Rethink What You Need To Do (Untitled Space, Sài Gòn, 2005-2006)

Lê, seated between Ly Daravuth and Noriyuki Tsuji, presenting on Untitled Space during the 2005 Pilot Project AIR Asia - Mapping Asian Artists’ Mobility, better known as the first IAN meeting, in Taiwan. Courtesy of Koh Nguang How.

A Conversation with Dinh Q. Lê on Untitled Space
(Sài Gòn, 2005-2006)

From 2005 to mid-2006, artist Dinh Q. Lê ran Untitled Space, a residency project that invited various artists, curators, and museum directors from all over the world to give talks in Sài Gòn, Hà Nội, and Huế. Around the same time, Lê also co-founded the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts (VNFA) to help fund Untitled Space and Lê’s next project, Sàn Art, which he co-founded with Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, Phunam Thuc Ha, and Tiffany Chung in 2007. In this interview, we discuss the reasons behind launching these initiatives and the numerous challenges he faced through the years.

Lê presenting on Untitled Space in Taiwan, 2005. Courtesy of Koh Nguang How.


Merv Espina (ME): I think one of the take-off points for the Right People, Wrong Timing series was Intra Asia Network (IAN).

Dinh Q. Lê: I think it was really a wonderful time because it was the first time we all gathered together. We met each other through that network. You know how it started, right?

Norberto Roldan (NR): My recollection was that Margaret [Shiu] started the first meeting in Taipei [in 2005].

DQL: Yeah. But before that, there was also something else.

NR: The one in Berlin [in 2005] coincided with the Res Artis International.

DQL: Yeah, so basically Rockefeller Foundation gave Res Artis funding to start reaching out to Asia because Res Artis was primarily a European organization. Clayton Campbell was the head of Res Artis at the time and he reached out to Rockefeller to see if they could get funding to expand their network and bring in partners from Asia. They got the grant from Rockefeller and they invited me and Margaret to be advisors for them.

Res Artis and their European members were so different from the Asian partners and organizations. Because in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, most of us are independent and self-financed. We don’t get funding from the government. So, the two were so different that there were a lot of complicated feelings. We were all questioning, “why should we pay Res Artis”—I believe it was 100 or 150 euros a year—“to be a member when we could do a lot with that money in Southeast Asia?” There was a lot of interest in starting our own network rather than have to pay a fee to Res Artis to be in a network that primarily catered to a more European residency program that, most of the time, was fully funded by their own governments. It was very different from our organizations here in Asia and Southeast Asia. That’s how Margaret decided that she was going to start IAN.

ME: But prior to that, how did you get involved? How did they select you and Margaret?

DQL: I had a long relationship with Rockefeller even before 2005. They came to Vietnam in 1999 and asked me if there was anything they could help with. They came with, I think, the Ford Foundation and Asian Cultural Council (ACC) people. They travelled around Vietnam and they came to my studio and basically asked what they could do to help and I told them that Vietnam needed information about contemporary art. The schools at the time didn’t really teach contemporary art. Everything they were teaching was up until 1950 and it sort of ended there. 

So, I proposed that they fund a reading room. Contemporary art magazines would come in monthly and artists could just go in and look at them and, if we had funding, we could even try to translate some of the important articles, or they could browse just to have a visual idea of what’s happening with contemporary art outside of Vietnam. The Rockefeller agreed to give me $35,000 to open the space.

The problem was that I couldn’t get the $35,000. The Rockefeller had this policy where they could not give the money to individuals, only to non-profits or governmental organizations. The problem in Vietnam is that I cannot set up a non-profit even today because the law is so badly designed that we cannot open such. 

I asked some of the governmental organizations like the Fulbright Foundation here to be the grant recipient but they refused because contemporary art for them was controversial. Some of the local Vietnamese government-run organizations wanted a large percentage of the grant but I was not willing to hand over 30% just so they would be the fiscal sponsor. In the end, we lost the grant. That was a big frustration and it, in a way, led to me opening two other organizations later on.

 Lê presenting on VNFA in Taiwan, 2005. Courtesy of Koh Nguang How.


DQL: So, partly out of the frustration of not being able to get money from the Rockefeller Foundation before, I opened the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts (VNFA) in 2005 with my dealers in Los Angeles. It was a way for us to have a non-profit status so we could apply for grants like that. I think we got five collectors from America to be on board and a few museum directors and collectors as well. They would each give $5,000 a year to VNFA, and so, in a year, we would have around $30,000 to do programming in Vietnam. 

