does not represent China. Artists to me are a commune, and although our cultural, political, and social development is all different, at least our departure point is similar. We are here to question, not to be revisionist or build a legacy. Who writes history? We know that some narratives are more recognized than others; we know that some nations do not yet have an of cial narration of their recent past. Who writes HCMTP history? We are seated here together engaged in a conversation, we are all participants in the project, and through our words and actions we are writing the project’s history collaboratively. As HCMTP progresses, anyone with interest might write about it. Our Khmer translator, if interested, might write about it. Dinh Q Le might write about it. If I write about it, I will write from my two-year experience with it. My thinking is: Why don’t we try to imagine a common space and participate in it? Unfortunately, we have come to the current point where most of the full-journey marchers now engaged with the Project are Chinese, but we have also tried to diversify them—some come from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, etc. As our journey progresses, I have this dream that more and more people, including people from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos can join us. What is stopping us from trusting each other and imagining our commonalities? Perhaps this points to the very idea of the political space in art.

Liu Wei: About the full-journey marchers for this month: In Beijing we do not all know each other well. We are all from different elds. At rst we found it dif cult to nd a point of sharing for communication, but now we seem to be nding a better way of communicating. Similarly, there seems to be a commonality among the development directions of China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—all of these communities have experienced socialist agendas and a later opening up to economic reforms.

In the past few days we have encountered many communication problems with the locals here in Vietnam. Many seem to emphasize the idea of politics and history. But to us, perhaps these two elements are just part of the question “What is contemporary?” Today’s experience gives me the feeling that this international exchange absorbs all our unique cultures and characteristics to formulate a hypocritical platform of sharing. Maybe we can examine the reasons behind this? When you do not understand something, you have to consider it from multiple levels.

Gao Shiming: Perhaps Liu Wei’s thoughts come from him as an artist who could have a very vibrant experience of Vietnam. But now this possibility is hijacked by the HCMTP which is aiming to build dialogue, but this conventional international exchange does not seem to make him comfortable.

Lu Jie: Through our workshops, which we have been holding over a long period, there are many anxieties and problems that we would like to discuss. It has taken a hundred communications and many months to try to connect with the Center of Khmer Studies (CKS). As we understood CKS’s critical role in the writing of Cambodia’s modern history, we were interested in a better understanding of its agenda and mission. In preparing for the journey through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and China, we felt there should be a moment where we could encounter them on the road. Ultimately we failed to meet with CKS for various scheduling reasons.

In another situation, we connected with the Guangxi Academy of Social Science and they introduced us to a whole network of scholars from Hanoi and Vientiane with whom they have regular communication. So these are just two examples from the communication history of the Long March Project.

Wang Jianwei: Referring back to the presentation by our Vietnamese friends and the metaphor of the Vietnamese arts community being not at a green light or a red light, but a yellow light; connecting this with the idea of a commonwealth, can we construct a yellow light commonwealth? At a green light we refuse the red light, and vice versa. A yellow light brings uncertainty and also a feeling of caution and awareness.

We can take the example of the U.S.A. as a country that went from imperialism to democracy. While those involved with environmentalism strongly believe that local issues need to be resolved with global solutions, many in the U.S.A. believe that global issues can be resolved with local solutions. Therefore we should not face a red light with concern or face a green light with the superior feelings of passing through it. In search for a yellow light commonwealth, we can bypass clichéd explanations and types of conversation.

Nguyen Nhu Huy: I am a local and also a participant. Do I understand what this project is about? My answer would be no, but this motivates me to participate in the Project. This reminds me of the first discussion when I was in Beijing. Today’s discussion is similar. An interesting point is that this project creates itself. About the word “understanding”: my own definition is a process of conceptualizing something temporarily. But my own conceptualization will not be the same as the objective.

Going back to Dinh Q Le’s question of who writes history. This is a question that is easily simplified. When I listen to Liu Wei and his experience of this journey, I think this is a very good example of enlightenment within an internal group. But aside from that, how do the locals gain from the Project?

Wang Jiahao: I would like to speak as an individual. When we were discussing a commonwealth of multiple fields, we were projecting a shared assumption that we are not free and we need to be together to break these boundaries. Whenever we hold discussions with new friends, we hope to create something within this enlarged temporary commonwealth. I myself am not here with the intention to rewrite history.

All of us as thinkers and artists are sitting here face to face, but our conversation has to go through the introductions of the groups and group relationships that we participate in. As a foreigner, I am concerned about how my discussion with local people here has gravitated towards the idea of nation. This tendency is very contrary to what the Project had emphasized before about their reasons and inspirations to create a local commonwealth.

