Photo by Nick Sells

Up-and-coming UK indie act Melodramas took the audience by storm at Darlin’ Darlin’ Lounge in Phnom Penh on Aug. 26. Performing at the inaugural Tiger Beer Translate event, the four-man crew brought some much needed rock to the Penh before they head to HCM City for a pair of shows at the Hard Rock Cafe on September 2 and Apocalypse Now on September 4.

Clad in skinny jeans and donning long hairdos, twenty-somethings Matt, Greg, Rob, and Sam, treated the crowd to two sets of original indie-cum-pop rock tunes, making the upper class club sound like a bar in London’s Camden Town.

Describing their approach to music as DIY, frontman Matt says the four friends first started playing in a backyard garage, recording seven tunes on a portable eight-track.

“We did it on a budget of forty quid,” he says. “Then we put the songs on myspace and started attracting a bit of local interest.”

That was almost two years ago. Since then, interest has only increased and Melodramas have shared the stage with some real industry heavyweights, including supporting the New York Dolls on their UK tour in 2009.

Taylor Hawkins, the Foo Fighters’ drummer, has described them as “one of the best supporting bands I’ve had” after the group joined his other band, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders, on tour.

Now on a 23-day Asia and Australia tour, the band is broadening its fan base away from the over-crowded British indie scene. So far, it’s been a positive experience.

“Everyone in Asia seems to be a lot more enthusiastic, people seem to get into [the music] a lot more,” says Sam.

Cambodia, where the band will play a total of three gigs, has proved particularly welcoming.
“It is probably our favourite place so far, people seem so friendly and approachable,” says Greg. “That really makes a difference when you’re playing a show.”

With influences from The Coral, Blur, and Supergrass, the band has a distinct indie feel, though Matt likes to think of the group as a pop band.

“My mission statement is to try to reclaim pop,” he says. “The Beatles were a pop band and they were one of the best bands of all time. Just because you’ve got X Factor and so on now, they should not be allowed to hijack the term pop.”

On stage, the band forms a solid, dynamic unit, with Matt’s distinct vocals and rock ‘n’ roll swagger leading the way. The group’s name reflects both its sound and stage presence.

“Melodramas are old theatrical productions, over-emphasised, histrionic,” Matt says. “We think that is a fair representation of what we do as a band musically, and on stage live as well.”

The band’s current tour is set to finish at festivals in Australia, though there is talk of a potential return to Southeast Asia before November. Then Melodramas will hit the studio to record their debut album with producer Sam Williams, known for having worked with Supergrass, Noisettes, and Plan B.

Melodramas will play at Spark in Phnom Penh on Aug. 28 at 9pm, and in Ho Chi Minh City on Sep.2 at Hard Rock Café and Sep. 4 at Apocalypse Now (tbc).

To find out more about the band, visit www.myspace.com/melodramastheband

Contributed by Nora Lindstrom, photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com).

Beginning this Thursday, July 8, Galerie Quynh will present The Complex of the Glass Frog – an exhibition of new work by Sandrine Llouquet. Llouquet’s third solo exhibition at the gallery will feature ambitious installation-based work derived from her drawing practice. The large-scale works are inspired by the more formal elements of line and color that define her minimal drawings of curiously winsome and violent subjects.

For this exhibition, Llouquet eschews her usual paper support and takes her drawings into three dimensions. Klee described drawing as taking a line for a walk; Llouquet’s lines become active subjects following an intuitive journey that twists, winds and entangles.

Of Vietnamese descent, Sandrine Llouquet was born in 1975 in Montpellier, France. She graduated from École Pilote Internationale d’Art et de Recherche – Villa Arson following a years’ study at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Art. She has spent the last five years living and working in Ho Chi Minh City. An active contributor to the development of the art scene in Vietnam, she is co-founder of Wonderful District, a project that promotes contemporary art through exhibitions, concerts and theater pieces, as well as a member of Mogas Station, a Vietnam-based artist collective. Llouquet’s work has been exhibited in numerous venues including the Palais de Tokyo, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and most recently at the Tate Modern (presented by San Art in No Soul for Sale). She has also participated in a number of biennales with Mogas Station such as the Shenzhen Biennale (2007), the Singapore Biennale (2006) and in Migration Addicts – a collateral event of the 52nd Venice Biennale.