At the same time, I just built my house. Because I have a lot of relatives in America, I figured I’d build it big so they could visit during the summer. But, during the school year, the place was not being used so I thought of opening a residency. That’s how Untitled Space opened pretty much around the same time as VNFA.

It was the first organization that I opened so I was a novice. I had no idea how to run an organization and it was not an easy task because, at that time, I was also very busy with my work as an artist. I was showing quite a lot.

I think my dealer was also afraid that running the residency program would take over my life and I would not be able to operate as an artist. But that’s how it was designed: Untitled Space was a by-invitation-only residency program and VNFA would pay for the people that we invite. 

Day 2 of 2005 IAN meeting in Taiwan. From L-R: Nicholas Tsoutas, Ly Daravuth, and Lê.  Courtesy of Koh Nguang How.

Lê speaking during the 2006 IAN meeting in Seoul, Korea. Courtesy of Anne Yao.


ME: Who was the first? How many residents did you have?

DQL: First were Shirley and Sara Tse. Shirley represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale 2019. I collected some of Shirley’s work before so I invited her and her sister to come and talk about their work. Then we had Moira Roth who is a historian who lives in Berkeley, California and teaches at Mills College. Her expertise is on performance art in the West Coast, in California. 

Shirley and Sara Tse came and talked about their work and practice while Moira Roth talked about performance art. I remember the reason we brought Moira was because Vietnam at the time didn’t know what the hell performance art is and, in Vietnam, every time you do an exhibition or a performance, you have to get permission from the Ministry of Culture. They didn’t know what a performance was. They thought it’s theater. We had to explain to them that it’s not theater because they kept sending us over to the Theater Department to ask permission.

Moira gave a talk about performance art in Sài Gòn and we flew her to Hà Nội to give a talk as well. The people from the Ministry of Culture actually came for the talk and they came up to her after to thank her and that was really kind of interesting because she actually showed a lot of images of very provocative, sexualized performances with nudity and yet, all these officials came and sat through the whole thing and that was really kind of funny.

We also had Catherine de Zegher who was the head curator of The Drawing Center in New York. She spoke about contemporary drawings. Vietnam has a very strong tradition of drawing. Many of the artists in Vietnam are extremely well-trained when it comes to drawing. They draw beautifully and their skill is amazing, but they’re still very traditional types of drawing. 

When we brought Catherine de Zegher to talk about drawings, she started out with a work that’s still quite interesting to me: a work by Gabriel Orozco, this Mexican artist who I think lived in Paris. It’s a photograph of him riding a bicycle through a puddle of water and the wet mark of the bicycle wheels on the pavement going round and round and round. She called that a drawing and I remember all the artists that attended the lecture were so upset with her because they were like, “that’s not a drawing!” They started to get really angry but that was the point. The point was that drawing can be more than just pencil-on-paper. It gave them something to think about and that was good. [1]

NR: Were you hosting mostly artists and curators from the US?

DQL: Yes. At the time, my network was in America. I didn’t have much of a network in Asia. I think many curators and museum directors and even artists in Asia thought of me as somebody still living in America. I think it was when I opened Sàn Art that people realized that I actually had been living in Vietnam for a long time.

ME: Why “Untitled Space?”

DQL: Whenever I make a work, I don’t think of a title. It’s always at the last moment when the gallery asks me, “so what’s the title of the work?” that I scramble for it. I’m still kind of fond of the idea that I don’t think about a title, it’s just something that I do, and to give it a name is something else. Also, I like this idea of “untitled” because the space was the first time I was doing kind of a community art space. I was a novice and I didn’t know how it was going to function. I didn’t have a staff and I didn’t know much about anything so I didn’t want to give it a name yet, basically.

ME: You didn’t have staff? It was only you?

DQL: That was a problem.

ME: And you ran it from 2005 until 2007?

DQL: I think we stopped at around mid-2006 because it became a bit too much for me because curators and museum directors would fly in and then I would fly with them to Hà Nội to organize talks at the fine arts university there and, if they had time, I would also take them to Huế to give a talk at the university there and then to Sài Gòn. It really took a lot of time for me to do all this and I think, at some point, I realized I could not do this forever. It was just too much. It takes too much time from my studio work. [2]

I also realized that, in Hà Nội, the art scene was quite active because all the NGOs and embassies were there and so they got a lot of foreign funding. In Sài Gòn, there was zero funding. There was really nothing happening in Sài Gòn.

