Airport, please! heads to Tate St. Ives for exhibition of vietnamese artist/filmmaker Thao Nguyen Phan’s reflection on the Mekong River
Thao Nguyen Phan is an internationally renowned artist/filmmaker celebrated for her poetic, multi-layered artworks that explore the historical and ecological issues facing her homeland Vietnam, while speaking to broader ideas around tradition, ideology, ritual and environmental change. In our post-pandemic era, the effect of ecological indifference has peaked as we see and experience the devastation by fire of California forests and tycoons sweeping across the South, as well as social issues as we experience the devastation of the Omicron virus on the population. The loss of friends, family and loved ones, the double-masked fear of contracting the virus, has created a never before experience of social distancing that leaves us isolated and afraid. Thus, in its own way, the work of Thao Nguyen Phan resonates with each of us.
Phan’s mesmerising work intertwines mythology and folklore with urgent issues around industrialisation, food security and the environment. The threat posed by the destruction and excessive consumption of Earth’s resources is a recurring theme across her practice.
Through storytelling, and the mixing of official and unofficial histories, her work often amplifies narratives that are less well documented, or in some cases obscured.
This exhibition will bring together a selection of Phan’s videos, paintings and sculptures from the past five years, alongside new work exhibited for the first time. This includes First Rain, Brise Soleil (2021–ongoing), a major new multi-channel film commission, and an accompanying series of paintings.
THAO NGUYEN PHAN: THE ARTIST
Trained as a painter, Phan is a multimedia artist whose practice encompasses video, painting and installation. Drawing from literature, philosophy and daily life, Phan observes ambiguous issues in social conventions and history. She started working in film when she began her MFA in Chicago. Phan exhibits internationally, with solo and group exhibitions including Tate St Ives, (Cornwall, UK, 2022); Chisenhale gallery (London, 2020); WIELS (Brussels, 2020); Rockbund Art Museum (Shanghai, 2019); Lyon Biennale (Lyon, 2019); Sharjah Biennial (Sharjah Art Foundation, 2019); Gemäldegalerie (Berlin, 2018); Dhaka Art Summit (2018); Para Site (Hong Kong, 2018); Factory Contemporary Art Centre (Ho Chi Minh City, 2017); Nha San Collective (Hanoi, 2017); and Bétonsalon (Paris, 2016), among others. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award. In addition to her work as a multimedia artist, she is co-founder of the collective Art Labor, which explores cross disciplinary practices and develops art projects that benefit the local community.
Thao Nguyen Phan is expanding her “theatrical fields”, including what she calls performance gesture and moving images. Phan is a 2016-2017 Rolex Protégée, mentored by internationally acclaimed, New York-based, performance and video artist, Joan Jonas. Thao Nguyen Phan lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She is the recipient of the Han Nefkens Foundation – LOOP Video Art Award 2018. Tate St Ives is her first solo museum exhibition in the UK.
TATE ST. IVES
Tate St Ives is a public art gallery in St Ives, Cornwall, England, exhibiting work by modern British artists with links to the St Ives area. The Tate also took over management of another museum in the town, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, The exhibition will intertwine folklore and myth with urgent issues around the rural, industrialisation, food security, and the environment. The artworks consist of videos, silk paintings and mixed media work. A new film First Rain/BriseSoleil and series of paintings will be specially created for the exhibition.
Thao Nguyen Phan lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She is the recipient of the Han Nefkens Foundation – LOOP Video Art Award 2018. This is her first solo museum exhibition in the UK.
Chisenhale Gallery presents Becoming Alluvium, the first solo exhibition in a UK institution by Ho Chi Minh City-based artist Thao Nguyen Phan. Working with painting, installation and moving image, Phan’s work explores history and tradition through non-fiction and fictional narratives.
Becoming Alluvium continues Phan’s ongoing research on the Mekong River, which runs through Tibet, China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Composed of two elements – a single channel film work and a series of lacquer and silk paintings – the works simultaneously explore real and imaginary worlds.
This newly commissioned video work is structured around three chapters telling stories of destruction, reincarnation and renewal, centered around the ebb and flow of the Mekong River. Combining self-shot footage, animation and found imagery, the work weaves narratives concerning industrialisation, food security and ecological sustainability with folklore and myth.
An accompanying series of paintings titled Perpetual Brightness, made in collaboration with artist Truong Cong Tung, further explore the cultural, agricultural and economic significance of the river. The watercolour on silk paintings depict characters in various states – from insects playing musical instruments to a young boy caressing an endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. Presented in frames made with Vietnamese lacquer, eggshell and silver leaf, the series tell stories of the past, present and future of the Mekong River and its inhabitants.
