Thao Nguyen Phan’s Poignant Works Reflect on Vietnam’s Past and Present
Thao Nguyen Phan, installation view of First Rain, Brise Soleil, 2021–ongoing, in “Thao Nguyen Phan”at Tate St. Ives, Cornwall, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Zink, Waldkirchen.
Upon entering Thao Nguyen Phan’s current solo exhibition at Tate St. Ives—the largest presentation of her work in the U.K. to date—one immediately encounters two white sculptures pinned to the walls of a darkly lit gallery. Depicting a sunflower and a bird, the petals of the flower are illuminated from behind, and the bird is flecked with twinkling lights. Both pieces, respectively titled The Flower and The Rise (both 2017), were once street decorations that were used to light up the streets of Ho Chi Minh City during Lunar New Year celebrations and Communist Party congresses.
Recalling both traditional Vietnamese symbols and Communist state propaganda, the images of the flower and bird make a fitting entry point into Phan’s artistic universe. As a pair, they exemplify Phan’s ability to use simple, beguiling images to tell multilayered stories about Vietnam’s past and present. Continuing into the next two galleries, one witnesses the artist’s stories unfold through watercolor paintings, sculptural installations, and video pieces—or, as they’re titled, “moving images.” These works are moving both literally and figuratively, often describing national traumas and tragedies that have been forgotten due to what Phan calls her country’s “historical amnesia.”
Thao Nguyen Phan, The Flower, 2016. © Tate. Photo by Sam Day. Courtesy of the artist.
Thao Nguyen Phan, Rise, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
One of these national traumas is the 1945–46 famine in Vietnam, when, under Japanese occupation, farmers were forced to uproot their rice and plant inedible crops such as jute. An estimated two million people died. The three-channel, black-and-white video Mute Grain (2019) gives voice to oral accounts of the famine by its survivors. It also chronicles the fictional tale of Ba and Tám, a brother and sister named after the lowest-yield months for food harvest in Vietnam (March and August). The two are separated by Tám’s sudden death, but carry on searching for each other across this life and the next.
The siblings Ba and Tám reappear in “The Dream of March and August”(2020), a series of ethereal watercolor paintings on silk which hang in pairs, suspended from the ceiling. Each pair depicts Ba and Tám performing parallel activities in a magical, dreamlike realm. They climb trees, ride motorcycles, and skip rope. But their childish joy is undercut by sadness: In nearly every painting, they are apart and often alone. In another work, No Jute Cloth for the Bones (2019–present), clusters of jute stalks descend from the ceiling like a rainshower. The stalks create a rustling sound as they move and brush against one another, joining the polyphonic sounds made by Phan’s video works.
Thao Nguyen Phan, installation view of the series “The Dream of March and August”, 2020, in “Thao Nguyen Phan” at Tate St Ives, Cornwall, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
Phan’s interest in rural existence stems from the annual field trips she would take to the countryside as a schoolgirl. During these trips—part of Vietnam’s socialist tradition of education—children were told to sketch and paint life outside the city. These excursions have continued to be a source of inspiration for the artist.
Phan, now 34, was born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City. She studied painting at university in Vietnam and Singapore and only began experimenting with other art forms while at the Art Institute of Chicago, while pursuing an MFA. She credits the works of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and American artists Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas with introducing her to new ways of artmaking. In 2016, Jonas—an early pioneer of video and performance art—became Phan’s artistic mentor, encouraging her to continue developing her essayistic style of constructing visual narratives.
Thao Nguyen Phan, installation view of Becoming Alluvium, 2019–ongoing, in “Thao Nguyen Phan” at Tate St. Ives, Cornwall, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
In addition to their stylistic similarities, Jonas and Phan also share a deep interest in the human impact on the environment. This is the subject of Phan’s video work Becoming Alluvium (2019–ongoing), which presents a series of chapters, or “reincarnations,” on the theme of the Mekong River. Responding to the recent rapid growth in agriculture along the waterway and its effect on the local ecosystem, Phan weaves together local stories with quotes by writers such as Marguerite Duras and Italo Calvino; Cambodian folktales; 19th-century engravings; and her own animated illustrations. The headless characters in the animation were inspired by decapitated Khmer statues that she encountered in the Musée Guimet in Paris, hinting at France’s colonial legacy in Cambodia.
Though they’d resonate anywhere, when exhibited at Tate St. Ives against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, these meditations on the environment feel particularly poignant. Like many of Phan’s pieces, Becoming Alluvium is an ongoing project; in the coming years, it will have more “reincarnations” added to it, growing and being reborn indefinitely. In this way, Phan’s stories are never truly finished. They are constantly evolving and open-ended, flowing across artworks and spilling out into the gallery space.