By David Willis
October 11, 2019
Located on a leafy street in Bình Chánh District, one of the outer suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City (known to locals as Saigon), the walls of Richard Streitmatter-Tran’s studio are lined from floor to ceiling with a tremendous collection of art books. His work desk overflows with sketches, art supplies, and jointed wooden mannikins—a testament to the artist’s focus on painting and sculpture in recent years. A few months ago I paid him a visit there to talk about his wide-ranging career.
Born in Vietnam and raised in America, Streitmatter-Tran is one of the leading contemporary artists working in Vietnam, having been a fixture of the Saigon art scene for over fifteen years. Fortunately, I caught him just before he left town to attend a residency at The Worcester Art Museum in his home state of Massachusetts. Chatting excitedly over a pot of green tea, Richard recounted the emergence of contemporary art in Saigon, as well as the history of his own art practice, which continues evolving to this day.
David Willis (Degree Critical): Please tells us about the beginnings of your art career.
Richard Streitmatter-Tran (RST): My degree is from the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM), which focused on new media and performance, at the Massachusetts College of Art. That program was developed in the late 1960s as a catch-all for video, performance art, and other non-traditional media that were just emerging at the time, including sound art and computer-based art. It was mostly artists who didn’t feel comfortable in more traditional departments, who said things like “I want to paint with sound,” and therefore could not get the critiques they needed anywhere else. I graduated in 2003, and then within months, I returned to Vietnam. Most of my career has taken place in Vietnam, followed successively by Southeast Asia, Asia, then Europe, and just recently, the United States.
DC: What was going on in the Vietnam art scene when you arrived in 2003?
RST: To give you an idea of the situation, the iPhone hadn’t been developed, Nokia was king, Trung Nguyên Coffee was king, and you didn’t have to wear a helmet [when riding a motorbike]. On the art side, there were the more commercial, painting reproduction galleries that you can still see today. It was expected that if you graduated from the Fine Art University, an artist would automatically apply for guild membership with the Fine Art Association, because that was where your exhibitions largely had to be vetted through, so being a member would help your career. Shortly after I arrived we started to see some changes in that trajectory among young artists graduating from university.
Vietnam opened up after 1995 when the U.S. lifted its trade embargo. Before that it was like Iran, Cuba, or North Korea. Sanctions basically lock you out of the whole world. Once they were lifted, the first exposure the world had to contemporary Vietnamese art was the Hanoi artists showing at Salon Natasha, including Natasha’s husband Vũ Dân Tân, as well as Nguyễn Minh Thanh and Nguyễn Văn Cường, among others. So things had been happening for a few years, but mostly in the north.
DC: So what was going on in Saigon?
RST: Blue Space Gallery had been founded here by Ms. Nga in 1995, and the artists Dinh Q. Le, and Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, both of whom were gaining a lot of momentum, were already based here.
DC: Were they showing inside Vietnam, or just outside the country?
RST: Jun was showing within the country as well as internationally. In fact, I think his first show was at Blue Space. Dinh was showing mostly outside the country, as far as I know. But their recognition was picking up exponentially because they both had a western education. There was a massive vacuum, because the new generation of artists in Vietnam wasn’t equipped to engage with the international scene—their English wasn’t good enough to communicate. If you look at all the international Biennales from those years, Jun especially was included in everything at that time. But like the tortoise and the hair, Dinh just plodded along and kept on producing up till now, and has helped grow the scene here through Sàn Art [one of Saigon’s leading art spaces, which Dinh founded in 2007], whereas Jun moved to Texas at some point.
Anyway, not much was happening in Saigon when I got here. As for me, I had specifically come to establish a performance art collective, named Project One. It was comprised of five members: myself, Bùi Công Khánh, Ly Hoàng Ly, Nguyễn Phạm Trung Hậu, and Ngô Thái Uyên, who was a fashion designer. They were all graduates from the Fine Art University in Saigon, from the same class, and I was the only Việt Kiều [foreign raised Vietnamese person] in that bunch. We were excited, and we were doing a lot back then, until Ngô Thái Uyên and Ly Hoàng Ly left the group to focus on their first children, and we all went our own different ways.
DC: Where were you performing?
