Nudity and More: Performance Art in Vietnam

Has Vietnam moved away from socialist realist art with performers like Lai Thi Dieu Ha, whose performances include stripping down to the nude and peeling pig skin off of herself?


Blue feathers were laid neatly in a rectangular shape on the floor in the middle of an audience-filled room in Ha Noi, Vietnam. A thirty-something-year-old performance artist by the name of Lai Thi Dieu Ha then casually entered the venue. She sauntered to the rug-like area, undressed herself completely, poured glue over her body, and attached the blue feathers onto herself. All eyes were on her as she imitated avian movements. The routine culminated with the woman releasing a live bird from her mouth. The performance titled “Bay Len” (“Fly Up”) undoubtedly left an impression in the minds of her viewers.

And, the performance, undoubtedly, was controversial.

Was the performance for money? Were Lai and her fellow performers simply using the designation of “performance artists” to basically sell visuals of a naked female body? Or, was it a publicity stunt? Nudity (or seeing, reading, or hearing about a live bird flying out of a blue-feather-covered woman), afterall, do have a tendency to be attention-grabbing.

Or, were the Vietnamese becoming more liberal to viewing the artistic elements of other cultures, and Lai’s performance was a form of self-expression? According to the GOVN blog, Lai stated, “Phu nu thuong khong tu tin va toi cung khong tu tin ve co the cua minh […] Lam nghe thuat, toi thay minh can phai trut bo dieu ay de duoc thanh that voi chinh minh” (“Woman usually do not believe in oneself and I also am not confident about my own body […] Engaging in performance arts, I see that I need to rid that idea so I can be true to myself”). Maybe, Lai felt like a trapped bird and was developing her own method or language to fly over societal norms, pressures, and/or taboos.

Conceivably, as an artist, Lai was attempting to raise awareness for a particular cause and triggering people to talk about otherwise barred issues. With the previously described performance, the matter may be that of personal privacy, sexuality, or freedom. But, what about her most recent act? Her latest, untitled performance involved ironing pig skin onto her bare body and then peeling the burnt skin off. Was the topic of discussion human’s violence towards animals? Or, was it about construction and deconstruction? In regards to the intended meaning, a Bao Moi article claimed that Lai wanted the viewers to “ponder because performance arts is very difficult to explain using words” (“con y nghia cu the the nao thi…’de nguoi xem tu cam nhan, vi nghe thuat trinh dien rat kho giai thich bang ngon tu’”).

Lai’s performance, reasonably, could be seen as the manifestation of a woman’s mental illness. She could be suffering from depression, and these acts of self-display and self-mutilation were relief outlets.

Or perhaps, Lai’s performances were just that – performances – entertainment for entertainment sake.

All in all, these performances have caused Lai to be known as the performing artist who “gay soc” (“causes shock”) according to numerous Vietnamese media outlets. Internationally, would her showcases also be considered shocking?


  • viet

    stupid. art is generally a reflection of society. this “art” done in this setting is not only trite but is void of meaning. wahts performance art that is representative of today’s viet nam? how about a starving person huddled outside a posh mall while passerby look on without a pause.

    • Anonymous

      @ Viet: Totally agree with you

    • http://www.onevietnam.org James H. Bao

      Can’t art also be an escape from your society; or a representation of what you hope your society can become?

      • viet

        certainly an escape. perhaps the later perspective is reserved for something else that actually allludes to a better society; which is not the charade in the article of over-done exhibitionist “art”.

    • JKD

      Hi Viet,

      Thank you very much for commenting. Within the recent years, there was a Costa Rican man nominated to represent his country in a multinational art exhibition. His display was of a stray dog captured from the streets and confined to a bare art gallery without food, water, or bedding until it starved to death. The man’s goal was supposedly to bring people’s attention to the stray dog – as in most people would probably ignore the same dog if it was seen on the streets and yet because the dog was placed as the center of attention in a gallery that people were discussing the condition of the dog. What are your thoughts regarding this art piece? Is this considered art – a “reflection of society” as you say art is generally? The piece was nominated to be in a multinational art exhibition afterall. Or, would you also classify this as “trite,” “void of meaning,” and not representative of a society?

      • viet

        Actually, I am aware of the starving dog stunt. The Costa Rican man captured a street dog, tied it up, put it on display with a sign that reads “You Are What You Read” in dog food…just out of reach of the starving dog. Now, not only is that not art, its outright cruelty. This nominated “artist” 1) deprived this starving dog a possible chance of foraging food if it were not captured; 2) tortured this dog with the out of reach dog food sign; 3) intentional put it on display for his own purpose and thereby possibly denying it a chance of rescue from someone else or organization that captures a dog to help it, and NOT use it for their own selfish, cruel, malicious purpose. Therefore, you can not compare these two events. You described this as art, so I guess in your opinion it is art. To each his own…everything is subjective, art, morals.

        Now, you completely misunderstood me when I connected art with reflection of society in the context of my first comment. Art is generally a reflection of society, and I do not see that there. So in essence, it seems that you do not agree with me when I previously said: the exhibitionist display is trite, two, performed in Vietnam is inappropriate because of current social conservative AND BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE BEING OPPRESSED AND DENIED OF BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS EVERYDAY, therefore, this exibition do NOT reflect what needs to be addressed. Maybe other Viet people out there thinks that Vietnam’s views of Women’s rights needs to be addressed, and that this “performance” will really get that message spread. like I said earlier, to each his own.

        But it comes down to this, we are more eager to assert our opinion on the internet where it is relatively safe to do so. A million thread could be written about the starving dog and the naked exhibit or whatever you want to call it in VN, but the fact of the matter is, that dog, if it survived is dead, like countless other that is dying, will die, etc and Vietnam is still a nation of oppressed people with little to no hope for freedom.

  • Hoa Si

    I disageed here. This has meaning. And it takes guts for a Vietnamese woman to do this.
    This is in fact extremely cool.

    • Neil Nguyen (Smarter Version)

      I’m not sure how much guts a stripper has, but I’m sure the stripper will be able to perform this better than her and attract more audiences. The performance doesn’t require difficult skills nor serious creativity. I actually saw the video clip of this and it doesn’t look any artistic to me. I would give much more credit to those street drawers/painters who actually have the skills and talents that many people don’t have in drawing. We cannot just pick up anything that seems weird and label it artistic and creative if not everyone else is doing it.

      I agree with the author that it could be seen as a sign of mental illness and questioning about its shocking effect if she was performing somewhere outside of Vietnam.

      • JKD

        Hi Neil,

        Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

    • JKD

      Hi Hoa Si,

      Thank you very much for your comments. Art is definitely subjective and hence the author had not stated specifically whether or not Lai’s performance was a positive or negative act. Only the community’s reaction to Lai’s presentations and time can push to classify the pieces as “cool” or “stupid” or “sick” or however else the populace choose to voice the showcases to be. And, still, the pieces would remain open to interpretations. Until then, yourself, the author, and anyone else who is interested will simply have to watch and wait and listen and be apart of the community reaction.