Thursday, June 21, 2018

Richard Streitmatter-Tran at Salon Saigon

On Saturday 9th June I went to District 3 in Saigon to the hidden gem of Salon Saigon. Unless you have been before, it would be easy to miss this place as it is found towards the end of a small and secluded street. Situated in a beautiful house previously used as the residence of US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in the 1960s, the Salon now presents both traditional and contemporary art as well as hosting talks, musical events, exhibitions etc.

On the day I visited I first had a look at an interesting show of Vietnamese Contemporary Art and then took a seat on the ground floor to hear a presentation by artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran.


I had been aware of Richard's work for several years and had read descriptions of many of his installations during that time, but it is always illuminating to hear artists themselves introducing their work. I find the manner of an artists presentation can give us extra clues about the character of both the artist and the work.

Richard described how his practice has changed from working primarily in the fields of Conceptual Art and Performance Art, through to his current practice that involves working directly with materials, quite often in-situ as he constructs installations that are mostly temporary in nature.

I admire the way Richard approaches his work. After the direction of the work has been decided upon he boldly works towards it, following the natural development of the work. This often means that he needs to learn how to handle and manipulate new materials using new methods and techniques in order to realise the work. This is a brave way of working and, being aware of how many artists today have their work fabricated by technicians, he has made the conscious decision to make as much as possible by his own hands.

Admirable though this way of working is, the most impressive aspect of his approach for me,  is the way he arrives at a location with ideas, plans and tools but with little in the way of materials. These he finds at the location and the installation is constructed on-site during the time allotted for the installation. An artist needs a great deal of confidence and organisational ability as well as prompt decision-making in order to get the work resolved in time.

Following the resolution of the work, an extra aspect that is intriguing to me is how he often he allows natural decay and deterioration to degrade the work during the exhibition period. As an artist I am very attracted to this attitude for conceptual reasons but I wonder how curators, gallery owners etc. feel about this. Although we are now in the year 2018, this way of working is still effectively avant-garde as the weight of demand in the art world is for saleable objects and products. We have not moved on very far from the days when the Arte Povera artists sought to deliberately undermine the commodification of art.

On my home after the talk I reflected upon the plight of being an artist. Artists need to earn a living; often artists seek income through teaching but this is becoming more and more difficult these days unless an artist has become an academic and secured a PhD. This idea was unthinkable when I was an art student in the 1970s unless you wanted to become an historian or art critic. The emphasis then was to understand materials by working with them and to develop ideas by physically interacting with materials and learning how to be self-critical through trial and error and, if you were lucky, through peer discussion.

Since the days when the independent art colleges were swallowed up by Universities, artists are now also expected to be academics. This means that art is increasingly intellectual, based upon well conducted research that can be verified and measured, along with approved references and citations. Art which is not produced following this approach may be rejected and artists who have not overcome the enormous financial and time-consuming hurdle of securing a doctorate are unable to teach. This is a loss for artists but also a sad loss for students I feel.

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