A unique project brings international artists to Vietnam
A dozen chatty Korean ladies are gathered around a large wooden table laden with tapas-sized snacks. The mood is jovial, fueled by copious amounts of makgeolli, a milky Korean rice wine. The small crowd has gathered for an art talk and exhibition by Korean artist, Andy Khun, whose ink drawings range from whimsical to disturbing to perplexing with a side of social commentary thrown into the mix.
But surprisingly the most unusual feature of the evening isn’t Andy’s drawing of a boy with a bear draped over his head or a red-headed girl with eyes in her hairdo. It isn’t even the cartoonish yet anatomically correct nudes drawn directly onto the wall or the slideshow of images projected onto the neighboring villa. It’s the fact that the exhibition is taking place in a space that’s at once Andy’s studio, gallery and living area but in the home of a complete stranger, absolutely rent-free.
Andy is one of several international artists who have come to Vietnam by invitation of May Jin, a Korean housewife turned art benefactor extraordinaire. During their month-long stay, these artists are completely free to produce artwork, explore Vietnam or simply recharge their artistic batteries.
“I think artists always want to go somewhere to refresh, to find inspiration. But they’re worried about the costs of accommodation. I have space, so I want to give them that space and a simple breakfast. They just need a plane ticket and can come here for one month,” explains May Jin.
Although dubious at first, her family has warmed up to the project. “If my husband and [son] didn’t want to do this, I couldn’t do it. But they thought it was a good idea and they cheered me on. If I’m happy, my family’s happy. If I’m bored or depressed then my family’s bored and depressed.”
Housewife of An Phu
Moving to Vietnam five years ago with her corporate exec husband and teenage son, May Jin found herself an unwilling member of the ‘Housewives of An Phu’ set. “I had nothing to do except engage in the Korean ladies’ community. Suddenly, I wanted to do something but wasn’t sure what. I cannot speak Vietnamese and everything is hard here. So this project got started.”
May Jin began to invite artists to share the ground floor of her two-story home. The fully-equipped unit is completely selfcontained and opens out onto a gorgeous lap pool, making it a tempting place to simply while away the hours. However, in exchange for a full month’s room and board (while breakfast is always provided, artists can also sit in on other meals. “I’m not a good cook, but they can always join,” says May Jin), there is really only one requirement.
“I just want one thing from them − to make something to share with my community. I want more people from Vietnam, both expats and Vietnamese, to enjoy art. I want people here to have easy access to art. It’s hard to get my Vietnamese friends to come [to the art talks at May Jin’s home]. To come to an art show is unusual for them. But coming here is more accessible than going to a gallery.”
Art has been in May Jin’s blood since her school days. She first studied biology (“It wasn’t my thing”), but after joining an art club, changed her major to art history. After two years in Italy, she worked as an editor for an art magazine then opened a gallery in Seoul’s artsy Insadong area. “Business was really bad and I lost lots of money,” she says of her gallery which had multiple spaces for art, design and crafts, and performance art. “But I just didn’t want to sell it. In university, I wanted to be an artist but my parents strongly pushed me to be something more stable like a pharmacist or doctor. It’s an Asian thing,” she says with a hint of wistfulness.
Through her B&B project, however, she’s found a way to rekindle her passion, surrounding herself and her family with creatives. “In Korea, normal people like my husband work for large companies and don’t know artists and don’t want to know artists. They think they’re wasting their life. But here, we get to know them well during the month and they get to know us well. Every evening, we finish our normal lives and then have dinner with the artists. They always think differently from other people. We can get new ideas and energy from them. We can transcend borders between artists and normal people.”
To date, a number of artists have participated in May Jin’s project, including singles, couples and even a family with a baby. Some are established artists, others novice, specializing in everything from installations to photography to pottery to graphic art. Oi spoke to Sunmin Park, Seokmee Noh and Andy Khun about the project and their time in Vietnam.
What was your initial reaction to May Jin’s project?
SP: I thought it was a great chance to let my burden down with a “whew!” because I hadn’t had a chance to travel since I had a baby.
AK: I was so happy to hear that! I thought this was an amazing chance. Because I am just a rookie in the fine arts field and it’s very difficult to get opportunities.
How did you spend your time in Vietnam?
SN: I had a small exhibition here, and shared with visitors. I visited Ho Chi Minh City and went on a short trip to the sea with May and her family. I also visited a few galleries. I had an opportunity to see their current art and to think about Asian art now.
AK: I just strolled many streets in Saigon. I went to several local markets, interesting museums, cafes and parks. I just observed people, animals, fruits, things, buildings, and trees. And sometimes drew them. In the evening, we (May’s family and I) had dinners and talks for several hours. It was a very interesting and happy experience.
What artistic inspiration did you receive from your time in Vietnam?
SP: Vietnam is exotic. It’s a tight tension between Western and Oriental, old and new, peace and toughness. It’s different from Korea. Korea is seriously Americanized and the tradition barely survives. That kind of big contrast in Vietnam was unfamiliar to me and I was inspired.
AK: I’ve been to some other Southeast Asian countries and I thought the atmosphere of Vietnam would be almost the same. But I was wrong. Vietnam is more energetic and dynamic. Also I think Vietnamese characters are very unique.
How has your time in Vietnam affected your work / your life after returning to your home country?
SN: My life has gained one more fresh experience. So I am not the old me.
AK: I’m not sure yet. I’ll just store the memories of Vietnam in my unconscious drawer. Probably it will be mixed with other experiences and come out as unexpected images.
SP: When I was in Vietnam, I admired how gorgeous the aesthetics were, whether people were rich or poor. As soon as I came back to Korea, I tried to make my space look better. Because of the extremely busy daily life in Korea, my circumstances sometimes felt very desolate. Visiting Vietnam awakened how important the trivial beauty of daily life is for peace and happiness.