“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.
Moving on, a visitor encounters an almost life-size wooden Buddha -- an incredible artifact, not just for its slender, Giacometti-like beauty but for the simple fact that this wooden statue dates from the 6th century, having survived almost intact -- and half-smiling -- in the bog of the Mekong Delta.
The Buddha’s right hand is raised in abhaya mudra, symbolizing peace, and the belly shows a slight bulge, indicating the intake of breath, prana -- gestures that suggest the creator of the Buddha had been exposed to Indian Gupta sculpture.
A wide-eyed demon in a stone frieze on display in another room shows how the people who lived between the 5th and the 15th century in the coastal kingdoms of Champa, near Hoi An, were also influenced by Indian aesthetics. Early Cham inscriptions were done in Sanskrit, and awe-inspiring stone sculptures of the Hindu god Shiva also reveal the Indian influence. (During another encounter between cultures much later, U.S. bombers destroyed a significant Cham site at My Son.)
The final part of the show looks at trade and exchange in the period between the 16th and the 18th century in the port city of Hoi An, about 20 miles from Danang. Chinese porcelain, Japanese silver, cinnamon and gold were among the wares that were traded at Hoi An, and luxury goods that have later been found attest to the continued connection to China and India as well as the Middle East.
Most of the pieces in this part of the show come from the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck, discovered during the 1990s. Tingley speculates that at least part of the ship’s cargo was destined for a Vietnamese man living in an Islamic country somewhere in Southeast Asia, so that he might have not only the kinds of ceramic that reminded him of his home but also something that fit his new culture.
Carbon dating suggests that the ship went down in the 15th century, and the remains of fruit found aboard suggest that it had set sail in late fall. The lateness of the expedition meant that the sailors likely encountered rough weather, possibly causing the ship to go down.