Phan’s new commission builds on previous works Tropical Siesta (2017) and Mute Grain (2019), which collectively address Phan’s urgent call to awaken from a ‘state of collective amnesia’ in relation to the threat posed by excessive consumption of Earth’s resources.
Becoming Alluvium is produced and commissioned by Han Nefkens Foundation in collaboration with: Joan Miró Foundation, Barcelona; WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels; and Chisenhale Gallery. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated publication, co-published by the exhibition partners, the Han Nefkens Foundation and Mousse Publishing.
Becoming Alluvium is Phan’s most recent work: a single-channel colour film continuing her research into the Mekong River and the cultures that it nurtures. Through allegory, it explores the environmental and social changes caused by the expansion of agriculture, by overfishing and the economic migration of farmers to urban areas. “The Mekong civilization can be summarized in terms of materiality – the river of wet rice civilization – and in terms of spirituality – the river of Buddhism,” explains Phan. “However,” she continues, “unlike the teachings of compassion and mindfulness that are taught by Buddha, in reality, the land through which the Mekong flows experiences extreme turbulence and conflict […]. In recent decades, human intervention on the river body has been so violent that it has forever transformed the nature of its flow and the fate of its inhabitants.”
Despite its non-chronological narrative and associative logic, Phan’s film can be divided into three main chapters. The first opens with a citation from The Gardener by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, published in 1913, which speak of the unity of the human and natural universe. The film recounts the collapse of a dam that caused the death of many villagers downstream, including two teenager brothers. “They reconcile in their next life, in which the older brother reincarnates as the Irrawaddy dolphin, and the little brother as the water hyacinth,” says Phan. “Both are iconic,” she continues, “the Irrawaddy dolphin being a beloved fish of the Mekong, the water hyacinth being a notorious invasive plant.” The work manifests her belief in the moving image as a “cascade of reincarnations,” influenced by her upbringing in a traditional Vietnamese family, where Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism co-exist alongside a multitude of local deities.
The second chapter of the film combines images of people navigating the Mekong as they go about their daily lives, with a voiceover reading from L’Amant [The Lover] by the French author Marguerite Duras. This is an autobiographical novel published in 1984 that recounts Duras’ coming-of-age in French Indochina (present-day Vietnam). This chapter of Phan’s film is the most documentary in its visual language, yet through its lyrical tone manages to mix the epic with the everyday; for example, combining images of rubbish heaps with reflections on waste from Italian author Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Le città invisibili [Invisible Cities]. By citing such writers, Phan taps into a rich literary tradition of philosophical travelogues and imagined or (mis)remembered stories of far-flung lands.
SOFT WATER HARD STONE 2021 Triennial at the New Museum
The title of the 2021 Triennial, “Soft Water Hard Stone,” is taken from a Brazilian proverb, versions of which are found across cultures:
The proverb can be said to have two meanings: if one persists long enough, the desired effect can eventually be achieved; and time can destroy even the most perceptibly solid materials. The title speaks to ideas of resilience and perseverance, and the impact that an insistent yet discrete gesture can have in time. It also provides a metaphor for resistance, as water—a constantly flowing and transient material—is capable of eventually dissolving stone—a substance associated with permanence, but also composed of tiny particles that can collapse under pressure.
In this moment of profound change, where structures that were once thought to be stable are disintegrating or on the edge of collapse, the 2021 Triennial recognizes artists re-envisioning traditional models, materials, and techniques beyond established paradigms. Their works exalt states of transformation, calling attention to the malleability of structures, porous and unstable surfaces, and the fluid and adaptable potential of both technological and organic mediums. Throughout the exhibition, artists address the regenerative potential of the natural world and our inseparable relationship to it, and grapple with entrenched legacies of colonialism, displacement, and violence. Their works look back at overlooked histories and artistic traditions, while at the same time look forward toward the creative potential that might give dysfunctional or discarded remains new life. It is through their reconfigurations and reimaginings that we are reminded of not only our temporality, but also our adaptability— fundamental characteristics we share, and that keep us human.
The LRFA blog has always appreciated the influence and appreciation of Asian culture in our 21st Century world. In the face of impending war with the Ukraine, learning to be still and accepting fate with grace are two virtues, difficult to achieve, may be welcome traits in these uncertain times.