No matter how different China and Vietnam are in terms of social and material conditions, globalized capital and community bypass our boundaries. On that level we want to create a commonwealth. If the idea of nation is not strong enough to hold out against the giant of globalized capitalism, what is the point of insisting on the boundaries of nation? Perhaps tonight we will not come to an agreement, but if we can get beyond the idea of nation and begin new conversations, perhaps that will be very meaningful.

Dinh: The problem starts with the name of the project. The names Long March and Ho Chi Minh Trail are imbued with such a deep history within both countries. We cannot approach this project thinking about just individual artists. It’s not like a group of artists that just come together and travel through Vietnam. That is where we are stuck with this issue of nation and history. But I do agree with you in thinking about how we can go beyond that—maybe not even creating a common ground, but understanding the issues and problems we have with each other, and to begin with that.

I’m not just talking about the name of Ho Chi Minh Trail but also that of Long March. Each plays a very important role in the history of China and Vietnam, specifically in the struggle of nation building. In a way that period of time was very nationalistic. When you name your project Long March, you are sort of playing a game with the government. Maybe I am wrong, but when you name your project for an important part of history, you cannot be censored, because you cannot censor this part of history. So again, it’s not like you are just a group of artists coming to Vietnam—it is Long March coming to Vietnam.

Lu Jie: With Dinh Q Le’s few words, I feel that a lot of difficulties I have faced in the last two years have been clarified. Because you are not only speaking to me, you are also speaking to my friends and your friends. You mentioned that by naming a project Long March, one imbues the project with the idea of nationalism. My point of view is, exactly because we are questioning the idea of nationalism, why do we give ourselves such a name? Regardless of whether we agree or disagree in our own points of view, a problematic naming is a way to face together a physical, historical, and political space. Such a project has a different mission and possibilities than projects that are named after, for example, the Silk Road or the Mekong River.

You believe naming Ho Chi Minh Trail is nationalistic; I believe that the naming of HCMTP is against the boundaries of nationalism. The beauty of the naming is that it can be very problematic and not only one-sided—it can connect all of us. From early project communication we have been aware of the problems of the name, and at some point we augmented the project name with the Vietnamese word Duong Truong Son. But what are we going to do with Cambodia, with international media such as the New York Times, or American history, or European history? So to me, it is critical that this naming has problems and it provides us with a space for conversation, like today.

Another thing I want to ask: When you say Ho Chi Minh Trail is nationalistic, which nation are you referring to?

Dinh: Of course since we are in Vietnam, we are talking about Vietnam history. But the trail also goes through China, Cambodia, and Laos, so it’s not exclusively Vietnam. Still, it’s connected to Vietnam in a very deep way. You mentioned Duong Truong Son and you talked about the concerns with Laos and Cambodia, and you also mentioned concerns with the West. Are we working with the project here, or are we talking about this kind of project in relation to the West? Previously I worked in a local community project initiated by an international curator and supported by international funding. My feeling from that project is that it was always about a final exhibition for the consumption of the West. It was never about the local. That’s something I’m concerned about.

Lu Jie: Perhaps there is a misunderstanding. The project name is not to give convenience to the West, or to continue their naming of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. If we sit together today and imagine ourselves as producers and the West as approver and judge, then it is not only HCMTP, but all cultural producers and international successes during the last decade from Asia and the Third World who have to be questioned. Is this misunderstanding coming from an objective or subjective perspective? If it is subjective, then it touches upon the issue of cultural capital, and that is a big problem.

I disagree with your interpretation of Long March as being nationalistic and the project A Walking Visual Display (2002) as a disguised act of “flashing a red flag against a red flag.” In China, we have received hostile feelings about that project as well, and the one you shared is one amongst many. At the very beginning of the proposal, we began by thinking about Gandhi’s long march, American Congressman Nimra Gimerich’s long march, and the Christians’ long march to Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. We are taking “long march” as a metaphor engaged with grand narratives but trying to complicate them at the same time. The official grand narrative is only part of our examination. We have eight years of history of being misunderstood as the extreme right or extreme left, or as capitalizing on history in order to do organizational branding or propaganda. The original use of “long march” as theoretical grounds for A Walking Visual Display was not a strategic move, the ideology of understanding the historical Long March was not one-sided. However, in the history books, from the beginning of the Long March until a certain point in its progress, it was fortified between two ideologies, communism and nationalism.