Opening reception: Thursday, July 8 from 6 – 8pm

Exhibition dates: July 9 – August 21, 2010

Location: Galerie Quynh, 65 De Tham Street, District 1, HCMC, Vietnam

Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday: 10am – 6pm, Closed on Sundays and Mondays

Contact information: Thu Vu (English); Huynh Kim Yen (Vietnamese), info@galeriequynh.com, +84 (8) 3836 8019

This month, AsiaLIFE examines the lives of eight expatriates from around the globe in our first People Issue. Hailing from Ghana, Israel, France, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Australia, South Korea and the United States, these individuals have made Vietnam home for many different reasons, but they all live a life less ordinary. Taken together, their stories reveal something more about modern-day Vietnam and the opportunities it holds for the enterprising and adventurous.

Also this month: Hiphop legend DJ Premier in the Q&A seat. Dave Lemke brings us on a photographic tour of the streets of Havana. Beth Young wonders whether Bui Vien is growing up in Street Smart. Jeremy Kressmann immerses himself in Myanmar’s colonial past. Jade Bilowol travels to a Central Highlands village where women rule the roost. Alexandra Karina gives us the skinny on the sticky Vietnamese staple xoi. Krista Lambie learns how individuals afflicted with leprosy overcome stigma in Vietnam. Thomas Maresca heads to Mui Ne to attend a triathlon rooted in environmental and social responsibility. Brett Davis profiles a new social networking site that’s uniting the Vietnamese diaspora in the digital domain. And Jade Bilowol visits perhaps the coolest office in Saigon (and revs up a Segway).

Dinh Q. Le at San Art, May 2010. Photo by Richard Harper for AsiaLIFE.

This month, AsiaLIFE interviewed contemporary artist Dinh Q. Le. Printed here is an extended version of that interview. On June 30, Dinh’s new three-channel installation, The Farmers and the Helicopters, will be the subject of a six-month solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Contributed by Tom DiChristopher.

Your installation, The Farmers and the Helicopters, includes a three-channel video and a full-size helicopter built by an engineer in Tay Ninh Province. How did this all come together?

I read in the newspaper about how Tran Quoc Hai built the helicopter, and the way he talked about it was really interesting. The helicopter is such an iconic object during the [American War], but when Tran Quoc Hai talked about the helicopter, he was saying that he wanted to build the helicopter to help people—to help in emergency evacuations, to help with farming. So in a way, he’s changing this idea of the helicopter from a war machine as we know it when we think of the helicopter related to Vietnam. But he’s trying to change that, the idea of the helicopter.

I thought that was really interesting, and what was more interesting was how the general public wrote in to the newspaper in support of his idea, of his desire to build this machine. In a way it’s like Vietnam was trying to move forward—creating new memories—changing the idea of a war machine to a new idea of what this machine could be. So that’s what got me interested. In a way, this helicopter is kind of a marking of a transitional point in Vietnam.

Originally I wanted to bring his helicopter to the show that I was asked to do at Asia Society in New York. This was about 2005. The problem was Asia Society’s ceiling—the gallery ceiling—was too low. So I couldn’t bring the helicopter. The idea was to bring the helicopter as a kind of performance and then we would answer the audience’s question, so they have this kind of dialogue, talking about a different idea of the helicopter in relation to Vietnam. But that couldn’t happen. I came back [to HCM City] a little bit disappointed, so I decided to do a video. [Content development and production company] Propeller Group here in Saigon run by Tuan Andrew Nguyen are very good friends of mine, so I approached them and said this is sort of what I want to do and they were very supportive and also great at what they do, so we started working together to make this three-channel video happen.

It was commissioned by Asia Pacific Triennial in 2006. So we got some funding to create the video. So that’s how the video came about and when the time of the exhibition came, of course Asia Pacific Triennial doesn’t have the money to bring the helicopter to Australia, so we ended up only showing the film and they were able to bring Mr. Tran Quoc Hai, who built the helicopter, to Australia, and he and I had public conversations about the helicopter in Vietnam during Asia Pacific Triennial opening.

