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The lack of free spaces for artists and curators to present and discuss art is an ongoing issue in Vietnam. Sàn Art, an artist’s initiative established in 2007 in Ho Chi Minh City, directly responds to this need, providing a discursive program of exhibitions and events that offer an alternative platform for practitioners based in the city.

In a country where art is often subject to government censorship and a strict political narrative, this offering is significant. While Sàn Art’s current activities indicate a strong local base of local supporters, and were recently highlighted to a global venue through a Kickstarter campaign by Art Basel to further its residency program, the space’s future is precarious. Despite Vietnam’s recent economic growth, private philanthropy in the country remains to be developed. Due to a lack of funding, Sàn Art recently lost its main exhibiting space in the lively student-concentrated Binh Thanh District. Since this loss, its exhibitions have also taken a more itinerant form, using different spaces in the city as venues—among them, an installation of handcrafted woodblocks by Nguyen Huu Trâm Kha, elegantly integrated into a fashion display at Phuong My’s flagship store.

Sàn Art was founded by artists Phunam Thuc Ha and Tuan Andrew Nguyen (each members of the artists’ collective the Propeller Group), Dinh Q. Lê and Tiffany Chung. It is now led by curator Zoe Butt, previously Director of International Programs at Long March Project in Beijing. Butt’s initial interest in Sàn Art was based on establishing artistic relationships between China and Vietnam—an approach that reflects contemporary art theory’s current emphasis on lateral connections between artists and global art communities such as “the global South.”

Create dialogue between artists in the region irrespective of language and religion.

Much of the initiative’s programming is devoted to interdisciplinary projects and “South—South” connections that highlight issues surrounding artistic research and production. Its workshop series “Conscious Realities” (2013–16), for example, brought together leading thinkers, artists, mathematicians and poets working in “the global South” to Ho Chi Minh City to provide critical and contextual studies to artists in Vietnam. The Sàn Art Laboratory open call also specifically addresses Southeast Asian artists—a strategy designed to create dialogue between artists in the region irrespective of discrepancies in language and religion.

Sàn Art is committed to understanding the “here” through its own location and perspective. A recent research project by collective Art Labor titled Unconditional Belief (2014) involved scientists and the Anthropology Department at Vietnam’s National University working with local students and lecturers to investigate underrepresented histories. Some of the project’s research included Truong Cong Tung’s  investigation of the “Magic Garden,” an outdoor space believed to have healing powers in Long An Province, and Phan Thao Nguyen tracing the origins of modern Vietnamese script. A crucial legacy of the project is a publication that summarizes Art Labour’s investigations, a rare research text translated into Vietnamese and English. Sàn Art’s activities are fueled by the enthusiasm and resources of the artists themselves—a fact that I was reminded of during a recent conversation with Tranh Minh Duc, International Liaison Officer at San Art. When asked if the situation for artists in Vietnam was improving, he remarked that “things are better than they used to be,” and that “artistic activity is underpinned by optimism.”

Established in 2007 in Ho Chi Minh City, Sàn Art is an artist-initiated, non-profit contemporary art organization committed to the exchange and excavation of cultural knowledge within an interdisciplinary community.
Sàn Art Laboratory, a six-month artist-in-residency program showcasing the brilliance of Southeast Asian contemporary art, was recently selected by Art Basel's crowdfunding initiative to support outstanding non-commercial art projects worldwide.

Vera Mey is Curator of Residencies at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore.

Image: Artist Pham Dinh Tien, Sàn Art Laboratory, Session 5, in his studio