The problems of history and theory cannot be discussed separately. In the beginning of the project I had hoped that it would not be constrained by the Trail’s historical context, but now I think we should not refrain from discussing this context. When we speak of Ho Chi Minh Trail today, we are responding to the narration of contemporary art from China and Vietnam as discussed within various given theoretical frameworks (postrevolution, postcolonialism, alternative modernity). It is now 20 years after the Cold War, how do we revise our narration of contemporary art in order to re-understand ourselves. In Chinese contemporary art, many local curators and critics complain that western curators and critics misunderstand the Chinese art context because they lack the living experience in China. If so, a western curator asked during a conference, then can you tell us what is Chinese Contemporary Art? There was dead silence in response. What is stopping us from telling our story today? It is not a matter of who has the right to tell this story? Can we tell our story when we hold theright to speak? I think it is more complicated, there must be a force that isstopping us from telling our story, from describing our own reality.

Rich Strattemeier: Was some of these resolved in the Farewell to Postcolonialism,the Guangzhou Triennial?

Gao Shiming: When I co-curated the Triennial back then, I still did not have the experience I have today, of coming to Cambodia and Vietnam. Through the short past ten days of the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, I sense that the narrations of postcolonialism do not adequately reflect the reality here. The reality here is much more radical.

The West, the theoretical enemy of postcolonialism, has already been changed by postcolonialism itself. What we are facing is not just the remains of the Cold War, or postcolonialism, but also the explosion of global capitalism since 2000 and the spectacle of politics it has brought us. Through this spectacle, Vietnam and China are summarized as contemporary Vietnamese art and contemporary Chinese art. These summaries change how we sense our everyday realities. Through the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, I am re-examining my understanding of my own reality. I am painfully recognizing that the scheme of “contemporary Chinese art” has already ended.

I especially want to hear from our Vietnamese participants about how they see the development of contemporary Chinese Art.

Dinh: Being educated in the West on art history, earlier on I saw a lot of work from China taking inspiration from the West and putting it into the Chinese context. So far I have not seen much art coming from China that differs from my rst impression of it, but slowly there is something coming out that is no longer being tied down by the art history of the West. And maybe this has to do with new media.

Huy: I did not have any general image of contemporary Chinese art, and my understanding of it is from seven years ago when I translated an article from Zhu Qi, in which he asked, “Does the West Understand Chinese Contemporary Art?” Later I read books by Hou Hanru, and then the curatorial proposal of Long March Project. Honestly, it made me think very differently about contemporary Chinese art. Initially it seemed that contemporary Chinese art was trying to build its own grand narrative to combat the grand Western narrative. But A Walking Visual Display proposed the methodology of going from outside to inside, to see what the reality of China is.

Some people try to forget the con icts that happened between North and South Vietnam. What I realize now is that history is history.

Rich: If you imagine contemporary Chinese art as a mass in space, I always feel its strong gravitational force. When you look at a map of Asia, China always seems to be positioned towards the middle and the other countries in the periphery. Of course I have a lot of respect for Chinese artists, but I always feel this magnetic force from China.

Gao Shiming: We are a group of Chinese artists and thinkers engaging in dialogue with you in Vietnam. Is there a difference between this non- Western international exchange and the exchanges you have had with American or European groups?

Lu Jie: Several years ago I attended a conference in Delhi. After our Long March Project presentation, there was an invitation from the extreme left and traditional left for Long March to journey to India. Perhaps their inclination to dialogue with us stemmed from a common historical thread that links all Asian countries together—these countries all struggled towards national independence after World War II and in many of these revolutionary narratives, socialist thought played a critical role.

Dinh Q Le:

I think the big difference is the long history between India and China vs. the history between China and Vietnam. India and China are presently more equal powers. Vietnam and China have a long history that is very complicated. The issues we face are not the same as India.

Whether I like the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project or not, I think the discussion of this project goes much deeper than any discussion I have had with visiting Western critics, curators, or historians. Because we in this room share so much that we pick up on each other’s points and that’s how the discussion ows. Westerners miss so many points, so the conversation does not go any deeper.

I think discussion, whether it involves disagreement or agreement, is good. Whether my problem is with the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project’s name or other issues, it is a matter of discussion, of bringing these issues out and talking about it.

Lu Jie: Reflecting back at Wang Jianwei’s proposal of a yellow light commonwealth, it is a shared dialogue, a political economy. Let us move away from political history to political economy, which is what constitutes debate.