RST: We performed at Blue Space Gallery, Festival Huế, Java Gallery in Phnom Penh—and individually we performed in many different places, such as the Gwangju Biennale, Asiatopia in Bangkok, and the Theater of Cruelty performance festival in Singapore. Quang Lam, the photographer who runs Inlen Gallery, was also here, and I did a project with him early on involving online platforms. About two years after I arrived, Sandrine Llouquet arrived from France with her partner at that time, Bertrand Peret, and they started Wonderful District, which was run out of their apartment on Nguyễn Trãi Street. That attracted a variety of people, because they had consistent programming and different kinds of events, so I started doing projects with them. Together we formed another collective called MogasStation. We showed mostly in three places: the first Singapore Biennale, the 2007 Venice Biennale the following year, and also the Hong Kong/Shenzhen Biennale that same year.
DC: Who else was in that collective?
RST: There were some other members who are no longer in Vietnam, and Hoàng Dương Cầm, who shows with Galerie Quynh. That all happened while Wonderful District was running, so Sandrine was doing both at the same time, and that’s when we got a lot of attention from young people in Saigon. One of those people was Arlene Quynh-Anh Tran, who was studying business at the time, and she started coming to our events. Of course, she has gone on to become the curator of the Post-Vidai Collection [the leading collection of contemporary Vietnamese art] and a member of the Art Labor Collective, among other things. So we had the attention of the kids at that time, who were just hanging out, looking for interesting stuff to do.
DC: What year are we at now?
RST: This would still be around 2006-2007, which was also when the Saigon Open City art festival took place. It brought Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gridthiya Gaweewong over from Thailand.
DC: So when did Galerie Quynh open?
RST: Quynh Pham opened her first space around 2003 I believe, on Lý Tự Trọng street. Then she moved to Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, and built a space there, but the land belonged to the navy and she got kicked out, so then she moved to Đề Thám. She was at Đề Thám for a while before moving to Đồng Khởi, and then to the current space in Đa Kao. When Galerie Quynh opened up it was a big deal, because she had a very contemporary vision of what she wanted to do. It became the leading gallery in Vietnam, because Quynh understands how to operate a gallery at an international standard. And even before opening her first gallery space, she was active as an online entity, which, by the way, is pretty amazing, since there wasn’t that much happening online in Vietnam back then. We didn’t even have smart phones yet.
DC: So all that time you were doing performance and video. When did you get so heavily into sculpture and painting, as you have been of late?
RST: For me it seems like a natural progression, even though I’m coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, from the side of immateriality towards materiality. But if we talk about immateriality, some might argue that performance and video, time-based media, are material, but I don’t entirely buy that idea.
DC: Interesting; I’m thinking of the piece you did for 1PROJECTS with Prasert Yodkaew at Art Stage Singapore (The Decoy of Indra, 2017), where you built the giant stupa out of clay, which was obviously material, but it was also a performance, since you were working on it throughout the whole fair. Not to mention the fact that it also incorporated digital media, with the iPad sitting in the center of it all.
RST: I’m actually quite typical of graduates from American art schools, where the idea reigns supreme. I don’t really disagree with that, but the sad effect of it is that one can graduate from art school, yet can’t even draw a stick figure. You might take drawing classes because they are mandatory, but might not even understand what one point perspective is. Nor do you need to, since you can have someone else make your paintings, or you can have a robot do it, and you’re probably better off, if the idea is strong.
DC: How do you feel about that?
RST: I don’t have too many qualms about it, because the beauty of art is that it can be so broad and expansive. That’s what art is, it can be anything. But, the crucial distinction is, can it be for me? I really did not like other people producing my work. I’ve always been a curious person, whether it’s science or art or philosophy or tech—curiosity is what motivates me. On the one hand, I’ve always been fascinated by people that had talent, whether it was innate or developed, though personally, I never really had a natural talent of any sort. My whole life, it has been hard work that got me through everything.
In one sense, I had a very lucky break that I was adopted, since my life would have been absolutely wretched otherwise. I would have grown up in Vietnam without a family in the 1970s and 1980s, under the embargo. I would have been a graduate of the orphanage—if I survived, that is. So that was a lucky break, and one might assume that I had it made, but I didn’t. I got adopted to a very loving family, but we were on welfare. My mom was a single mother with three jobs, and we were poor. My mom was born in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the U.S. My relatives were coal miners. So even though we were New Englanders, we came from generations of Appalachian poverty. I’m lucky because I was loved, so I never really noticed it. I knew my mom couldn’t afford to buy the stuff that other kids had, but I felt fine. In my teens I realized that I had the talent, the intellectual ability, to go to college, but there was no way that I could afford it, so my only option was to join the army, which I did. My first career was in the military. Most Americans who enlist come from impoverished backgrounds, from every race, every creed. It was a good education for me.
