Randomness, lack of curation cause bumpy ride for public art

By Long Nguyen   November 27, 2020 | 05:00 am PT
The lack of collaboration between artists, urban planners and authorities has affected the quality and maintenance of emerging public artworks in the country.

In 2017 Tam Thanh fishing village in the central Quang Nam Province got a new look with colorful murals, and became a tourist magnet.

The success story has since inspired other similar projects in many cities and provinces across Vietnam. Public art has in fact been blooming in many cities and rural areas.

Hanoi is home to the world record ceramic road that runs almost 4,000 meters through four districts.

Recently a group of local and international artists created installations depicting various aspects of Vietnamese culture in Phuc Tan Ward, Hoan Kiem District.

These public artworks have made the area a cultural site and attract locals and tourists alike to what used to be a rundown place filled with garbage.

Murals on a wall of a high school in Hanoi, which caused controversy among art insiders since many of them think the paintings do not harmonize with the historic neighborhood. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Murals on a high school wall in Hanoi, which caused controversy since many art insiders think they do not suit the historic neighborhood. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Following in the footsteps of Tam Thanh village, neighboring Quang Ngai Province and Da Nang and Can Tho cities also have murals decorating many places.

Electrical boxes in cities are decorated with paintings of flowers, market scenes and bustling streets.

But ubiquitous by its absence is quality.

Saigon-based sculptor Nguyen Xuan Tien said many of the public artworks are not pretty. In fact, in the last few years people have been expressing concern over public murals, many of which are unseemly.

In 2017 Saigonese were aghast to see more than 500 electricity poles in District 11 covered in paintings of flowers that looked like they were "made by kindergarten children."

There has also been a community backlash against animal statues that looked like "monsters" in the northern Hai Phong City and statues painted in garish colors in Hanoi’s Thong Nhat Park.

"Most of the artworks have no specific content or ideas, and their creators appear to have randomly done them," Tran Khanh Chuong, artist and chairman of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association and the Hanoi Street Decoration Council, told local media.

Tien pointed out that public art in many parks is mostly about the 12 zodiac animals or historical figures, which do not help improve people’s aesthetic sense.

At a seminar on public art and tourism held in Hanoi on November 17, many experts expressed the fear these public artworks could negatively affect the community's esthetic tastes.

Hanois ceramic road is made from ceramic tesserae from Bat Trang, famous for its centuries-old traditional pottery. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Hanoi's ceramic road made from tesserae from Bat Trang, famous for its centuries-old traditional pottery. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

But even when public artworks are showcased communally, they face another issue: the risk of deterioration.

Hanoi’s iconic ceramic road has been vandalized. Some parts have become dilapidated, cracked and affected by smoke from people burning trash.

In 2019 an installation titled "Thap" (Tower) made from plastic with a maze inside inspired by the works of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian was removed from Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake after many visitors used it as a public toilet.

According to sculptor Mai Thu Van, who owned the art project, it was not the first time the public has vandalized her artwork.

Many experts agreed that managing public artworks is still a problem because people think that since these are meant for the public they do not need protection or maintenance.

But as the old saying goes, "Everybody’s business is nobody’s business."


The lack of collaboration between cultural, urban development and local authorities is the main factor hurting the development of public art, Phan Dang Son, chairman of the Vietnam Association of Architects, said.

Artists create works without caring much about urban planning and how their works could be harmonized with the surroundings, he pointed out.

Well-known art critic Pham Cam Thuong warned: "They (artists) should not think that merely putting paintings on a wall could make it more beautiful; they should consider carefully before creating artworks."

Son agreed, saying artists and architects should work closely together to create more beautiful public spaces.

To keep these artworks living with the public, many art insiders suggest that citizens should have the right to express their ideas when it comes to deciding whether an artwork should be displayed or not.

Thuong said not seeking public opinion before commissioning public artworks is a shortcoming.

They are taxpayer-funded, so people should be able to decide the content, he added, saying related parties should also think before creating public artworks since they could directly affect the lives of nearby residents.

In Tam Thanh fishing village, many locals have given up their traditional fishing job and moved to other places after selling their land to outsiders, Thuong said. The newcomers rebuilt houses, damaging the murals on the walls and the local identity.

"At the end of the day, art may not benefit people if it makes them lose their village and culture."

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