On the day the Bill Henson story broke (May 25, 2008), another art-controversy story made the front page of Melbourne’s broadsheet, The Age. Van Rudd, nephew of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, had his work, “Special Forces (After Banksy)” banned from a Melbourne City Council exhibition for which, after invitation, it had been specifically prepared. The CEO of the City of Melbourne, Kathy Alexander, told The Age that Rudd’s painting was rejected for two reasons. “One, [it] was decided that it probably didn’t fit with the broader objective of the exhibition, which is about the depiction of life in Ho Chi Minh City for young artists,” she said. Alexander added that legal assessment had indicated the painting might infringe trademark and copyright provisions. At the time she made this statement, the possible infringement in question related to the painting’s use of the McDonalds brand. However in the days which followed, another dimension of copyright infringement developed, with numerous commentators in print and online media suggesting an “uneasy” resemblance between Rudd’s piece and “American Influence,” by the world-renowned “street-artist,” Banksy.The two apparent transgressions – infringing on copyright and flouting an arts grant brief – seem at first glance to be unrelated. A bureaucratic attempt to connect the two might ascribe a broad sense of failure to Rudd – failure both to produce an “original” artwork, and to follow the guidelines of an exhibition. But such a discourse of failure would conceal a series of far more urgent failures on the part of the MCC in particular, and the more conservative threads of Australian culture, including its arts industry, in general.
The removal of Rudd’s artwork suggests two interrelated refusals by the MCC. The first is most obviously the refusal to acknowledge the globalised visual language of contemporary art – for which the “fluidity” of the issue of ownership of, or authority over globalised images, such as brand identities, is now fairly conventional and normative. The second is the refusal to acknowledge the complicated reasons the world’s most vulnerable people become oppressed and disenfranchised within globalised political and economic frameworks. An alternative way to connect Rudd’s “transgressions” certainly becomes available here, where his use of a globalised image (the visual reference here being either McDonalds or Banksy’s) may be viewed as a bold, but highly appropriate deployment of a globalised language to talk about/to the real, global reasons people become refugees. Surely such a submission to an Australian exhibition on the theme of Ho Chi Minh City is irrelevant only in the most narrow and limited sense. Peril asked Van what he thought this exclusion was really about.
Peril: This story ultimately seemed to proceed along a number of misreadings – Kathy Alexander from the MCC suggesting you’d misread or gone beyond the purposes of the arts grant program, for instance. Could you discuss this further, perhaps expanding on how you saw this piece fitting into the show? In the Age article you call it “the right painting for the show because it comments on contemporary society in Asia and Australia.” I think the sense of being “contemporary” is really important here. Do you think there is a tendency in Australian culture to treat Asia anachronistically/nostalgically?
Van Rudd: I believe the CEO of the MCC was definitely looking for a reason to disqualify the painting. The reasons the MCC came up with showed the very ignorant attitude they have towards the real reasons people become refugees. In the weeks leading up to the exhibition, I was working very hard on the painting from a research point of view – knowing that the theme of the exhibition had much to do with Ho Chi Minh City and its 20th century history was very inspiring to me. The burning monk was a fairly direct reference to the early 60s when US “special forces” and the CIA had much to do with propping up the corrupt South Viet Diem regime, with monks self-immolating as a direct protest. The situation in Tibet with regard to China was also worth referencing – however, I’ve used Ronald McDonald carrying the Olympic torch as the symbol of capitalism and its disregard for human rights. The painting is not an attack on communism as such. I believe that China is grappling with capitalism at a very fast rate and molding its authoritarian form of rule to suit it. I believe their militaristic, dictatorial style of rule is similar to that of Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia (for example), countries that embrace capitalism through the influence of the USA and EU. It must also be emphasised that during the 50s and 60s, in Tibet, the CIA and Special Forces protected the very rich Dalai Lama from the Chinese communists, who were allowing the peasants of Tibet a taste of better living standards, as opposed to slavery under the Lamas. So, the title of the painting that uses the words “Special Forces” is meant to refer to that period also.
I guess it was very hard for me to portray all this in one painting – especially when the mass media in capitalist countries such as Australia blindly support a two-dimensional view of the Dalai Lama and Tibet. I do agree that countries like Australia (exemplified by the MCC’s actions) do treat Asian/Asian-Australian relations as something “nice” and as having a lot to contribute “culturally” to society – ignoring the concrete political reality of the reasons Asian people (for example, the Vietnamese) are here. I do get very frustrated when the media and bureaucrats box different cultures – such as Vietnamese and Iraqis – into separate sections of what they can offer culturally, with the implication that politics (for example, an overarching critique of US-led imperialism) shouldn’t enter the equation. So it was very, very silly, I believe, for the MCC to decide that the painting didn’t fit the theme.
