Sight Unseen: When Curators Began Creating Vietnam's First International Art Show since 1962, They Hoped Their Country's New Openness to Western Business Would Mean More Cultural Freedom. Were They Ever Wrong

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THE ARTIST WAS SPREAD-EAGLED AGAINST THE wall. Dinh Q. Le had been putting up an enormous piece of artwork in the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum when he realized that he was missing his level, one of only two available for the installation of Saigon Open City (SOC), Vietnam's first international art show since 1962. By the time I arrived, he had been teetering on a ladder for 10 minutes, holding up the corners of the piece while assistants scurried around the city to find his equipment.

Le's splayed-out body formed an inadvertent counterpoint to the piece he was installing--U.S, artist Nancy Spero's intriguing Helicopter, Victim, Astronaut. The work features a looming helicopter, a beheaded Christ figure, and a ghoulish astronaut on an umbilical tether, arms raised in victory or possibly in an attempt to grab Jesus' severed head as it soars like a football. Touchdown and hallelujah!

Le looked far less triumphant on his ladder, where he stayed for another 30 minutes. "I'm doing an endurance piece. You know, creative persistence despite bureaucratic and technical challenges," he said.

SOC is an ambitious two-year art project that was slated to open in November 2006. After months of bureaucratic red tape and organizational infighting, however, SOC never received a license from the Ministry of Culture, and the proposed time frame for the first chapter of the project ended. Designed to present Vietnamese and international artists' work on the concept of "Liberation" in Saigon's museums, the first chapter of SOC was doomed to a twilight of waiting and uncertainty. Museums occasionally granted permission for SOC to hang its works, only to retract it or be overruled by government bodies. (Le hung Helicopter, Victim, Astronaut in the Fine Arts Museum, for example, but no one was allowed to see it.) As Thai cocurator Gridthiya Gaweewong said, "We were closed down without ever opening."

It's a particularly painful irony. Vietnam's first large-scale, private cultural venture was designed to bring art to the public, but instead the art was beaten back underground. Coming on the heels of Vietnam's successful bid to join the World Trade Organization and a historic visit by President Bush last November, the plight of SOC underscores the ways in which the country's official increasing openness seems to extend only toward economics, not art.

"One leg wants to walk forward with the WTO," said Gaweewong, "but the other leg is stuck in ideology. As this goes on, Vietnam will have an internal debate between the wallet and the mind. Saigon Open City raised so many of the questions in this debate and it seems like we have one answer: The wallet is open, but the mind is not."

IRON PUSSY WAS STRIDING TOWARD THE SOC OFFICES, A CHAMPA flower tucked behind his ear. Iron Pussy is a Thai artist named Michael Shaowanasai, famous for his drag-queen doppelganger, an avenger in white go-go boots who is the star of the films The Adventure of Irony Pussy, 1-4. A few days before Le's "endurance piece" debut, in November, I had spent my first morning in Saigon trying to chase down the "advance press screening" of SOC works in various museums, to no avail. Come back on Tuesday, said one museum. Maybe Wednesday, said another. Saigon what? said the last. Now, like Alice pursuing the White Rabbit, I trotted after Shaowanasai, a good friend of curator Gaweewong: He was a sign I was in the right place.

I ran up the stairs and plunged into a scene of hot, heaving chaos. Artists were racing around with photographs, stringing empty shampoo bottles together, and frantically framing paintings. I followed the champa flower into the curatorial offices, where Shaowanasai grabbed me and hissed, "They're crazy! They want more bribes!"

"They," of course, were Vietnamese officials, for whom the charms of "tea money" are even today hard for officials to resist. According to one SOC staffer, a sizeable portion of the project's budget--primarily underwritten by the Ford Foundation--was slated for greasing palms (and was listed in the budget as "service fees"). …