I’m curious about how your relationship with Tran Quoc Hai developed.

We only had a little blurb that says he’s in Suoi Day, Tay Ninh. We have no idea where it is, because Suoi Day is sort of an hour away from Tay Ninh. So we were like, “Let’s just rent a car and we’ll go there.” we go there and we slowly ask along the way and we basically ask all the xe om drivers, “Where is this?” [laughs] So eventually we found him, and he was really open about this idea. His helicopter had always been seen as a machine, and now I come and ask to look at it from an artistic perspective, and he loved that idea. He was very open willing to be part of the filming. We also invited his neighbours to be part of the film because we wanted their ideas, their memories of the helicopters during the war. Everybody was just very open.

Some of your early work dealt in part with your own memories of the war and how, as a Viet Kieu, they were partly informed by American film and media. Do you view this as an extension of that work?

My interest in the [American War] has always been about how that history has been mostly written by the West. I’ve always been trying to—maybe not completely undermine it—but at least insert a different point of view into that narrative. And I think this work in a way is probably my most successful work. Even though a lot of footage comes from Hollywood and documentaries that were taken by Westerners during the [American War], the only voices you hear are from the Vietnamese, so in a way I silenced the voices from the West. So this is the first piece of work that, primarily, the voice only comes from the Vietnamese perspective. I think in a way it’s marking a change in my work also.

For Signs and Signals from the Periphery (2009), you also used ready-made objects like the tyres used by merchants to advertise street-side shops.

I’ve always been a great admirer of the people, the resilience and the invetiveness of the people how to survice. I think this has a lot to do—again it goes back to the war because you constantly have to move because the war might come at any time. So you have to be able to pack up and leave and settle down wherever you are and be able to survive right away. And so it’s kind of interesting, this mentality. You can see it still happening in Vietnam.

So you see the poor people surrounding themselves with whatever they can get their hands on to attract your attention to what they are selling. Some of them are the most wonderful things. I’ve been looking at them for years, but I think I was a little bit too obsessed with the Vietnam War to think about this work. Going back to The Farmers and the Helicopters, I think that work really freed me to think about Vietnam today. And so I was thinking, “Where is Vietnam today? What is happening in Vietnam?” Some parts of Vietnam are still trying to deal with this history of the Vietnam/American War. But I think there’s also another part that has been forced to move on because of the necessity of survival and so I wanted to look at that part of Vietnam, as well.

I think in part because I live all the way in District 8, which you could say is a poor neighborhood, you could see the way people every day struggle to survive. They’re very creative in the way they use whatever they have in order to survive. It’s wonderful. That’s something that I’m interested, that I have great admiration for.

But also if you look at the objects they created, it’s completely abstract. If you don’t know how to read the signs, they’re a kind of a puzzle, a kind of abstraction. It’s so close to the language of contemporary art of today that all you have to do is switch the environment they’re in. So what I did was very simply I just took them from the street and put them in the white cube of a gallery and it completely changed the meaning and the context and everything.

You exhibited one of these works, a bicycle stocked with Vietnamese flags, at HCM City’s San Art recently. Did you consider how that might be interpreted by local Vietnamese for whom it’s an everyday sight?

That was one of the pieces I had in mind right away, because the local audience, they see this work all the time—this bicycle with the flags. They see it on the street every day, but after a while, they don’t pay attention. It’s sort of taken for granted. So I wanted people to look at this work in a different context. It was sort of a gamble. I thought a lot of people would dismiss it; “Oh, he’s just taking something off the street.” But I think something wonderful happened. Here in the gallery context, [the audience] really looked at it for the first time.

People don’t look at things, and that’s the problem. We’re so busy with our daily lives I submitted that bike for the show because I want people to think about what it is on the street that they’re seeing and yet not seeing–when it’s in the gallery context, force them to think about their idea of everything they see on the street. I think that’s what the goal is, and I think it was very successful. It was in all the newspapers. [laughs]

"The Infrastructure of Nationalism" from the Signs and Signals from the Periphery series (2009). Exhibited at Syntax and Diction. Photo Courtesy of San Art.

