Considering the Vietnamese Contemporary Art Scene with Pham Phuong Cuc

Pham Phuong Cuc is the director of CUC Gallery. After graduating from university in the United States in 2011, she came back to Vietnam and founded CUC Gallery in 2012, which has since become one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Vietnam. CUC Gallery is one of the very few art entities in Vietnam that consistently collaborates with renowned artists, curators, museums and other art entities in and outside of Vietnam to produce publications for each of its exhibitions or events. From 2014 to 2019, she started working on the MAM-Art project, the flagship collaboration project between Vietnamese Women’s Museum and Menifique Art Museum to bring contemporary art closer to the Vietnamese general public, and to promote its development in Hanoi and Vietnam. Later in 2015, CUC Gallery launched its first art education initiative programme for children from 6-12 years old in Hanoi. Beginning in 2020, CUC has embarked on the second phase of MAM-Art Project with a focus on art education and public programs.

You were pleasantly surprised by how well-received Vietnamese artist Tulip Duong’s The Hybrid series was by local audiences during the 2020 edition of S.E.A. Focus. Could you tell us more about who you’re showing at S.E.A. Focus 2021? Could you also share your observations around the position or visibility of Vietnamese contemporary art in the wider ecology of art in Southeast Asia?

I have always had great experiences with S.E.A. Focus for the past 3 years of participation. Each time, we always want to introduce new faces and works that have never been shown before in Singapore and Southeast Asia. S.E.A. Focus 2021 presents itself as a unique or rather unusual edition for us,  as we can’t make it to the show ourselves – hence, only our artworks get to represent us. We have 2 paintings by artist Nguyen Thanh Truc (b. 1969). Truc is one of the very prominent contemporary artists born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City. His works span photography, installation and painting. This time, the 2 works you see at S.E.A. Focus are part of his latest series employing horizontal lines, with a full range of colours presented through layers after layers arbitrarily. These horizontal lines, representing many different contexts and perspectives, are distinct and combine to become a complete picture. Each line is a visually compressed impression and also a slice with no beginning or end. Instead of portraying one singular event, Truc, vigorously and ambitiously, wants to display a full and continuous story, to give the viewer his own universe trajectory. 

Nguyen Thanh Truc, Illustration of a Snowfall, 2019, acrylic on canvas.

For the past year, during the COVID pandemic, our art scene has unexpectedly grown quite a lot in terms of the number of shows and new galleries opening, as well as an increase in the number of artist presentations. More art auctions feature works and collectors from Vietnam. These are some noticeable examples and positive signs of the steady development in our art markets, especially for our local art ecology, which resultantly  makes more impact on a bigger regional scale. 

CUC Gallery has been a consistent exhibitor in regional art fairs. With global currents having irreversibly altered frameworks for the selling, viewing and appreciation of works of art, would you say that the model of the art fair has become a less viable or necessary platform for supplementing the operations of commercial art galleries in the region?

I have thought about this for the past whole year. I really do wish that this situation is only temporary as for me, art fairs always bring great joy and irreplaceable experiences. They are not only about the display of artworks and main exhibitions on the fairground, but also about meeting new and interesting people, taking part in different events, talks and seminars, and so many other things. Each fair is a learning experience for me. Hence, I feel like I am missing out on many perks of being a gallerist tremendously. New frameworks presented such as digital platforms do not really fulfil the need and desire for all art lovers to see the works in person, to learn and to connect. Like this year, I really miss being in Singapore every January, so I wish that with new vaccines coming up, we can all return to the same vigour and excitement of travelling for regional and international art fairs.

Together with the Vietnamese Women Museum, CUC Gallery opened the public art space, MAM-Art Project, in 2013. Could you elaborate on the ambit and focus of MAM-Art Project, and what significance such a space has had for cultural development in Vietnam?

We ended our wonderful partnership and closed our collaborative venue at the Vietnamese Women Museum in 2019, as we have been in the midst of planning our next space for the MAM-Art Project with more focus on art education and public art programs. After 5 years at the Vietnamese Women Museum, we’ve come to realize more clearly our approach to reaching and engaging with public audiences and the need for something more flexible and accessible. Of course, the public audience for art is now more acquainted with art in general and perhaps even contemporary art in particular, however, this is still not enough. We have to build a general audience who perceives art as a necessity, who are willing to project themselves into the past, present and future, and to view art as a passage for comfort, for mind-opening freedom of imagination and a source of joy and inspiration. We have envisioned all of these objectives in our next project to create a space as such but of course, we also acknowledge that this is not easy and has to be a long term commitment.

After a tumultuous 2020, many are entering the new year with a mixture of loss, uncertainty, hope and renewed strength. What are your plans for CUC Gallery in the months to come? What are some upcoming projects or exhibitions that audiences both within and beyond Vietnam can look forward to?

For 2021, we hope to present 2 solo artist exhibitions of Nguyen Thanh Truc and Lai Dieu Ha in Hanoi, Vietnam; we have also made plans for all the shows to have a digital presence, for others to view online. And of course, we will continue building our exciting plans for the MAM-Art Project.