That was the reason why after a year-and-a-half of running Untitled, I thought we could use the 30,000-a-year funding we had with VNFA to open a contemporary art space. We stopped using the money to invite international figures to open a space where local artists can experiment with all these new forms and ideas without having to rent a gallery and pay a certain amount when they don’t have the money. That’s how Sàn Art opened. 

The opening of The Future at Sàn Art’s first space along Lý Tự Trọng, District 1, HCMC, 2007. Courtesy of Dinh Q. Lê and Sàn Art.


NR: At some point, you decided to close Untitled because it was taking up so much time from your studio-

DQL: Yes.

NR: But then you started Sàn Art.

DQL: Well, after Untitled Space, I became a little bit smarter. I asked Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn and Phunam [Thuc Ha] of The Propeller Group and Tiffany Chung to come in and collaborate with me. Now, the work is divided into four and we also hired a gallery manager to do other things. We would take turns curating the shows. It worked much better as it wasn’t solely me running the space.

ME: Between you stopping Untitled in the middle of 2006 and starting Sàn Art [in 2007], why was it so short? And what told you to restart it again and what were the lessons that you learned from running Untitled Space? What were the mistakes you learned from that you applied to running Sàn Art?

DQL: The idea was to stop Untitled but not to stop working with a community entirely. We needed the six months to plan out and strategize how Sàn Art was going to be because I knew that when I stopped Untitled, it was to open Sàn Art, an art space for young artists. It wasn’t like I stopped and then thought, “what next?”

ME: So you already had the idea for Sàn Art when you stopped Untitled?

DQL: Yeah, definitely. We had the funding and there was a need for a gallery space for experimentation. So, I stopped Untitled and, I have to tell you, my board members at the VNFA were not very happy with that idea. 

But in the end, they saw the logic of it so they reluctantly agreed to stop bringing in international artists, curators, and museum directors and transfer the money to fund Sàn Art. There was never a plan to stop, but just to basically transform Untitled into something else. In terms of lessons, definitely find people that you like, people who are capable, and work and collaborate with them. That was the big lesson: you could not do things alone.

ME: So basically, Sàn Art inherited a lot of Untitled’s networks.

DQL: Yeah. During the first three years, funding came from VNFA. We didn’t have any other funding source. That’s how we were able to pay our rent, pay the staff, and get the funds for artists to create exhibitions at our space.

Three years ago, Sàn Art went through a really difficult time because we had this major grant from the Prince Claus Fund and when that grant ended, Sàn Art went broke.

ME: But didn’t you still have VNFA?

DQL: No, VNFA now... this is one of the big problems I think for any organization: the funders’ interest slowly moves elsewhere. They don’t give forever. For the funders from VNFA, eventually, their interest moved elsewhere so right now we actually are on our own.

When we got the big funding from Prince Claus, it was a three-year funding and was something like $350,000, which is a lot for three years. We had around ten staff members, three buildings that we paid rents on, and when that grant was over, there was no other grant to replace that and we basically collapsed. I had to let everybody go.

So, for a while, we had a little office space. The whole process was to try to rebuild again. But we’re okay now. We have an 80-m2 space in pretty much the city center. We’re also selling artwork a bit too and it’s actually working, although we still have to focus on that a little bit. We also apply for grants here and there. Also, our operation is very small so the budget is manageable now.

Opening of Diary of Traveling City at Sàn Art, 2008. Courtesy of Dinh Q. Lê and Sàn Art.

Across the street during the opening of Diary of Traveling City at Sàn Art, 2008. Courtesy of Dinh Q. Lê and Sàn Art.


NR: How much are you involved with the operations of Sàn Art today?

DQL: I’m more of an advisor and kind of an architect in a way. Right now, we have a completely new team and they’re young, they’re very good. They all received scholarships to study in America and elsewhere, and they all came back which is really wonderful. It’s a whole new generation of young people who are interested in the arts. 

What I see happening now with Sàn Art is that it has become more of a space to train young curators or art administrators. I don’t do the day-to-day running and programming. The team pretty much does the local artist programs and, starting last year, we discussed a 50/50 program: 50% local and 50% international artists. We were planning to do an international program but the pandemic happened so we have not been able to carry it out.

It’s fascinating in a way because, in Vietnam, the art scene is so small that an artist would be showing in so many spaces within a year and, after a while, we’re all competing for the same artist. So, we thought, why don’t we go outside of the local network of artists and focus on bringing really interesting artists to Vietnam?

ME: It seems a bit cyclical because Untitled had a lot of international networks and then the first few years of Sàn Art were quite local.