That body of work contains a neon-lit tyre that you said reminds you of Dan Flavin’s light installations, as well as a piece entitled Fountain for B.N. [Bruce Nauman]. Is there a conscious effort there to bring Vietnamese imagery into the contemporary art dialogue?

It wasn’t a conscious effort but I think because this is part of the history, part of the vocabulary that I’m part of—contemporary art—so I’m only seeing things in relation to that history. It wasn’t conscious, it was just very effortless. It was probably one of the easiest bodies of work I’ve ever done. [laughs] I guess because I’d been kind of thinking about them for so long that when the ideas all clicked together, it just flowed so effortlessly.

And I think maybe that’s the thing about who I am—I was born in Vietnam, raised in America, educated in the West and educated in the language of Western contemporary art. Now coming back, this is where the two meet within me. I’m sort of a combination of the two—the West and the East, the local and the international. That body of work is really about who I am in a way. How I see the world.

The nonprofit art space you co-founded, San Art, recently paricipated in No Soul for Sale: A Festival of Independents at the Tate Modern. How did that go?

It was wonderful because for three days, according to Tate Modern, we got about 450,000 people. That was quite an amazing experience—so many people streaming through. A lot of them are just lay people. They come to the museum on the weekend for fun, and it was nice to be able to do a little bit of, “What is contemporary art in Vietnam today?” We brought a lot of books on contemporary Vietnam, too, and we had a place for people to sit down and just kind of browse through the books. Because not many people are aware of what’s happening contemporary art-wise in Vietnam, so it was a wonderful way to share that knowledge and to promote some of our artists.

You’ve spoken about San Art as bridge between the local and the international. Do you see international events like this as a big part of San Art’s future?

If budget permits, we definitely try to do programmes that are local and international because San Art is not only providing a space for local artists to experiment, but also we want to bring artists here to make work, to collaborate, to show. Because I think an artist’s process is really interesting. I think the process for the artist here in Vietnam is a little bit different than the process of an artist, let’s say, from Europe or from America. So I think if they come and they make the work here, it would be wonderful for artists to see how an idea begins and how it’s built from an idea to a final product.

That’s something that we’re trying to do here. San Art is trying to do both, not only trying to support the local artists, but also trying to bring them internatially to show them abroad.

During an artist talk at San Art recently, the panel seemed to have some trouble explaining the concept of the ready-made object and Marcel Duchamp’s work. When we’re talking about contemporary art in Vietnam, is there a sense that we’re still using two different languages?

Myself, I’ve been very privileged in that way. But that privilege came hard-earned, also. There’s still a gap and unfortunately the Fine Arts University here has not been able to give that kind of information. It’s not part of the education system, but I think the younger artists, like Bui Cong Khanh for example, and some of the artists in Hanoi, they themselves have made the effort to learn English and to read books about contemporary art, and to look on the web. So many of them are learning about it. But unfortunately only a small number of them are on that level. I think that’s where San Art and other artist-run institutions in Saigon and in Hanoi are trying to fill that gap. The school is unable to do it and the governmental institutions are not able to do it. So this is where nonprofit spaces like San Art and some of the NGOs like the Goethe Insitute in Hanoi and Alliance Francaise [are] trying to fill that gap.

You’ve also spoken about wanting to support local artists interested in engaging contemporary art, but being cautious not to be seen to be teaching these young artists “the facts of life.” Do you think San Art has struck that balance?

I think the younger generation are very hungry, willing to take risks, willing to learn. I think what we do is just give information, and then it’s up to them to take it or leave it. Many of the older generation, I wish they would be willing to come to San Art, but I think overall we have done what we could with the little resources we have. I think we have achieved not only what we have set out to do, but  more than we thought we could. Slowly the artists are realizing that San Art could be a place for them. I think that is our ultimate goal, that all the artists will feel comfortable—not that San Art is some elitist institution–that they could be part of it.

