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Recovering the past

Published in 2016-2017clockTime to read: 2m45s
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Thao-Nguyen Phan exhumes the poetry of Vietnam’s forgotten history with paintings and video works. She is inspired by her mentor, New York artist Joan Jonas, to see past the challenges of being an artist in her country.

by Amei Wallach January 2018
  • Joan Jonas
    The Mentor
  • Thao-Nguyen Phan
    The Protégé

In the aftermath of the Lunar New Year, the centre of Ho Chi Minh City glittered like an amusement park. When Joan Jonas visited her protégée Thao-Nguyen Phan in her home town, swags of communist stars, outlined in LED, arched above streets that also flashed gaudy whirligigs, illuminated parasols, or garlands of megawatt lotus flowers, emblem of Vietnam.

Less than 12 months earlier, when Thao-Nguyen first went to New York to meet Joan Jonas, she was struck by how much was possible in a place where experiment was celebrated and audiences were educated. In her whirlwind year as a Rolex protégée, Thao-Nguyen had witnessed, and sometimes helped, as Jonas prepared performances and talks around the world, and a mutually respectful friendship had grown.

This was Jonas’s first visit to Vietnam and crucial to deepening their artistic understanding. In Thao-Nguyen’s studio, cast-off decorations scavenged from the New Year’s streets lay on the floor, cloth-covered frames of once-flamboyant lotus flowers stripped and transformed into lighted sculpture and props for her video-in-progress.

Sunflowers she explained symbolize the Communist Party, and the lotus “is the representation of purity, because the lotus grows in dirty mud but it doesn’t have the smell of mud. It is the symbol of the nation because we live in poor conditions, but that doesn’t mean we are affected by the bad conditions.”

Like so many artists since the 1960s, Thao-Nguyen is heir to a practice that Jonas helped pioneer, fusing technology with the enigmatic intuitions of poetry. Jonas’s influential experiments in layering sound, music, movement, dance, drawing and moving images allowed the audience to engage with a work of art in more complex ways, and helped deliver trailblazing performance and video art in the process.

For half a century, Jonas has mined the world’s cultures, conflating origin stories, literary forms and ancient and contemporary media to create what she calls “magical haunted spaces” in which to rethink universal themes, such as the beginnings of cultures and beliefs, the construction and fragmentation of identity, and the abuse of the natural world.

Thao-Nguyen’s art is rooted in her training as a painter – at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago – and her attention fixed on her own backyard. Installation, video and sculpture are additional tools she brings to the task of unearthing her country’s buried history.

Thao-Nguyen is petite and girlishly pretty in a manner that belies the force of her work. “I’m concerned with criticizing the educational system in Vietnam, where history is erased and there is a big amnesia,” she said in February, when guiding a visitor on a studio tour of the work she was preparing for her first major solo exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City. She had already titled it Poetic Amnesia, an apt description of both approach and content.

“History is written by the winners and when the North won the war in 1975, they rewrote history,” says Thao-Nguyen in her deceptively gentle voice. “There was a lot of trauma.”

She was eager to share with Jonas the context of her work and the untold stories beneath everyday experiences, such as navigating chaotic streets where herds of motorbikes stampede before the lights turn green, and slaloming along sidewalks where diners on banks of stools feast on fragrant bowls of pho.

Jonas and Thao-Nguyen visited museums and sites of what is known as the Vietnam War in the United States, and the American War in Vietnam. “It’s very touching being an American in Vietnam because of the war,” Jonas remarks later.

As always, wherever she goes, Jonas had her GoPro camera on hand as they toured paper-making studios, and took in the fledgling gallery scene. Many of those images found their way into her What is Found in the Windowless House is True exhibition in New York earlier in the year. So, too, did the bamboo and paper kites by a master kite maker Thao-Nguyen tracked down.

“I’m learning about Vietnam, and it’s very subtle and surprising,” Jonas told an audience of artists and curators gathered on rush mats in Nha San, one of Vietnam’s rare experimental art spaces. Jonas was the observer in Vietnam, just as Thao-Nguyen had been during the month she spent at her studio in New York, and in Spain, Italy and India.

“Thao always comes when I’m working on a major work, so I think she learns a lot by watching me,” Jonas says.

