From Sàn Art to The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Zoe Butt Anchors Herself in the Vietnamese Art Scene, And is Building a Larger Network in South East Asia

Curator Zoe Butt
Curator Zoe Butt

I took the position as Artistic Director of The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in 2017, for a multitude of reasons. When first approached to take on this role, I was the Executive Director of Sàn Art. Sàn Art is an artist-initiated entity that I had dedicated more than seven years to, and I had loved it. However, our economic situation was rough. Here in Vietnam there is little understanding of contemporary art, and thus finding financial support relies heavily on foreign funds. The most stressful situation was realizing the Vietnamese government had Sàn Art under heavy surveillance. They did not trust our motivations. It meant gearing local support was increasingly difficult. So in short, coupled with my own legal status in jeopardy, I realized I had to make a change. It no longer felt safe to be doing what we had been doing. So when my now boss, Tia-Thuy Nguyen, approached me to work for her, in many ways it was as if a life raft was being offered (for I really was not wanting to leave Vietnam). Also, it was quite an awesome offer to be asked to lead the first purpose-built space for contemporary art in Vietnam. That makes for quite a challenge and I’m always up for that!

The Factory was founded in late March 2016 by artist/fashion designer Tia-Thuy Nguyen. The mission of The Factory is to increase the awareness of contemporary art in Vietnam. And to deepen the interdisciplinary nature and necessary experimentation of the artistic enquiry via the delivery of curated exhibitions and public programs (those can be lectures, seminars, film screenings, workshops, dance, theatre, music etc.). We do this here and with partners abroad. In Vietnam, our educational tertiary institutions acknowledge that they do not teach contemporary art. Our bookstores lack resource on comparative critical ideas and culture. Our artists are with too few commercial galleries willing to support experimental thinking, their eye focused on what will sell only. Thus our first few years focused on Vietnamese talent, wanting to ensure our local audience understood we were here for them. Artists such as Bui Cong Khanh and his carved jack-fruit wood installations, Thao-Nguyen Phan’s “Poetic Amnesia” immersive installation (with a visit by Joan Jonas!), and a stellar exposé of Vietnamese artists in the historical survey group show “Spirit of Friendship“, are a few of the early projects we did. Since late 2018 however, we have delivered several international programs, a few of which are long term initiatives.

What I love most about this job is working with my team. I adore them. It makes me want to get to work. Their energy, their ‘we can do it’ attitude, their research, their willingness to troubleshoot our restrictive environment. This is what makes me committed. To want to do right by them.

What I could do without is the censorship.

I’m an early riser. There is a local yoga centre, in a community garden, nearby my house. I often used to go there before COVID-19. It lifted me to hear the frogs in the morning, got me away from the concrete jungle for a little while. My daytime breaks (though I must say they are rare), would be happily found reading, usually on my day bed at home. One of the things I’m most missing during this pandemic is massage! Since living in Vietnam it’s near medicinal for me to have massage once a week.

A particular place in The Factory that is emblematic is the Reading Room. It is a small library of books on art and culture that we are slowly building. It has a window with a daybed and it’s always heartening to see a guest hunkering down with a book here, their bodies lazy and at ease, their eyes moving from the pages of the book to the art that is displayed in front of them.

Photo by Zoe Butt, Vietnam, Frogs Spot
Photo by Zoe Butt, Vietnam, where she listens to frogs

My personal favorite however is our Workshop and the two large wooden tables that my team and I overtake each day. It’s full of laughter and fun-loving, critical questions. It looks out on to a courtyard where we often have artists visit, share a coffee, smoke a cigarette.

I create programming in line with my interests, for I do think that a program always reflects the person initiating it. And I see that as a good thing. It indicates investment. Expertise is personal. However, programming at The Factory is not only initiated by me, my team are also co-conspirators! We want to give opportunity to artists and curators, particularly in Vietnam and within South East Asia. That is how “Materialize” started in 2017, giving artists across Vietnam the chance to show their experiments, and works that have never been seen before, via an annual open call. In 2018, we initiated “Pollination”, a series of year-long residencies for the collaborative creation of art projects that reflect the context of its South East Asian participants. Each year it gathers a different set of agents from private wealth, with private institutions, independent curatorial advisors, emerging curators, and artists. This year we are collaborating with SAM Art and Ecology Fund (Jakarta), institution and contemporary art space Selasar Sunaryo (Bandung); MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art (Chiang Mai) alongside artist-curator collective LIR (Yogyakarta), and curator Kittima Chareeprasit (Chiang Mai).

I can’t satisfy all of my personal intellectual needs via The Factory, for I do love to challenge myself, and I love artists from political perspectives. Thus, I also take on external projects as speaker/writer/curator when the right invitation lands! During this COVID-19 lockdown I’ve been asked to teach online with Walter Mignolo at Duke Univeristy, and just yesterday again with Katia Arfara at NYU, Abu Dhabi. Both occasions engage my own commitment to decolonial methodologies and what I term our ‘globalizing souths’.

The best way to work with a team, especially one that is small and fragile like mine, is to think and feel as a family. I say fragile for The Factory is one of the few entities employing curatorial expertise in Vietnam, so the job prospects are incredibly risky. Nurturing ideas and confidence in a landscape of little training and support means that this family must be encouraging, and be as understanding and as disciplined as possible. Leading such a team means acting with patience, without judgement, and always admitting when I believe I am responsible for something that went wrong. In having been involved with the initiation of two art organizations in Vietnam, firstly Sàn Art and now The Factory, I have come to understand that, no matter how much you wish your family to stay together, sometimes people grow up and they just want to fly away. It hurts but that’s life!

