Art uncovered: the saga of Saigon Artbook

By Nhung Nguyen   September 27, 2016 | 11:11 pm PT
Art uncovered: the saga of Saigon Artbook
State of the art. Photo by Saigon Artbook
How hard can it be to show art in Ho Chi Minh City?

Hundreds of Ho Chi Minh City residents sipped cocktails and nibbled cake as they meandered through a sleek, white gallery space in District 2 on September 16.

Students and well-heeled foreigners alike paid to get in and some dug deep for hand-bound copies of Saigon Artbook’s Sixth Edition— a collection of work from five emerging artists.

As the crowd moved through The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre (FCAC), many paused before a pair of exhibitions draped in sheets of kraft paper.

A note attached to the event’s catalog offered the following explanation: “Due to unwanted reasons, Nathan Larson and Bao Zoan’s artwork cannot be displayed. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this may cause. However, the artists will still be attending our event to discuss Art with you.”

The paper concealed semi-transparent prints of the city’s commuters—a series the Canadian artist called Small Favors—and stifled Zoan’s colorful photographs of the city’s fading old apartment blocks, a collection he called Noi Day La Nha (this is home).


Noi Day La Nha (this is home) by Bao Zoan at the exhibition of Saigon Artbook 6th Edition. Photo by Saigon Artbook.

“We could not get permission to display them during the exhibition,” one of the organizers said, speaking on background. “And we didn’t know it until the Friday morning, after everything had been set up.”

The evening represented the first attempt for Saigon Artbook to publicly exhibit work in an actual art gallery, which remains a difficult feat.

As a subject, art has virtually disappeared from high school curriculums. On the elementary level, students must choose to pursue music or painting in lieu of computer science and sports. Every year, the national government funds the Vietnam Fine Arts Association with a mere VND4 billion ($179,000)— roughly the cost of a single family home.

Earlier this year, the central Department of Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition revised a draft decree on exhibitions four times before deciding not to submit it for approval, leaving those who wished to display art with no clear idea of how to do so.

In 2013, an American photographer working in Ho Chi Minh City named Alexander McMillan hatched a plan to bring local artwork directly to the public with two Vietnamese colleagues, Dang Thanh Long and Tran Phung Gia Nam.

In October they published the first in a series of quarterly books small enough to fit in a back pocket.

“Our intention back then was to eliminate all possible barriers standing between the audience and art,” said Long, the last remaining member of Saigon Artbook’s core founders. “We decided everything would be free so no one would have a reason not to enjoy it.”

The non-profit displayed work in cafes and bars and managed to release five free books that offered space on the page to a dozen local and international artists working in mediums ranging from paper collage painting to contemporary dance.

For a long time, the artists submitted their work for the sheer pleasure of having it published. Sales of the latest book should bring a stipend to artists working in everything from origami to print work.


Six editions of Saigon Artbook displayed at the Saigon Artbook 6 Party on September 16 2016. Photo by Saigon Artbook.

In many ways, the city has yet to catch up with the project’s ambitions.

“[Art] still isn’t a necessity for the residents of Saigon,” said Shyevin S’ng, who worked closely with Long to curate the 6th edition. “It’s not in their life yet. First they worry about what to eat, where to stay, next they worry about getting a car, a phone […] Such materialist things kick in.”

"Such materialist things" have proven perhaps the largest hurdle for the artbook’s publishers, who faced the unsavory choice of paying printing costs out of pocket or spending untold hours chasing sponsorship and donations.

Brian Letwin, who co-founded the English-language news and culture website Saigoneer, worked closely to help launch the early issues.

“[The concept] is a really hard thing to sell in general because there’s no measurable return on investment," Letwin said. "If your company is in the U.S. where lots of big companies have budgets for this kind of thing, it would probably be easier. In Vietnam, they’re less common.”

The strain of producing a free quarterly book wore on the team’s early enthusiasm. Long says this reached a “crisis” before the release of the 4th edition.

“We couldn’t cover our basic costs and everybody ended up sacrificing a great deal of time and money” he said. “Two of our three key members left the project; we were struggling to keep it alive.”

Then the fifth book came back from the printer on the wrong paper. At a corresponding exhibition held in an outdoor shopping area called 3A Station likewise proved problematic.

“That was when I realized I need to stop doing everything by myself and ask for help,” Long said.

One of the people who answered his call was Shyevin, a Malaysian gallerist who's lived in Saigon for 11 years.

Long says she quickly increased the number of featured artists from three to five and began working closely with each one to develop their work.

“If you could see the photos Bao Zoan (the youngest artist in the book) brought in during his first days in the workshop, you would see the progress,” Long said.

Shyevin has spent the last six months working with ten different artists—the remaining five will feature their work in the upcoming edition, which is expected out early next year.

Crowdfunding has given the project a needed boost, but the sixth edition represents Saigon Artbook’s first commercial venture. The latest book features four different kinds of paper bound together by hand; each copy sells for VND750,000 ($37). Tickets for the opening night sold for VND150,000 ($7).

“At the very least, our artists should be paid for their efforts,” said Long, “We think it’s time the public to learn to pay for art.”

Weeks after the opening night, Zoan and Larson’s work remains hidden beneath kraft paper; though a few curious visitors have poked peepholes with their fingers.


Sneak a peek of the Small Favors by Nathan Larson. Photo by Saigon Artbook.

In other ways, the public has found ways to show its appreciation for the work.

“I want to offer my sincere gratitude to whomever covered this artwork,” a Facebook user quipped, attaching images of the covered works. “We could not see what lay beneath the paper, so we had to resort to postcards, photos and the book to see the collections; we ended up buying as many as we could. Once again, thank you.”

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