I love wordplay and have always admired artists who use words such as Lawrence Weiner and one of my favorite documentaries is Helvetica. Perhaps because I grew up in Switzerland and spent the past 20 years studying Vietnamese and living on and off in Vietnam, I was immediately enchanted by Rich Streitmatter-Tran’s creative use of the prefix Dia when he launched his blog diacritic.org in 2005. Rich is an artist who grew up in Massachusetts in an adopted family and moved to Vietnam in 2003. He has been teaching graphic design at RMIT in Ho Chi Minh City and organizing projects, workshops and artist’s collectives, making art, curating and researching the Mekong region and blogging about it on diacritic.org. In Rich’s usage of the word, the name diacritic is a brilliant porte-manteau that combines geography – as in địa – in Vietnamese, and critic , as in art critic. It also recalls the Dia Art Foundation, the venerable institution of minimal and conceptual art that has supported artists’ projects since the 1970s.
It is something of a coincidence that this blog also uses diacritics as its name, but it is a coincidence of a linguistic nature that perfectly combines English and Vietnamese variations on the prefix dia. The list includes Diaspora, Diagram and Diagonal but I won’t go on. The point of this blog is to recognize Rich’s contribution to the Vietnamese art scene. A homage to his work is long overdue and this is a brief start to what I hope shall be more writings on his work. I am eagerly awaiting the start of his studio-art space project called Địa/Projects/Studio. Meanwhile, a little history. Rich came to Ho Chi Minh City at a time when Viet Kieu artists were just beginning to trickle into the city fresh out of art school. Few local Vietnamese artists were exhibiting on the international stage. Rich and several other local and Viet Kieu artists began not only to remedy the situation but also build bridges and collaborate on projects together. An early joint venture included Mogas Station, an artist collective that used a mock art journal as its medium and was invited to participate in one of the events surrounding the Venice Biennale in 2007. Then Rich received a grant from the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong to conduct research on art in the Mekong region. That project led to a collaboration with Chaw Ei Thein for the 2008 Singapore Biennale that entailed building a site-specific work made with 5.5 tons of sugar. Entitled September Sweetness, the “sugar pagoda” commemorated the Saffron rebellion in Burma and the human rights violations in that country. In 2009, he was invited to curate the Mekong portion of the 6th edition of the Asia-Pacific Triennale in Brisbane, Australia.
Rich is a multi-media artist who also practices performance. He and Chaw Ei came to Chicago last April to talk about their performance work for the performance department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The students were captivated and I was grateful for his generosity toward them. Since then, I have skyped Rich for my class on “Asian Art Now,” and one student wrote in her evaluation that it was the highlight of the class.
So, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Rich’s work first and foremost before writing any other text in this blog and thank him for his relentless collaborative spirit.
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