Thao-Nguyen prefers it that way. “I’m not asking that the mentor has to be in my studio and show me what to do. I don’t need that. I just observe and the observation could be about anything: about the books she reads, the films she likes, the food – everything. I like to observe how she reacts with people and the kinds of questions she asks, how she is always making her work, always curious about things. That is more important than the time we spend together in the studio.

Jonas agrees. “Thao is a very accomplished artist. She’s fully formed. We can have a dialogue about her work, but I feel she should also be left to develop in her own way. I only gave her comments about her videos, while I simply told her how much I liked her paintings.”

Thao always comes when I’m working on a major work, so I think she learns a lot by watching me.

Thao-Nguyen had made some brief videos before she met her mentor, and had begun putting together what would become Tropical Siesta. She had been working on a series of small paintings in which delicately reductive washes of shading and colour depict characters separated from their context. Their gestures alone transmit ambiguous layers of psychology, history and fraught emotion. In the new paintings, children sleep on desks, float in water, walk five in a row with their heads between the rungs of a ladder – actions for real children to enact in the video.

In Rome, Thao-Nguyen showed Jonas the first edit of the brutal yet lyrical video narrative that she had assembled. Jonas commented on the structure and 30-minute length of the single-screen work. As they watched together, it occurred to Thao-Nguyen that it would be better to tell her story on two screens.

“It now feels more like an installation, more condensed, not like a film,” she says of the two-channel, 14-minute result.

Also, the rough cut had ended with a summarizing subtitle to pull together the disparate threads of child’s play, reverie and memory that illuminate the centrality of language and the hazards of meddling with it. Such a neat ending might be rather didactic, Jonas suggested.

On that same trip to Rome the themes began to coalesce. At the city’s Jesuit Archives, Thao-Nguyen was able to consult original 17th-century texts and letters concerning a phase of little-known Vietnamese history she had been studying. The French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes translated the Chinese-based characters of Vietnamese script into the romanized alphabet in which Vietnamese is written today. As a result, Vietnam lost a part of its heritage, including some of the myths Jesuit missionaries recounted in letters that Thao-Nguyen found.

In the Tropical Siesta video, children with no teachers, no alphabet and no discipline re-enact those tales. They float in mud and dance with the lighted sunflower decor that Thao-Nguyen had rescued from the streets. Dream sequences composed as meticulously as her paintings, are juxtaposed with rural views of rice paddies and tree frogs. Dream and reality blur into what Thao-Nguyen calls “a sense of dreadful optimism”.

By the time that Jonas visited her studio, Thao-Nguyen was preparing for her April exhibition at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, the first major art space in Ho Chi Minh City. A Ministry of Culture and Tourism licence is mandatory for a public exhibition in Vietnam. As a result, galleries are sparse and many artists only show to one another.

Artists and arts professionals are hopeful the growing economic freedoms will spill over into culture, though Thao-Nguyen had just learned The Factory’s legal consultants were advising against submitting her video to the authorities, as well as many of the paintings she was composing as an installation for the exhibition. Thao-Nguyen confided to Jonas she was considering removing the contested images; Jonas was concerned self-censoring would eviscerate her work.

“One of the reasons I wanted to go to Vietnam was to understand her situation in relation to the constraints on artists there,” Jonas explains. “I feel now I can talk with her about that. And help her.”

I learned from her: you just work with what you have and maybe what you have is very rich.

In the end, Thao-Nguyen’s video remained intact, but the video screen hung dark in the public exhibition, turned on only for invited viewers. “What I learned most from Joan is trying to be flexible and make the work you want to make in any situation, because in Vietnam you are always complaining about the lack of support,” Thao-Nguyen says. “We are in a transition and there is a lot of potential here, but for now the situation is limited. The way Joan works, she is so open and so free. She is working all the time and looking at things and shooting videos. She doesn’t have to have a fancy camera; she can just use her iPhone, and make good work. So that’s the most important lesson. I learned from her: you just work with what you have and maybe what you have is very rich.”

Jonas is also intent on helping in other ways: “The main reason I wanted to work with Thao is because I was so drawn to her work. Beyond that I thought that it would be very important to support a woman from Vietnam and help to establish connections for her in different parts of the world. It has been a very special experience and I enjoy the dialogue we have together. I hope that it continues with her. Her work should be shown, and will be shown in many different circumstances.”

“Meeting Joan was something like destiny,” Thao-Nguyen says. “To be with Joan is a lasting relationship.”

Amei Wallach is a New York-based arts writer and film-maker. She is President Emeritus of the US chapter of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art).

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