Culture / Art Republik

A Sense of Purpose: The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre at Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Zoe Butt and The Factory in Ho Chi Minh City

Sep 01, 2017 | By Ilyda Chua

Opening of ‘Technophobe’ — The Factory’s first exhibition. Image courtesy Chanh Nguyễn

Uniquely placed within the bourgeoning and rapidly evolving arts landscape of Vietnam, Artistic Director of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre (The Factory), Vietnam, Zoe Butt, understands the importance of a collaborative relationship of mutual understanding between artist and curator that allows for the emergence of engaging and meaningful artistic discourse.  

Butt’s development of a pan-Asian curatorial approach can be traced back to her involvement with the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art while she was working at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia from 2001 to 2007. Following this, Butt spent time as Director of International Programmes at the Long March Project in Beijing China, until 2009 when she formally moved to Vietnam to become Executive Director of Sàn Art which she co-founded with artists Dinh Q Lê, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam and Tiffany Chung in 2007.

Attaining the invaluable experience of working within various contexts of the global arts landscape from institutions, commercial galleries, and fluid, interdisciplinary spaces such as Sàn Art, Butt is regarded as the foremost authority on Vietnamese contemporary art and a frequent commentator on the conditions of art production in Vietnam as well as being a member of international communities such as the Asian Art Council of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

The Factory’s space during
‘Technophobe’ exhibition. Image courtesy Ngô Nhật Hoàng

For Butt, the relationship between artist and curator is particularly essential within the tenuous circumstances of the practice, display, and dissemination of contemporary art in Vietnam. Established in Ho Chi Minh City as a contemporary art organisation in the service of the interdisciplinary presentation of contemporary art in Vietnam through community-centric programmes, Sàn Art came under pressure from the authorities regarding the participation and representation of foreigners under the ‘Sàn Laboratory’ artist residency programme. Under these circumstances and the associated pressures of financial sustainability, Sàn Art brought an end to its artist residency programmes, and Butt decided to step down as Director. The space currently functions as a resource centre and meeting point.

In assuming her new role at The Factory, Ho Chi Minh City, the first purpose-built location for contemporary art in Vietnam, Butt brings not only the wealth of her experience, but the relationships of camaraderie and trust that she has built with artists over the years. Through The Factory, Butt seeks to continue developing meaningful networks between artists in Vietnam and in the wider region, and alongside founder Ti-a Thuy Nguyen, explore the benefits of a hybrid space that functions as a space for exhibitions, education, and lifestyle. In the case of Vietnam where the general exposure of contemporary art remains limited, the focus on community outreach becomes a key pillar to the success of a space that positions itself as a social enterprise.

Navigating her particular place as curator and Artistic Director of a contemporary arts space in Vietnam, we asked Butt to share her opinions on the specificity of The Factory as a space for collaboration, and her personal thoughts on the relationship between artist and curator within the current landscape.

Opening of ‘Dislocate’ exhibition by
artist Bùi Công Khánh. Image courtesy Đại Ngô

Having worked globally and over a wide range of projects, what has been your most memorable and meaningful collaborative project or relationship, and why?

This is a tough question as there have been many. I could name the ‘Erasure’ project I did with Dinh Q Lê (commissioned by the Sherman Art Foundation) where I learnt how the experience of being a boat refugee can never be reconciled; or the ‘Dislocate’ project I did with Bùi Công Khánh (organized by Sàn Art with thanks to the support of the Prince Claus Fund) where I learnt how the traditional techniques, cultural underpinnings, and symbolisms of architecture can be kept alive through the art practice of a contemporary artist; or I could look even further back to the very first curatorial relationship I built with Afghani artist Khadim Ali during my work with the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. The miniature paintings he sent me via email from Quetta, Pakistan have now become giant woven carpets or large-scale public murals placed in significant exhibitions across the world. I’ve been blessed with many memorable and meaningful collaborative projects and relationships with artists.

You’ve previously discussed how your relationship with Vietnamese artist Dinh Q Lê brought you to Vietnam, and have written on “practicing friendship” through your role as a curator. How do you approach and navigate the relationship between artist and curator?

With honesty and consideration. It is important to understand that time and patience needs to be granted to the process of creation, and that for an artist, understanding one’s relationship to context, that is, the site of production, is imperative. Many artists I have been fortunate to work with are based in locales where infrastructure for the arts is minimal, making my role as a curator one that has to be particularly respectful of differing ways and means of production, interpretation, display and dissemination.  

Are there any points of tension that commonly occur, and how are these resolved? 

In my current context, the tension often surrounds a question of censorship – all art sought for public viewing in Vietnam must first be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Sport. Thus, the curator must help the artist navigate the best strategic foot forward. However, in general, I would say the points of tension between artist and curator surround a fear of being misunderstood; that there is not a mutual platform of understanding, motivation and purpose of the proposed project. All such tension can be resolved through honesty and openness in communication.

Artist Uudam Tran Nguyen’s artwork
‘License 2 Draw: Laser Targets Shooting’. Image courtesy Ngô Nhật Hoàng

How important is it for contemporary artists to be engaged in discourse with curators?

Artists working today have a choice: to be a part of the history of artistic production such as through exhibition making or seeking a textual presence of their art by way of review or critical dialog, or to sit within the zone of the market through art fairs and auctions. The former demands an understanding of what curators do within the art world, which is acting as critical links to opportunity and provocation through their expertise, while the latter is more about showcasing and financial return. Both forms of engagement in our ‘art world’ are fair, and it really depends on the motivations of the artist towards their practice. 

With Sàn Art, and now with The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, you’ve been involved with building immersive and interactive spaces for the public to experience art, but also a platform for artists and curators to engage with each other. What are the merits of such “hybrid spaces”?

I can really only speak about Sàn Art as I have only just started learning about the capacities of The Factory. At Sàn Art, the merits of being a grassroots operation and fluid in terms of not always having space to showcase art, meant that we were forced to consider other forms of artistic production that were not dependent on possessing space. I hence turned towards curating discourse and knowledge for the last 4 years at Sàn Art (see ‘Conscious Realities’ and ‘Sàn Art Laboratory’). This proved hugely influential not only in my own curatorial practice, but also in the intellectual growth of my artistic community.

How do such collaborative spaces challenge or complement the existing models of the commercial gallery or public museums?

In the context of Vietnam, both Sàn Art and The Factory are unique. Sàn Art was an entity that delivered its own curatorially devised programmes engaging contemporary art. As the first purpose-built space for contemporary art in Vietnam, The Factory also delivers its own curated exhibitions and educational programs, though with the added advantage of possessing a multi-purpose space to deliver interdisciplinary artistic programs. In Vietnam, the majority of commercial galleries and public museums do not deliver such activities for its audiences. For example, many public museums are spaces for hire.

Visitors checking out Saigon Artbook ‘Edition 6’ exhibition. Image courtesy Saigon Artbook

Do you see this as a model that can, or should, be exported?

I don’t believe it possible to export models. I do believe we can learn from other ways of thinking and working, but there is no universal method that works for all contexts – this is the wonder of our humanity.

What are your hopes for The Factory, and what should we expect in the coming months and years?

I hope that The Factory can be sustained as a social enterprise, and that the Vietnamese authorities can come to understand that we are not interested in challenging the political landscape. In the coming months and years I hope to be able to continue my love of building networks between artists from this part of the world (towards our ‘South’ particularly), and to better understand ourselves as part of a migratory diaspora with a long historical memory.

This article is the first installment of the four-part ‘More Life’ series covering visionary — and determined — individuals who are breathing life into the art scenes in Southeast Asian capitals. It was written by Teo Huimin for Art Republik. 

Back to top