Thao Nguyen Phan’s Multilayered Stories of the Mekong Delta
ST. IVES, England — There’s calm, there’s storm, but what’s next? The desire for resolution – for a sense of purpose – is a common creative concern. However, resolution is not sought by all: Vietnamese multimedia artist Thao Nguyen Phan, for his part, has shown himself to be resistant to such strings of orders. Instead, for her solo exhibition at Tate St. Ives, she chose to challenge the sequential nature of history, finding different ways to chronicle the many layers of devastation, the many storms, experienced across the Mekong delta.
Approaching the Mekong River – which connects communities in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to those in neighboring regions of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – Phan emphasizes the land and sustaining lives by the mighty stream. She continually adjusts her perspective: sometimes the Mekong is in the foreground, notably in the double-sided sculpture “Perpetual Brightness” (2019-ongoing) – on one side a lacquer map of the river, on the other a representation august ceremonies and alcohol consumption by the river – and sometimes it sinks below the surface. It’s a road less traveled but Phan shows that it is paved with promise.
Stories – alternate, obscured, contested – flow like streams through the exhibit: vignettes of Phan’s imagination are elegantly rendered in watercolor on the unbound pages of a Jesuit travel diary from the time colonial; found objects (a sunflower-shaped centerpiece of once agitprop significance, a white dove sculpture snatched from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City after Lunar New Year festivities) are transformed. Divorced from their original context, these recycled objects are now more suggestive than representative: are they beacons of progress, repair, hope?
Children figure prominently in Phan’s work; they are the main subjects of “Mute Grain” (2019), a deeply touching three-channel video about those who perished during the 1945-46 Vietnamese famine and generations of “hungry ghosts”.[s]born of this deep horror. During this period of Japanese and French Allied occupation, Vietnamese farmers were forced to uproot rice crops to grow jute and castor, causing mass starvation and temporarily severing the connection between the people and the promise of the land. Phan’s inclusion of archival footage—inserted between scenes of child performers moving through rice paddies, playing with grain, taking over spaces—is compelling.
Children are also performers in the folkloric elements of the short film “First Rain, Brise Soleil” (2021-ongoing): here, Phan weaves a web of myths around the durian fruit – from explanations of its distinctive smell to associations derived with it. mourning – and in turn explores the history of the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia. She contrasts this tradition with another, in which seasonal downpours, unexpected destruction, and a meditation on the titular design practice are paramount, with the layered narrative providing the overall shape of the film.
The painting series Dream of March and August (2018-ongoing) serves as an unofficial coda to both films, borrowing the attention to detail from “First Rain, Brise Soleil” and building on the emotional punch of “Mute Grain.” It depicts fictional siblings, the living March (Ba) and the deceased August (Tám), as they attempt to connect through the afterlife. The skillful paintings are a lush ode to tropical foliage alongside a dark celestial plane, with the youthful faces of March and August reflecting not just grief but contemplation, consideration, curiosity. They cling together as if in dialogue, engaging in a dance with no definite beginning or end.
Thao Nguyen Phan continues at Tate St. Ives (Porthmeor Beach, St. Ives, Cornwall, England) until May 2. The exhibition was curated by Anne Barlow, Director of Tate St. Ives, with Giles Jackson, Assistant Curator.