This month AsiaLIFE delves into contemporary pop culture in Vietnam. Tom DiChristopher speaks to industry insiders about delivering better homegrown television programming in “I Want My VNTV.” Thomas Maresca profiles the efforts of producers and artists to champion R&B and hiphop over saccharine karaoke-ready pop in “Vietnamese Music Searches for a Groove.” Jade Bilowol follows up on our September Vietnamese Film issue in “Filmmaking’s Wild Wild East.” And Chi Huyen Mai traces the curious lifespan of Vietnamese blogs in “The Birth, Death and Revival of Vietnam’s Blogging Culture.”

Also this month: Dinh Q. Le sits for a Q&A to speak about the opening of his solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Jeremy Kressmann discovers hiking in Hong Kong. Thomas Maresca reconnects with famed foodie Patricia Wells on her return to Vietnam. James Beard Award-winning food writer Richard Sterling begins his regular column for AsiaLIFE. Alexandra Karina gives us the skinny on the peak of Vietnam’s fruit season. Lolita Guevarra explains how bamboo-oriented economists are lifting legions out of poverty. Ginny Becker discovers how to harness Qi. And Tom DiChristopher explores the career of modern-day Renaissance man Quasar Khanh in a visual retrospective (expect lots of inflatable furniture).

AND: AsiaLIFE breaks the news on the biggest concert to hit Phnom Penh in … well … perhaps ever!

The issue is hitting the stands right now. Pick up your copy at: Al Fresco’s, Au Parc, Bernie’s Bar & Grill, Black Cat, BoatHouse, Buddha Bar, Jaspa’s, Juice, Kim Hai, La Brasserie, Le Pub, Mekong Merchant, Mogambo, Mojo Café, Pacharan, Peaches, Phattys, Refinery, Sheridan’s, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, The Deck, The Tavern, ZanZBar.

Or download it online at www.asialifehcmc.com. Available in the coming weeks in Hanoi at Ipanima, Le Pub, La Restaurant and R&R Tavern; Nha Trang at Rainbow Divers, Sailing Club and Zeno Designs; and Phan Thiet at Joe’s The Art Café, Princess D’Annam and Sailing Club.

This Friday, May 7th, head to Galerie Quynh at 65 De Tham in District 1 from 6:30 t0 8:30pm for SHARE, a project to support artistic skills for disadvantage children.

The event will include an exhibition and silent auction of 12 canvases that are the result of an action painting activity that took place in HCM City. Disadvantaged youth who are currently living at a shelter were asked to express what is precious to them. Each child was given one of the 12 canvases to articulate her or his idea. When the 12 canvases were joined together again, they formed a new picture. The canvases will be exhibited individually, but this compilation can still be seen in the video:

The whole picture, which served as the starting point of the action painting, was only visible when the canvases were placed together. At the park, the children used their collages and drawings as well as their spontaneous ideas to adorn each canvas. The 12 connected canvases formed a large map of HCM City . A unifying symbol, the “hoa mai tet flower”, was placed on top of the map, as it stands for hope–the hope of children who came to HCM City in search of a better life.

SHARE is a project of the “Disabled and Disadvantaged Children’s Charity of HCMC” to support artistic skills of disadvantaged kids. We invite artists to participate by dedicating either their time to share their skills with the children or the production of artwork that can be sold to benefit the programme. Costs for our materials are covered by money we receive from selling these products, with the remaining profit donated to the children. Currently we work with the Green Bamboo Shelter for disadvantaged boys, 5 to 16 years old.

The money is spent on education and goes directly to the shelter. For further information, please contact andreatenner@gmail.com or sam.mondon@zoomeroom.de

We recently spoke to Leslie Weiner, one of the three women behind Smile Group, and her documentary on Vietnamese AIDs activist Nguyen Van Hung will premier on PBS in the United States on May 10. We first profiled the work of Smile Group and the legacy of Hung in a February 2009 article, “The Teacher’s Lessons.” Now, his story will be broadcast to millions. Check out the trailer for Thay Hung: Teacher below:

For those unfamiliar with PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), it’s the States’ most widely broadcasted nonprofit public broadcasting television service, with affiliates in more than 350 locations. The Teacher, Thai Hung will appear under the banner of the PBS series Global Voices. If you live in the United States, check for air dates at pbs.org.

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