The best way to know an artist, to begin with, is to not talk about their art. Haha. Seriously. I’m a big believer in context. It is about getting to know the artist as a human before we start talking about why they do what they do. This is not easy in the era of the curators undertaking their crash-and-burn studio visits (a behavior I abhor). To date, most of the artists I have worked with are long friends, people I know very well and have worked together numerous times. I do challenge myself with this preference though, for I do understand that I can’t know everyone as well as I want! When I first meet an artist and want to get to know them, I’m asking more about their journey in life, about what they are thinking the most each day. It usually gives ground for an eventual understanding of why particular subjects and causes are of particular obsession in their practice. I do also love talking to artists about their bibliographies or music lists.

I never curate a show without a prior secured budget and full transparency on what it is for.

The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, entrance
The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, entrance

To keep sane I exercise daily. Without it, I can’t sleep. My brain goes in to overdrive. I also need that evening liquid relax—a good G&T is a regular in my house. During this COVID lock down, my sanity has taken refuge in historical documentary and phenomenological narratives. I feel like I’ve been giving myself a crash course in the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the history of the Crusades from an Arab perspective (there are so many docos on You Tube and Al Jazeera!).
On the other hand, I’ve been ensconced in trying to answer for myself “When and why did the human and non-human worlds separate?” which has had me re-visiting texts by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, but then also more contemporary thinkers like David Abrams and scholar Katrin de Guia on ideas of Filipino ‘Kapwa’. I’m grateful for the fact that I’m a happy loner by heart usually. Being home has not been an issue really for me (I write that and think how privileged I am!).

When I am not working here I can be regularly found in Chiang Mai. Before the COVID-19 situation, that is. I miss a certain person and the surrounding mountains a lot.

My latest favourite book is “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, if only more believed that trees could speak! It is a novel weaving several tales of individuals (as scientists, activists, gamers, surveyors, and much more) whose connection to these standing sentient beings calls for a renewal of mankind’s relation to non-human worlds. My other reading at the moment is by artist and writer Shubigi Rao’s “PULP: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, Vol I of V”. Holding this book is like holding an artwork, but the pleasure is double because it’s not only visually stunning but intellectually precious in its evocation of inevitable loss, and yet love, in the archiving of human memory. I am so looking forward to seeing her forthcoming Kochi Biennial.

I feel incredibly lucky to live in a moment of the world where access to so much music is at my fingertips. My house each day roams from the sounds of the Kurdish oud, to Max Richter’s Vivaldi assemblage, to experimental piano by French composer Colleen (Cécile Schott), to the folk adaptations of Vietnamese musician, painter and poet Trịnh Công Sơn by Vietnamese singer Khánh Ly, or the ballads of South African singer Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa)… gosh so much more…. The older I get the more I’m digging deeper into older forms of music, curious as to how contemporary musicians re-work these traditions.

In curating, when I need to go back to basics I ask myself foundational questions. I ask myself what have I learnt, and what do I want to learn. If I’m not learning I feel my investments quite robotic.

Zoe Butt (3rd from the left) and The Factory's team on the opening night of 'Leaf Picking in the Ancient Forest' by Võ Trân Châu
Zoe Butt (third from the left) and The Factory’s team on the opening night of ‘Leaf Picking in the Ancient Forest’ by Võ Trân Châu

If I ever need to reset my mind after a crazy busy time I arrange a good meal, with good wine, with excellent company.

My perfect holiday is one with no digital device and preferably away from the hubbub of city life—salt or mountain air is often sought!

I manage to have a life outside The Factory because of my dear gurus in life, who are spread far and wide. These are curators, writers, historians, artists, filmmakers and much more. They keep me on my toes, my brain in absorptive mode, and always leave me with the feeling that the distance I can doubly feel in this communist state is not something that should deter me for my passion for ideas.

If I was an art collector, I would collect calligraphy. Of all languages… Watching my mother study Chinese and Japanese as a child had me particularly obsessed with pictographs… it has never left me.

If I wasn’t curating I would be teaching

Zoe Butt

Artistic Director of of the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Biography:

Zoe Butt is a curator, writer, speaker and educator who lives in Vietnam. Her curatorial practice centres on building critically thinking and historically conscious artistic communities, fostering dialogue among countries of the global south. Currently Artistic Director of the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s first purpose-built space for contemporary art, Zoe formerly served as Executive Director and Curator, Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City (2009–2016); Director, International Programs, Long March Project, Beijing (2007–2009); and Assistant Curator, Contemporary Asian Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane (2001–2007) – this latter post particularly focused on the development of its Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Her work has been published by Hatje Cantz; ArtReview; Independent Curators International; ArtAsiaPacific; Printed Project; Lalit Kala Akademi; JRP-Ringier; Routledge; and Sternberg Press, among others. Recent exhibitions include Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber – Journey Beyond the Arrow, (2019); Interface: Oanh Phi Phi (2019); Empty Forest: Tuan Andrew Nguyen (2018); Spirit of Friendship (2017) and Poetic Amnesia: Phan Thao Nguyen (2017). As a regular public speaker and educator, Zoe’s curatorial endeavors also include interdisciplinary dialogue platforms such as Realigning the Cosmos (2020-); Conscious Realities (2013-2016); and the online exhibition Embedded South(s) (2016). Zoe is a member of the Asian Art Council for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and in 2015 was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

Art critic and writer.

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