van thanh rudd
Tell me a little about your background. What path led you to where you are today?
I was born on Queensland's sunshine coast to an Australian father and Vietnamese mother. My father was in Vietnam during the American war. My mother was trying very hard to assimilate into Australian culture - she was probably the only Vietnamese woman in Nambour during the 70s. My dad would occasionally mention Vietnam and encourage us to ask questions about the world we live in. Otherwise, we (me and my 2 brothers) had a very typical coastal upbringing where the culture was surfing, degrading women, break and enters etc.
During the 90s I moved to Melbourne with a pop/rock band called Cheezlekane - we gigged round Melbourne's venues very frequently for about 8 years. For another few years I played in other Melbourne bands, Stalis Vetch and Seconds. Around this time I was exhibiting paintings regularly in standard gallery format with no real insight into the political, social and economic machinations of our world. I'd even done a humanities degree majoring in Politics and Media production before moving to Melbourne.
It wasn't really until I met my current partner Tania, a Chilean whose parents had escaped the Pinochet dictatorship during the 70s, that I began to deeply analyse this global capitalist system. I also became inspired by movements of art and social change where an artist become a responsible, active player in pushing for real grassroots democracy all over the globe. We played in a band called Granma (named after the boat that Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries traveled on to Cuba to begin a revolution in the 1950s).
Who/What has inspired your work both in creativity and activism?
There have been so many visual artists that have inspired me from a creative point of view. I find the list endless in terms of how you can present an argument through art. I love stealing ideas from the most conservative to the most radical - don't think I'll even try to name a few - the list's too long.
However, when it comes to activism, nothing inspires me more now than people who are taking action on the streets because they know the capitalist system's fucked and know that things can be changed for the better. I'm also re-reading Marxist texts and artists of revolutionary significance during the 20th and 21st century.
What have been the highlights of your career to date?
- The national tour of The Carriers Project (carrying my paintings on the streets to reach wider audience) in 2007 to Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Fremantle, Perth, and Mt Macedon Vic. Was inspired by positive responses from local community, plus the usual negative responses from authorities.
- Carrying my paintings in mass protest rallies such as anti G20, refugee rights, Defend workers Rights and Aboriginal sovereignty (Stolenwealth Games 06)
- Carrying paintings unannounced to Melbourne Art Fair 04, and walking into exhibition building with a painting during Art Melbourne 2007 and Melbourne Art Fair 2008 - to question the emphasis placed upon art as a commodity of exchange value and not as an instrument of polemics.
- Highlighting, through various experiences of censorship of my art in the last few years, that we are not living in a democracy.
What materials and processes do you use to create work?
This has varied quite a bit recently. I've mostly done painting and drawing in the past and extended the audience by carrying certain pieces on the streets of cities. Now I'm more interested in what can be used to make a message clear and readable to more people. This can range from videos on youtube to placing art in public spaces.
I'm also delving into clearer forms of conceptual art to overcome certain global limitations such as not being able to travel because of costs and limited funding opportunities for political art.
During your time studying art, you work was labeled racist by some as you were exhibiting issues surrounding economic injustice. What issues are you communicating and how through your work?
It has been especially difficult when trying the express the point thru art that the state of Israel is committing a crime under international law by subjecting the Palestinian people to daily oppression via large scale military raids and economic blockades. When you talk about these issues, you're quite often labeled an anti-semite.
When your recent piece "economy of movement - a piece of Palestine" was censored, it gained more exposure thru the mainstream media than the exhibition it was moved from. Are you looking to producing strong concepts for exhibition only or are you using the exhibition as part of a plan to engage with a wider audience?
This is a good question. I definitely have a plan to engage with a wider audience, so if the media can be used for this, I'm ok with it. But I try not to rely on the media. A primary concern is to have a strong piece of art and that if only 5 people see it, they may tell others because they are affected by it.
It's kind of a catch 22 for artists dealing head-on with politics and economics because it's very hard to expose your work via 'normal' channels - ie art magazines and commercial galleries. So you are forced to harness controversial situations to gain the necessary exposure. I call it "exhibition by corporate media".
What do you believe the current channels (eg street, galleries, online) of getting radical art out there are today and what are the most effective?
I believe, quite ironically, that most radical artwork I've seen in Melbourne is still done in galleries (artist-run) by only a handful of artists.
I believe radical artists are choosing this type of space because of the "official" nature of exhibiting in a gallery which contrasts with the content of their art. This makes for very controversial situations and can allow for much more mainstream media coverage as opposed to exhibiting alone on the street, where you are labeled just another crazy activist.
The street is still no doubt an enormous space for 'street' artists, but I find most of the content in street art lacking in terms of messages to change the system. Most of the art seems to be concerned with aesthetics. What carries, however, is the act of rebellion - (painting in areas deemed illegal by local governments) which is the part of street art I find inspiring.
The internet is no doubt a great medium for publicizing artists and exhibitions. But I must say, at the end of the day, that the street is where you'll make the most contact with fellow humans and is no doubt the superior public forum for when shit really hits the fans.
Do you have any advice for other artists that want to use their work to discuss and question controversial issues?
Make alliances with certain left-wing activist groups who are familiar with global upheavals etc against the capitalist system, because when certain right wing interest groups and government organizations come down HARD on you for trying to tell the truth in an artwork, you really need some form of solidarity to rely on.
But above all, you must be comfortable with what you produce as an artist, because you will always come up against HEAVY criticism from some peers, and it can be enough to cause you to censor yourself.
What does the future look like for your work?
I think it has taken a very interesting turn. For example, I really want to challenge the spatial barriers posed by many very powerful global institutions such as The White House and the Guggenheim museum.
I plan to exhibit my art in these places but by very subversive means and with content that would challenge the very existence of those institutions. I have been attempting to do this without actually going there. Certainly a very big challenge and brings forth for me fresher way of making "international" art without having to kneel to the barons that run such places as the Guggenheim.
This will also hopefully call into question the amount of emphasis artists are expected to place on having international biennales and residencies on their resumes. What is it with all these bloody biennales??? Looks like things will change on this front with the current capitalist meltdown.