DQL: It’s true. In the beginning we wanted to bring in information about what’s happening outside Vietnam and then, when we opened Sàn Art, we wanted to support local artists and help nurture their talents by giving them a place to experiment. 

Now, we have a lot of spaces in Sài Gòn. Many of the artists that we trained through Sàn Art are now showing everywhere and so we feel that we’ve done our job. We have trained a good number of artists and the art scene is vibrant now that we don’t have to focus on the local artists anymore. We can now also think about Vietnam and how to connect it back to the rest of the world.

SBY: Can we say that, from Untitled to Sàn Art, the role that both spaces have played is to stimulate the growth within the scene? Whether by bringing in international practitioners or even just cultivating the local talent? So, as Merv says, it’s cyclical in a sense that you are actually gauging what is important and necessary for the scene?

DQL: Yes. You know, I was born in Vietnam, left when I was 10, ended up in America, grew up, went to school in California, and then I did my master’s in New York City. In New York, the art scene was so vibrant. Everything was happening. Then, in [1993], I came back to Sài Gòn for the first time and there was nothing happening. The difference was so drastic that I felt I had to do something. By 1997, I decided to live in Sài Gòn full-time. 

At some point, I felt it was necessary for me to create a community because I needed a community and I think the rest needed a community to be together, people with like minds, to think together and to support each other. So, yes. Every decade or every five years, you really have to rethink what you need to do. It needs something different. It changes. 

Sàn Art’s Reading Room, July 2015. Courtesy of Dinh Q. Lê and Sàn Art.


ME: You’ve been dealing directly with government institutions with all these projects. What do you see are the positive developments of you having to constantly deal with these since you started?

DQL: Do you remember Saigon Open City and how it was censored and the whole thing collapsed? So that was the frustration because the government didn’t know contemporary art and they didn’t trust it because it was something they didn’t understand. 

So we thought, let’s open Sàn Art and, every month, we have to engage with the Ministry of Culture for permission to the point that they get used to us and to contemporary art, and basically prove that it’s nothing so threatening for them to be so worried about. 

It’s almost 13 years now since Sàn Art opened. We’re still around. Besides the fact that we went broke, the government hasn’t tried to shut us down so I guess they’re used to us now. I think, for them, contemporary art is not so strange and scary anymore. I mean, they could shut us down anytime. Now, they even gave me my Vietnamese passport back. Before that, they could kick me out of the country anytime if they didn’t like what I or Sàn Art was doing but they didn’t.

Of course they’re still nervous and every couple of years we have a new crop of bureaucrats who are running the Ministry of Culture so it’s a bit frustrating because we have to re-train them in a way for them to get used to what we’re doing. But we have been around for so long that I think that they think what we do is somewhat normal now, which is kind of great.

ME: You educated them.

DQL: We either educated them or we just wore them down.

Untitled Space's de facto location, Dinh’s studio and home, and his 20-year old frangipani. Courtesy of Dinh Q. Lê and Sàn Art.


[1] Other guests include Jeremy Strick, Melissa Chiu, Alma Ruiz, and Carolee Thea.

[2] In a later conversation, Lê said they would be flown to Hà Nội and he would fly up to meet them there. The guests would usually stay for about three to five days in Hà Nội, spend another three to five days in Huế, and then fly to Ho Chi Minh City and stay for another three to five days, all depending on their schedule. Many did not have the time to visit Huế.

The online interview took place on 16 August 2020. This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Dinh Q. Lê was born in Hà Tiên, Vietnam.  He received his BA in Art Studio at UC Santa Barbara and his MFA in Photography and Related Media at The School of Visual Arts in New York City.  In 1993, Lê returned to Vietnam for the first time and in 1997, settled down full time in Ho Chi Minh City.  Lê’s artistic practice consistently challenges how our memories are recalled with context in contemporary life and his work has exhibited worldwide.

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More info:

Berlin 2005 - Res Artis

Will Vietnamese non-profit art space Sàn Art shift the art scene from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city? - interview Dinh Q Le.” Art Radar (15 Dec 2009)

Sàn Art

Creating Spaces-Post Alternative Spaces in Asia (2011)

Saigon Open City

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Right People, Wrong Timing (RPWT) is a series of texts on defunct or inactive independent Asian arts initiatives that had crossed paths or ran parallel to Papaya’s own 20-year history. With new posts every Friday from August to December 2020, RPWT is kindly supported through a local grant by the Japan Foundation Manila.