P: Another obvious misreading was revealed by the suggestion of a copyright infringement. Without going into the rather familiar ground of the plagiarism question itself, I’d like you to talk about the way you connect Banksy’s image to your own. I’m struck by the way the two images work together, as a sequence. The flames of the immolating monk seem to work as a conclusive response, or telos, to the iconic and rather “inflamed” image of, or question posed by the naked Vietnamese girl.
VR: Well, the plagiarism issue is currently of very little concern to me. I admire Banksy’s work (as a visual language) and found his piece “American Influence” very powerful as an image. I thought very little about the ramifications of the picture looking similar to his – I was much more concerned with the message behind my work and the possibility that it may contribute change to society. I did enjoy the fact that his work is exposed publicly and that he “in reality” shouldn’t be concerned (I’m sure he isn’t) that people are appropriating his image. I think the plagiarism argument sits well only with in parts of the art world and with those that are more immersed in the overly individualized, economic rationalist, art-as-trade ideology. This doesn’t mean that I’m adverse to artists selling their work to live – it’s just that there’s not enough emphasis and responsibility behind the message in art.
P: Van, I have to admit that I hate stencil art! There’s a feeling that it’s only really for aging arts-patrons – middle-class people that have an awful, nostalgic fantasy about youth, vitality and subversion still existing on the streets…. How do you defend the genre/style? Many of your previous works, available on your artist website (http://www.van-thanh-rudd.net), have an incredibly abstract, sculptural quality. The suppressed, yet intrinsically dynamic violence of a painting like “Returned Soldier” is quite amazing. Tell me about how your style works – do you work in a variety of ways simultaneously or do you change your central focus as your ideas or interests develop and change? And what kinds of projects are you working on at the moment?
VR: To be honest I have always disliked “stencil” art. This has been mainly because of the fact that the majority of it can so easily be absorbed into the market system without posing a threat to it. I’ve found most images lacking in profound statements and are more likely to reflect individual desires and escapism over political realities. However, I have enjoyed the “defiance” aspect of it – the fact that public space is used After all, it is called public space, is it not? Also, I really enjoy when an artwork is successful, no matter what medium is used. This is why I’ve done a Banksy-influenced work. I don’t care that it references “stencil art.” I have found myself absorbing an increasing number of different methods of art-making as I get older. For example, I found it necessary to “carry” my paintings on the streets in order to reach a much bigger audience than a gallery offers. I still love painting – but I have also been delving into public installations. I’m drawn to anything that responds well to current economic struggles. For instance, I can’t always go and buy an expensive large canvas. So basically it comes down to how I can get messages out there effectively as soon as possible, because there are people suffering immensely under late capitalism.
P: We’ve spoken a little about sensitivities in relation to the way Asian communities are viewed by Western cultures, such as Australia. What about the particular sensitivities ascribed to, and also emanating from, these Asian communities themselves? I’m thinking about John So’s decision to not meet with the Dalai Lama last year, apparently to avoid “upsetting” relations with China. Then there’s the example of the Perth Vietnamese community’s censorship of Mai Long’s Pho Dog installation for the I Love Pho exhibition. How does thinking about generational shifts help to understand these interrelated issues of political/cultural sensitivities and censorship? Do you think the “rejection” of the painting by the MCC misunderstood the current (as in, the “young adult”) generation of Vietnamese – both in Vietnam and Australia?
VR: I have always been at a bit of a distance from the Australian Vietnamese community – common I guess from being a “halfie” (Van’s mother, Tuoi, is Vietnamese). One thing that has troubled me over the last few years is the fact that a new generation of younger Vietnamese-Australian artists are expressing a more objective view of the atrocities of the Vietnam War, or should I say the US War. Mai Long had her work silenced by the Australian Vietnamese community because it contained an image of the communist flag. I am not unaware of the sensitivities relating to this symbol and the struggles as a result of a system of government that was not following its prescribed doctrines. However, I find myself looking at the whole issue from an internationalist perspective. There are facts that I can’t ignore, such as the fact that many South Vietnamese were forced, through heavy propaganda deliberately used by the USA, to discredit communism – way before the alternate system had a chance to operate. The rich certainly had their way – disallowing the people of the country to control their own resources. Also, I can’t ignore the fact that the amount of devastation caused by US aggression (napalm, bombs, civilian deaths) is what occurred in Vietnam and not the USA. If this amount of firepower had hit the US mainland, I’m absolutely sure there would have been the development of a large resistance (liberation front) force in the USA, vehemently defending their land.