Two things helped me to understand America better: one was joining the military, and the second was multiple trips across America on the highway. I got to understand the perspective of working class Americans. I may not look it or speak it, but my heart is honky tonk.
[Digs in his bag, puts on a cowboy hat]
My dad was a cowboy! He left us when I was five and became a cowboy on a ranch in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He used to send me decomposing rattlesnake tails in the mail. I’m diverging from your question a bit, but my background is important to understand me and my practice. Though my studio and my art projects are a world away from my upbringing, they are informed by all that. I bleed America. Even though I don’t want to live there, and I rarely return, and I don’t address those issues much—inside, I have a lot of affection for the culture that raised me. I am looking forward to returning in a week, to my beginnings, to do a residency at the Worcester Art Museum [WAM]. I’m excited to look at those painters that also understood America through a different lens than I had, and with different tribulations.
DC: Which painters do you have in mind?
RST: I’ve mostly been doing watercolors, so I proposed to WAM that I look at three painters whose works, to me, are quintessentially New England, and make me nostalgic for my childhood. The first two were working class guys. I want to consider Winslow Homer, and his watercolors specifically, and Edward Hopper, whose Cape Anne paintings are very similar to the landscape of Cape Cod, where I grew up. The third painter, John Singer Sargent wasn’t of the working class but I am also doing portraiture, and when you think of portraiture, you think of Sargent. So I’m going to be looking at those painters, and thinking about coming from that culture—in a different era, but that geographic area—working and developing my whole professional practice here, and then returning back to New England, to see how these things meet. But all that I’ve been talking about boils down to hard work and no innate talent. I’ve always admired people that had talent, but I’ve realized that hard work can get you close. I’ve spent years establishing a more traditional atelier style studio. Looking around you, you wouldn’t say that I was a contemporary artist. This stuff around us could have existed in the 19th century as easily as the 21st.
I was originally a technology person: during college I did research at MIT, doing computational aesthetics for design, though I didn’t follow through with that trajectory, and went into performance instead. After that experience I wanted to make things with my hands, and I started teaching at The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology [RMIT] in Saigon in 2006. I was asked to teach a drawing class, and was like “Ohhhh shit, I can’t draw.” I’d had good teachers at art school who were super inspiring, but I didn’t care at the time because I thought I was going to be a computer artist. Yet I remembered their passion and wanted to give that to my students, so I had to face a steep learning curve, and I put myself through my own crash course. I got models in my studio, I did life drawing, and it worked, which taught me that if I put enough hard work into it, I can learn to do. Before, working mostly with ideas, they were either successful because they were well received or not, yet there was no clear underlying criteria of quality.
I was basically working by jumping from idea to idea. If you looked at my art from that time, you wouldn’t know that it was the same artist. I used to say to myself “Once I’m famous, the curators will find some way to tie all the threads together” but I actually found myself to be unhappy with that in the end. When I started drawing, it was slow, but I could see improvements, and those little improvements made me so happy.
While I admire people coming from the academy who can paint and draw, conceptually, those works are often quite stale. So, how could you have that skill, but be conceptually fresh? That’s what I’m trying to do now, but to come to that, I had to take a big detour, because in the beginning of my career I was doing alot of Vietnam specific things—war, memory, being adopted—all those stereotypical things that were demanded of me as a Vietnamese artist, because it was easy to curate. I felt inauthentic, both since I wasn’t making the things myself, and about the ideas, which were insincere. So I decided that I wanted to develop my skills, and by that decision I lost a lot of momentum career-wise, because my new work had nothing to do with issues of diaspora, or trauma, or revisionist history. And I have been working at it for five years, but my skill is not quite up to my mind, so I am still on that detour. I’m playing the long game, and I’ve been playing the long game for a while. It’s a risky one, but I’m lucky that I haven’t fallen off the contemporary map, by marrying, in increments, my skill with my concepts.
Hikikomori, an installation by Richard Streitmatter-Tran is currently on display through November 4 at the Setouchi Triennial 2019, on Awashima Island, Japan
David Willis lives and works in Chiang Mai, Thailand. David is a critic, curator, and art advisor, and alum of the MFA Art Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts. He has been based in Vietnam and Thailand since 2015, developing a specialization in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia.