Most observers expected a pyramidal shape of ever-increasing new artists following the solid role models mentioned above. In the 1990s few believed that an artist could make a healthy living and find critical success with his or her own work in Vietnam. Many art school graduates went straight to the much publicized "copy shops", which duplicated everything in sight.
Observers assumed that after witnessing a group of artists gain success with their own work, subsequent generations would be keen to emulate these pioneers. Sadly, this was not to be.
Still, there are some artists under the age of thirty who are making their own mark. Noteworthy examples include Nguyen Huy An, with his strange and compelling use of unlikely materials; Nguyen The Hung and his ambitious, messy installations; Nguyen Hong Hai, who explores dense, saturated color in room-sized installations; and especially Phuong Linh, who makes amazingly mature and strong multi-media work.
Ms. Linh, who has a strong personal vision, is doubly significant because, as well as being one of the very few strong female contemporary artists in Vietnam, she is also self-taught -- a rarity in Vietnam.
The rigidity of thought and approach towards contemporary art being made in Vietnam is slowly, but resolutely, changing. An example is the recently opened art space adjacent to the Hanoi Fine Arts School, the Viet Art Center. Its current installation was made by a teacher at the college, Dao Chau Hai. When an installation by a staff member of a major educational institution is supported by the very same structure that resisted the very mention of "installation art" just a few years ago, change is clearly underway.
What makes an art space professional, bona fide and vital is a consistent program of changing exhibitions, activities and performances. The popular perception of Vietnam is that it is full of art galleries. While that may be technically true, the reality is that those shops peddle mostly craft and mass-produced decorative arts. There are just a handful of private galleries and, fortunately, some public venues, that show serious contemporary art.
In Saigon, Gallery Quynh, Blue Space, Himiko and Mai's Gallery continually mount exhibitions and sponsor workshops. The amorphous alternative art initiative, "a little blah blah", promotes a wide variety of artistic activity. The Artists Association Gallery, French Cultural Center and other foreign cultural organizations also host visual art exhibitions.
Last year's Saigon Open City, a series of exhibitions and workshops, was by far Vietnam's most ambitious art happening thus far, even with its bumpy and confusing execution.
In Hanoi, Art Vietnam, Rygella, Nha San Duc, and Suffusive Art regularly exhibit both native and foreign artists. The Hanoi Art School Gallery also makes continuing efforts to mount regular exhibitions, and the cultural departments of certain foreign nations -- the Goethe Institute, L'Espace, the British Council and various other countries' embassy art galleries -- present a wide spectrum of visual art.
The renovated National Fine Arts Museum and the Hanoi Fine Arts School gallery also play an important role in exposing the community to contemporary art.
The pressure on Vietnamese artists to make art that sings loudly and clearly of "Vietnam-ness" is not surprising. Casual art buyers, as well as focused collectors, tend to demand a certain nostalgic and symbolic representation of Vietnam in the artwork. That pressure also exists for the few foreign artists working long-term in Vietnam.
A mixed bag of personal sensibilities can be seen in the gorgeous, witty paintings of Maritta Nurmi (Finland); the intriguing and thoughtful performances of Sue Hajdu (Australia); the humanistic video landscapes of Brian Ring (Canada); the evolved conceptual work of Veronica Radulovich (Germany); Bradford Edwards' mixed media social commentary.
And the future? On the global scene, China is currently rocking the art world with a recent invasion of high profile painters and mixed media artists. With China's ascension, the global spotlight is resolutely swinging eastward, and international interest in Vietnam is growing.
Can Vietnam deliver?
The talent and potential exists, no doubt. The key will be for Vietnam to conquer its reputation for producing pretty and well-crafted decorative images. Contemporary art in Vietnam is so much more than that now.