Upon getting into Thao Nguyen Phan’s present solo exhibition at Tate St. Ives—the biggest presentation of her work within the U.Ok. thus far—one instantly encounters two white sculptures pinned to the partitions of a darkly lit gallery. Depicting a sunflower and a chook, the petals of the flower are illuminated from behind, and the chook is flecked with twinkling lights. Each items, respectively titled The Flower and The Rise (each 2017), have been as soon as road decorations that have been used to mild up the streets of Ho Chi Minh Metropolis throughout Lunar New 12 months celebrations and Communist Get together congresses.
Recalling each conventional Vietnamese symbols and Communist state propaganda, the photographs of the flower and chook make a becoming entry level into Phan’s creative universe. As a pair, they exemplify Phan’s capability to make use of easy, beguiling photographs to inform multilayered tales about Vietnam’s previous and current. Persevering with into the following two galleries, one witnesses the artist’s tales unfold by way of watercolor work, sculptural installations, and video items—or, as they’re titled, “shifting photographs.” These works are shifting each actually and figuratively, typically describing nationwide traumas and tragedies which have been forgotten because of what Phan calls her nation’s “historic amnesia.”
One in every of these nationwide traumas is the 1945–46 famine in Vietnam, when, below Japanese occupation, farmers have been compelled to uproot their rice and plant inedible crops similar to jute. An estimated two million individuals died. The three-channel, black-and-white video Mute Grain (2019) offers voice to oral accounts of the famine by its survivors. It additionally chronicles the fictional story of Ba and Tám, a brother and sister named after the lowest-yield months for meals harvest in Vietnam (March and August). The 2 are separated by Tám’s sudden demise, however keep on trying to find one another throughout this life and the following.
The siblings Ba and Tám reappear in “The Dream of March and August”(2020), a collection of ethereal watercolor work on silk which cling in pairs, suspended from the ceiling. Every pair depicts Ba and Tám performing parallel actions in a magical, dreamlike realm. They climb timber, trip bikes, and skip rope. However their infantile pleasure is undercut by unhappiness: In almost each portray, they’re aside and sometimes alone. In one other work, No Jute Material for the Bones (2019–current), clusters of jute stalks descend from the ceiling like a rainshower. The stalks create a rustling sound as they transfer and brush in opposition to each other, becoming a member of the polyphonic sounds made by Phan’s video works.
Phan’s curiosity in rural existence stems from the annual subject journeys she would take to the countryside as a schoolgirl. Throughout these journeys—a part of Vietnam’s socialist custom of schooling—youngsters have been instructed to sketch and paint life exterior the town. These excursions have continued to be a supply of inspiration for the artist.
Phan, now 34, was born and raised in Ho Chi Minh Metropolis. She studied portray at college in Vietnam and Singapore and solely started experimenting with different artwork types whereas on the Artwork Institute of Chicago, whereas pursuing an MFA. She credit the works of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and American artists Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas with introducing her to new methods of artmaking. In 2016, Jonas—an early pioneer of video and efficiency artwork—grew to become Phan’s creative mentor, encouraging her to proceed creating her essayistic model of developing visible narratives.
Along with their stylistic similarities, Jonas and Phan additionally share a deep curiosity within the human affect on the atmosphere. That is the topic of Phan’s video work Changing into Alluvium (2019–ongoing), which presents a collection of chapters, or “reincarnations,” on the theme of the Mekong River. Responding to the current speedy development in agriculture alongside the waterway and its impact on the native ecosystem, Phan weaves collectively native tales with quotes by writers similar to Marguerite Duras and Italo Calvino; Cambodian folktales; Nineteenth-century engravings; and her personal animated illustrations. The headless characters within the animation have been impressed by decapitated Khmer statues that she encountered within the Musée Guimet in Paris, hinting at France’s colonial legacy in Cambodia.
Although they’d resonate wherever, when exhibited at Tate St. Ives in opposition to the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, these meditations on the atmosphere really feel significantly poignant. Like lots of Phan’s items, Changing into Alluvium is an ongoing challenge; within the coming years, it is going to have extra “reincarnations” added to it, rising and being reborn indefinitely. On this method, Phan’s tales are by no means really completed. They’re continually evolving and open-ended, flowing throughout artworks and spilling out into the gallery area.