arts • 20 Apr, 2017
Interview: Artist Phan Thao Nguyen
We chat about her latest exhibition, the inspiration for it & her famous mentor Joan Jonas
Having earned a Master of Fine Art in Painting and Drawing from the School of Art Institute in Chicago in 2009, and more recently undertaken a prestigious mentorship with famed New York artist Joan Jonas, Phan Thao Nguyen’s list of artistic credentials is growing. Already known as an astute anthropological observer through various collaborations across South East Asia, capable of ‘re-shuffling the systems and symbols of culture and society’, her latest work and first solo exhibition, ‘Poetic Amnesia’ attempts to address the problems she saw in Vietnam upon her latest return from America.
Using among other things, pages from texts published by French Jesuit missionary Alexander de Rhodes in the 17th century, the collection acknowledges the pervasive sense of forgetting in this country. It also deliberates on what she told us was a 'melancholic optimism' for the future. Discovering the books on eBay, Phan originally bought them to be part of her personal archive, but explained her decision to use them. "I decided to take the book apart and use the pages as a canvas to illustrate my personal imagination of what's going on in the book, my reaction to daily life, and my observation of social issues present in Vietnam now that still relate to the past."
AnyArena chatted to Phan at the opening of her show at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre last weekend. It runs from now until June 2nd.
Can you name three artists who have inspired you?
Joan Jonas, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Giorgio Morandi
The range of mediums you work in is eclectic. Is this important to you? And is there any form of expression you value more than others?
I trained as a painter, however during the process of making this collection I questioned the obligation to classify and denominate genres, segregating poetry, fictions, history, documents and visual arts. Mulling over these divisions, I hoped to construe a realm of works that are interconnected and diverse in style and material, through which genres can coexist in a dreamlike, democratic utopia.
Can you tell us about the experience of being mentored by Joan Jonas? How has it informed your art and you as a person do you think?
Joan Jonas is a not only a great artist but also a wonderful, devoted mentor. Working with Joan has helped me push endless boundaries, and not be afraid of challenging mediums or concepts. Learning from her work and her career strengthened my womanhood and gave me the courage to explore things that I didn’t dare before.
It was during your time working with her that you say you were inspired for this exhibition, 'Poetic Amnesia'. What thought do you think people will walk away with once they’ve absorbed it?
I was inspired by Joan’s unique approach to image making, so Poetic Amnesia is an experimentation of mine in creating a half-real and half-fictitious visual experience. Upon entering the exhibition, viewers will journey through the arc of the work, where boundaries between real time and fictional time, real space and fantastical space become distorted. The scenarios in my work reflect my social concerns, but are also how I express my faith in visual language and its capacity to acknowledge the past and deliver an awareness that enables us to live peacefully in the present.
You pay a homage to the Vietnamese language of sorts. What fascinates you about this? And how much of it related back to your earlier work ‘Education of a Poet’?
I started to explore this subject matter back in 2014 when I worked on that project (“Education of a Poet”) with Art Labor at San Art. I am fascinated with the transition from a Chinese based writing system to a Latin based one as an unavoidable process of modernization. The concept also collides with my interest with historical amnesia, the loss of collective and personal memory, and the construction of contemporary mythology and iconography.
As an artist operating in Vietnam, how difficult is it to keep pushing boundaries?
Vietnam does not yet have a system or infrastructure to support or promote contemporary art. No art criticism, no proper art education, almost no funding has limited the development of contemporary art in Vietnam. Conversely, while the rise of consumerism in Vietnam and the economic boom in recent years has had a negative effect on our traditional culture, it has also created a new social elite, who patron the arts, appreciate its value and create opportunities for artists to realise art projects. I am lucky to experience this transition.
What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?
My plants. I surround my studio with plants. I talk to plants and gardening is my secret therapy.
Finally, how important is art and how can we pursue it in our daily lives?
Art is what makes culture, and culture is what makes us human. Museums and galleries are not antiquities but living records of our civilization. You don’t need to travel too far to look for art. Art surrounds us. To live mindfully, kindly, but critically is also to live artistically. With art in all of our souls I believe this world would become less violent and develop in a softer, more sustainable way.
Words by jonaspin
Photos by Tuan Tran