Thứ Ba, 12 tháng 7, 2011

The introduction of the new project of ZeroStation: Graffiti in the Alley

a film on a graffiti group ( Click 9) in Saigon, produced by ZeroStation (

Some brief reflections on the interpretations of the other

Like any other Western art disciplines introduced to Vietnam, the presence of graffiti generates many conflicting ideas from not only local people but also the cultural and artistic researchers. Basically, Graffiti is an anti/non-institutional art style and belonging to the subculture as well as the urban culture. Therefore, when appearing in the societies with highly institutionalized cultural policies like Vietnam, it is often read and interpreted in a politically and culturally exotic way of protesting the politics and the society, thus, conveys the message based on a historical-oriented perspective of the societal development following the Western patterns in the developing countries, the third world. This is not a wrong interpretation. However, it contains many hazards. The most hazard, to me, is that the interpretation in this way is not based on an open dialogue, but mainly on the prejudices of the interpreters, thus, frequently it ignores the other possible interpretations. In other words, this way of interpreting, because of the quick in understanding other, may contain the risk of guiding the interpreter to the ethnocentric understanding space, as in an article on Gadamer’s philosophy, professor Charles Taylor has explained clearly:

“For the problem is that the standing ethnocentric temptation is to make to quick sense of the stranger, i.e., sense in one’s own terms. The lesser breeds are without the law, because they have nothing we recognize as law. The step to branding them as lawless and owtlaw is as easy as it is invalid and fateful” (1)

There is an example that can show the danger of the interpretation that only bases on the prejudice of the interpreter in an interview between a curator Jérôme Sans and a Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie. Here Qiu Zhijie gave a different viewpoint about graffiti

“Yes. Ealier you mentioned graffiti. I have actually given a lot of thought to this question, because graffiti is so wide-spread in European cities today, often called illegal activity. In ancient China there is one form of graffiti that was legal, which is when a poet or calligrapher arrived at a site or natural wonder, if he found inspiration he could write a poem on the rock or on a column. We never saw this as destruction; on the contrary, we take it as elegant and refined”(2)

Definitely, it is not difficult to see the way of reading that Qiu Zhijie used to interpret the Graffiti also faces the identical problem with its opposite (here is the way of reading about graffiti from Western point of view), By this way, the artist has also thoroughly denied the horizon of the other (here is the way of reading about graffiti from Western point of view), then converge all on the prejudices or his own existing conceptual framework.

Thus, the most striking thing recognized is that all of the ways of interpretation are based only on the prejudices and the existing conceptual framework of the interpreters, because if its nature will make the world become poor, it will always lead to the intelligibility of the world.

In fact, even in the Western countries which are often considered as the cradle of modern graffiti art, there is a controversy of whether recognizing it as an anti-social practice and belongs to the subculture or as a commercial practice and belongs to a commercial world.

In the book “ But is it art?”, writing about some famous graffiti artists like Barry Mc Gee or Jean Michael Basquiat who are built as heroes denying commercial system of capitalism to live in a normadic life ( one may refer to the movie “jean Michael Basquiat by Julian Schnabel, in which Basquiat appeared as an innocent, beautiful and angelica character, as an antithesis to the capitalist world of commercial art), Cynthie Freeland has also recognized that: “…like Jean Michael Basquiat và Barry Mc Gee , get caught up in the system when their work become marketable” (3). Freeland Cynthie even, with slightly ironic tone, writes:

“His work ( Barry McGee) has been shown in galleries from San Francisco, Mineapolis to São Paulo. I confess to formenting some wicked plans for the gallery’s windows when I read in a catalogue essay at one of his art exhibition that McGee once said, “ Some times a rock soaring through a plate of glass can be the most beautiful, compelling work of art I have ever seen”(4)

Graffiti in Vietnam

One key of reading about Graffiti art in Vietnam, I think, is in the nature of its importation. In terms of culture, as an importation occurs, there always be accompanied and automated process of rejection and acceptance. The problem is that a fact can only become a historical moment when and only when it finds a reason for it existence in the reality. In other words, if and only if it is insured by the acceptance of the context in which it appears. The philosopher Arthur C. Danto has interestingly analyzed the relationship between context and fact in his essay “Master Narratives and Critical Principles” where he had raised a hypothesis of the “Chinese artists living in Qing who knew about the perspective from the missionary painter Father Castiglione, but who felt that there was no room in their artistic agenda for its assimilation” (5). This, I think, is the typical case of a fact that could not become a historical moment and was thoroughly rejected.

However, even in case of an acceptance, it would have to undergo a range of filters in order to be intelligible in a new context. In other words, the importation would have to follow a process that is called "cultural translation" by Homi Bhabha, i.e. the translation that ”…a way of imitating, but in a mischevious, displacing sense …in such a way that the priority of the original is not reinforced but by the very fact that it can be stimulated, copied, transferred, transformed, made into a simulacrum and so on”(6). This means, an importation, after undergoing a translating process, will become a "third space" and will be different from the original and the translation, in which "the alternatives may occur".

An example of this case is a project called GAS graffiti (graffiti in art school). This project was operated in 2007 by artist Phan Hai Bang, a lecturer of graphic art in Hue University of Art. In the statement of the project, Hai Bang wrote: “To use graffiti art as an instrument, not to against society, but to integrate in the local framework…to behave culturally, to promote creativity with the consciousness of respecting and protecting the city landscape…

One of the typical projects of this group is “Drawing on helmets” (from 7 Sept to 15 Nov, 2007 ( in Hue), and from 23 to 31 Sept ( in HCMC). Round the late half of 2007, the Vietnamese government officially requested the people to wear helmets when travelling on motorcycles. The request seemed very difficult to be implemented because it would change many habits of Vietnamese people. One of these is about aesthetics. People hardly accept wearing the same “hat” which equate all personalities (may this fear be a sequel of the period that people dressed and behaved in a similar manner?). The GAS artists used paint-sprayers to draw on helmets for free in public places in HCMC and Hue. People might think of the decorative motif, or use one of the available templates. This project attracted many participation and attention of the mass media in Vietnam.

The project : Graffiti in the alley

In this project, ZeroStation will collaborate with Click 9, one of the graffiti teams in HCMC, to create an art project using graffiti as a tool to awaken the interaction between people living in the neighborhood where ZeroStation is located and art.

This is a typical quarter in the heart of Saigon with a large yard where daily activities taken naturally, kids play football, their parents chatter, etc. in the afternoon. Click 9 will draw graffiti continually pictures on the wall of ZS for nearly a month (since 12 July- 07 August). It this period of time, the artists will have an opportunity not only to draw graffiti and thereby create lively visual art space for the neighborhood, but also have an opportunity to communicate and interact directly with the residents as well as to create a close approach by suggesting people to involve in the process of drawing with them.

For nearly one month, there will be plenty of graffiti paintings to be drawn, to be deleted, and to be re-drawn, thereby emphasizing the ephemeral nature of street art practices and non-institutional as well as the progress of a public art project which is not (only) based on the aesthetic object, and (still) mainly on the relationship and the openness of dialogue

From my reflection above on the importation, the rejection, the acceptance, the reading based on prejudices and existing conceptual frameworks against the reading based on dialogue and translation, ZeroStation considers this project as a test of the translating, not only graffiti art into the local cultural space, through the sequent appearance of the big-sized graffiti paintings in residential areas, and but also translating local cultural space into graffiti art.

It is through the two-way interpretation, we hope to open a third space, i.e. the space of dynamic, multiple and productive dialogue.

1- Charles Taylor, Gadamer on Human Sciences, in The cambridge companion to Gadamer, edited by Robert J. Dostal, Cambridge University Press; 1st edition , January 21, 2002, p.138

2- All we see can only disappear, Jérôme Sans interviews Qiu Zhijie, in China talks, interviews with 32 contemporary artists by Jérôme Sans, published by Time zone 8, 2009, p.58

3- Cynthia Freeland, But is it art? Oxford published 2001, p.112

4- Ibid.

5- Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art, the pale of history, Princeton university press, princeton, New Jersey, 1997, p.42

6- “The third space", interview with Homi Bhabha, In Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, edited by Jonathan Rutheford, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2003, p.210

7- Như Huy, Redefining the past and transforming public space: two new strategies of Vietnamese contemporary artists in the early years of new centuries, in Essays on Modern and contemporary vietnamese art, published by Singapore art museum, 2009, tr.92

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