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'Arts of Ancient Viet Nam'

The expansive exhibition of artifacts from the land's historical cultures is on view at the Asia Society in New York.

February 21, 2010|By Louise Roug
  • Garuda with Naga Champa period, late 12th-13th century. Thap Mam site, Binh Dinh Province Stone.
Garuda with Naga Champa period, late 12th-13th century. Thap Mam site,… (National Museum of Vietnamese…)

Reporting from New York — "Arts of Ancient Viet Nam," the most ambitious exhibition of Vietnamese art yet to appear in the United States, is a show about meetings.

In room after room, magnificent objects on display tell a story about people -- how we encounter one another and change in the process.

That such meetings are sometimes bloody was an inescapable issue for the organizers of the show, on view at the Asia Society in New York.

For decades, Vietnam existed in the American mind not so much as a geographical place with its own history but rather, singularly, as a synonym for conflict.

And it was this association -- as Asia Society Director Vishakha Desai put it: "that Vietnam means war" -- that organizers wanted to challenge. "We wanted to create a new story," Desai said. Given the interwoven history of America and Vietnam, it is a point delicately made.

For one thing, Nancy Tingley, the show's heroically stubborn curator who worked more than 20 years to realize "Arts of Ancient Viet Nam," has mounted an exhibition that looks at a time well before the Battle of Hue, the massacre at My Lai and the fall of Saigon. This is a historical show that examines another kind of meeting between people: one built on trade and commerce.

One reason it took so long for the exhibition to be realized was that before 2003 Vietnam didn't have a law that would allow for the lending of museum objects. But the Vietnamese government eventually threw its support behind the exhibition and 10 museums in Vietnam have contributed objects, including the Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City.

Another obstacle was the lack of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States until 1995. "Politics got in the way for some years, but we've gotten beyond that," said Tingley, based in Northern California.

Although she acknowledges the initial difficulty of realizing the project, Tingley is less interested in making overt political statements and more engaged with the question of what these beautifully crafted objects can tell us about the various peoples who lived between the first millennium BC and the 18th century in what is now Vietnam.

"Trade is a lens through which to look at the cultures," Tingley said, adding that as art and objects spread through trade so do ideas.

Or as the general director of the Department of Cultural Heritage in Vietnam, Dang Van Bai, puts it in a foreword to the catalog: "Arts and culture have always provided a bridge to mutual understanding among the peoples of the world."

With economic assistance from other countries, notably France, which has its own history in the region, Vietnam continues to improve the state of its museums, Tingley said.

The show, which runs through May 2, is remarkable for its scale, scope and beauty. The more than 100 objects, which have never appeared together before in an exhibit (not even in Vietnam), span almost 2,000 years. Because the exhibit spans such a wide period and includes different cultures, it is hard to point to a defining Vietnamese aesthetic. Rather, each of the four cultures on display have borrowed iconography and expressions from different parts of the world.

Organized chronologically, the show begins with two contemporary early cultures, the Dong Son and the Sa Huynh, who lived, respectively, in the north and the central-south part of the country until the 2nd century AD.

Like many cultures that appear to us centuries after their demise, the Sa Huynh are best viewed through their burial objects -- in this case, large, upright clay jars that held the dead along with offerings such as weapons and pottery -- and objects such as Chinese mirrors found at Sa Huynh sites suggest that the culture was a center for trade and exchange.

The most impressive remnants from the Dong Son culture are the large bronze drums on display, intricately patterned with abstract bands and images of people, which, along with chicken-headed ceramics, reveal a strong Chinese influence.

The next room reveals a different people -- the Fu Nan, a civilization of city-states that existed in the Mekong Delta from the 1st to the 5th century AD.; to provide historical context, Fu Nan gold jewelry is presented alongside contemporaneous imported objects from Rome, China and India.

The Fu Nan and their trading partners had rich opportunities to exchange ideas and expressions because the monsoon winds kept the traders in foreign ports for four to six months at a time. But little is known about the Fu Nan people except that they were impressive seafarers who built 200-foot-long ships that had an ability to carry up to 700 people and could be used to export not just goods but also live rhinos and elephants.

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