this is not a love song / by patrick carpenter

(with apologies to J. Alfred Prufock)

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Celine and Shiseido

In Saigon, the selection of a creative designer for yet another European fashion magazine come over to elbow for ad revenue and the gossamer glances of the religiously hip is cause enough for a contemporary art exhibition. Who knew such promotions deserved such promotion?

The venue is the newly established DIA, a rectangled gallery that sits above a café bistro on Dong Khoi street. The café bistro is Modern Meets Culture. DIA bills itself as ‘a space for a series of contemporary art experiences in Ho Chi Minh City’.  The arrangement could be perfect for those with progressive appetites.

Opening night coincided perfectly with the opening of the heavens. The blackest, heaviest clouds of the wet season hung over the city.

‘Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table’

This, the second exhibition hosted by DIA, follows shortly after its group show of drawings by local artists. DIA has charted a discourse from something resembling an end of term talent show to one young man’s sketches for features in the fashion magazines that are now his competitors. So DIA started with a final exam, and followed it up with a retrospective of a career that has just started. The distance covered can be measured in a phrase, namely, E Pluribus Unum. The clear takeaway from all of this is that budding contemporary artists in this city, armed with sketch pads and keen on grabbing our attention, would do well to dream of double-page spreads and eau de toilette bottles balanced on the nape of a skinny girl’s neck.

The show comes with the proud disclaimer from the leader of DIA that his ideas on art and culture will be included in the inaugural issue of the magazine that now employs this creative designer who is being promoted by the leader of DIA. Call it a tidy commercial arrangement, call it a three-way. Nothing’s shocking.

Speaking of shock value, one does not go to a contemporary art exhibition seeking shelter from the world, from things that push or shove. One goes for the contact, for the crash. Indeed, some works are not completed until the audience physically engages. As such, a contemporary art space is not a rest stop, not a spa, not a place for the passive. It’s a place for confrontation. The question for DIA then: Is there not a more passive exercise than flipping through a fashion magazine?

‘Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk along the beach.’

So far, the DIA experiments in contemporary art lack the experimentation, examination, provocation that are inseparable from the force of contemporary art. These exhibitions are contemporary in the calendar sense, but not in the character.

It’s an early verdict, perhaps a bit harsh, but on an opening night under thunderclouds straight out of Armageddon, such judgments should be encouraged.

Show us your teeth, DIA! Contemporary art is the most aggressive of the different departments at auction, with meteoric rises and catastrophic falls. There is nothing meek about the market, nor should there be, as there is nothing meek in the art. It is a world where the meek do not inherit the earth – they inherit the dirt So why not an exhibition that dares?

And indeed there will be time

To wonder ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’

 Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

The art world may now be recognizing (i.e. collecting) commercial/fashion photography. Whether this stems from a dearth of traditionally sellable pieces or a latent recognition of the pieces having their own artistic merit is essentially academic. Sellers say: why ask why? But it’s what’s in it for the buyer that’s more intriguing: Are these pieces pop art without irony? Are they consumer nostalgia? Have we discovered another Toulouse-Lautrec? Do we want to be in them?

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

It would be a stretch to say the exhibition attempts to push these questions on the viewer. We are not being challenged to reconsider our desires in the manner of a Jenny Holzer ‘Truism’ (PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT). There are no overwhelming questions here, except maybe how the skeleton of an audi sedan fits into the evening. Answer: it’s what’s driving the dream.

What is here, quite simply, is the display of Dzung Yoko’s creative talent used commercially. For the most part, Dzung and his teams succeed in creating images that elevate the product without surrendering creative integrity (the perfume campaigns are valiant attempts to entertain your eye around the product). No easy task, that, and clearly he earned and enjoyed the trust of everyone involved. There is evidence in the pieces of creative freedom: of space for the talent to play, to flirt with nostalgia, to tweak Asian stereotypes, to stretch the imagination – so long as the result remained beautiful. There is also evidence of influence – Tim Walker, for instance, comes to mind – which is another way of saying the pieces are romantic, slightly eccentric, and value style more than push fashion.

But what is not here is any narrative between the sketches and the final shot. It may have been interesting to see any evolution of the assignment. There is an audience that enjoys the ‘behind the scenes’ just as much as the final product, but with some pieces the sketches mirror the photo to the degree that you could imagine the sketch came after. Would it lessen the impact to see discarded ideas? To learn of the initial assignment and how his mind raced through challenges, overcame constraints? Sometimes the journey really is the destination.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Celine and Shiseido