The Guggenheim’s Nisma Zaman asked Truong Tan about his inspirations, his examination of ideas around identity and politics, and the significance of exhibiting internationally.
You are often referred to as an enfant terrible. Where does this perception originate, and is it something you embrace?
My mother and father had eight children but I was the only one to go into art. Even my mother didn’t want me to become an artist; she would have loved for me to become a doctor. When I started school, I looked at art books—on Picasso, abstract painting, Jackson Pollock—and knew I had to do something different; I didn’t want to do the same as them. I didn’t want to paint abstract paintings! The first time I made work and people in my country bought it, they asked me if I knew Keith Haring. I was like, “I don’t know him. Who is he?” They said my paintings looked like his, that my drawings were like his, with strong black, red, and white.
Your work deals with gender identity and politics; how has it been received or censored?
Many of my images address political issues very, very strongly. In 1995, the police here took down my work. They had legal problems with it because I paint naked men. Since many artists still paint naked women, I asked why I couldn’t paint naked men.
When I paint or write, the police can examine what I do very easily. But when I make installations, they sometimes don’t, because they don’t understand what that is. I love this! My work Hidden Beauty speaks about corruption in Vietnam, but even on the opening night, they didn’t know what it was about, because I didn’t say. Only after that did the curator talk about my work.
I’m not afraid of the police anymore, now that I feel I have become an international artist.
What artists do you admire; who has influenced your work?
When I was student, I loved Van Gogh and Joan Miró. When I was a teacher, I loved Joseph Beuys. And for performance, I loved Abramović. She did a performance with her husband on the Great Wall.
I learned about the language of performance, because in Vietnam, we don’t have new media. There is no installation or performance in schools.
When I was a teacher at a fine arts school, my students had a problem with my teaching because they had always followed the ideals of the Communist party, and I gave them freedom. I learned from Joseph Beuys and taught freedom to my students.
How do you keep that feeling of freedom alive in your artistic practice?
When I was in Vietnam, I never knew what freedom was. Then I went to Paris; that was the first time I felt freedom in my blood and really knew what it was. When I didn’t want to stay in Vietnam, I went to Paris for a while to think. In Vietnam, you cannot dream. When I arrived in Paris, I had a dream and wrote about it. Then I returned to Vietnam to work because I didn’t have a studio. In Vietnam, I have everything, that’s why I work there.
After three years in Paris, during which time I read about performance, I came back home and asked the director there whether I could come back to teach new media there. They said, “You are a very bad teacher!”
For the first time, I had found an identity, a personality. At that time, no one had a personality. Many artists follow me. They’re young, and they’re afraid of me sometimes. I always want to be open a little to these artists, to younger artists, to see how they’ll develop.
Why is it important to you to exhibit your work internationally?
Not many in Vietnam thinks about art, so I want to show them that people in other parts of the world might love Vietnamese art if they could be shown that the government and the people there are different. Many people don’t know this; they visit Vietnam and see a very open country, but we know what’s really happening, and it’s very hard for us because we don’t have many artists in Saigon. Even students in art schools often leave, because it’s controlled by government. This is the reason I want to share with people worldwide that we don’t have democracy.