Thao Nguyen Phan
Becoming Alluvium is currently composed of two elements, a video with the same title, and Perpetual Brightness, a series of Vietnamese lacquer and silk paintings, structured in the form of detachable folded screens.
The video manifests my belief in the moving image as a cascade of reincarnations. That is, reincarnations in the metaphoric and literal form(1). The plot follows the aftermath of the collapse of a dam on the Mekong, a dam considered modest in scale, yet it caused the death of many people in the village downstream, a banal, remote farming village. The event was not significant enough to make the headlines however. Two adolescent siblings lost their lives in that unfortunate moment. They reconcile in their next life in which the older brother reincarnates into the Irrawaddy dolphin, and the little brother into the water hyacinth. Both are iconic, the Irrawaddy dolphin being a beloved fish of the Mekong, the water hyacinth being a notorious invasive plant. Together, they share memories of their past lives as a writer, a ferry driver, a rat, a princess. Whichever reincarnations they inherit, the Irrawaddy dolphin and the water hyacinth still linger around the Mekong, their maternal mother, also their greatest enemy(2).
Becoming Alluvium attempts to structure itself like a humanistic and animistic memory. Memories are not recalled in chronological order; instead, they are recalled by the association of one thing with another. The video is thus made up of a series of related sequences whose scenes are interspersed between each other. Becoming Alluvium is my second video, after Mekong Mechanical (2012), of a series of moving images that I offer to the glory and sadness of the Mekong River.
Perpetual Brightness is a painting series, the current instalment featuring a folded screen of six detachable panels and one separate painting. The structure of the folded screen references the lacquered screen of modernist figure Eileen Gray, which is a continuation of my interest in female modernists(3). The number of panels, seven in total, reference the number of branches of the Cuu Long River, literally meaning the River of Nine Dragons, part of the Mekong that flows through South Vietnam. It is believed to split into nine branches before it meets the Pacific Ocean, although two have dried up, reducing the total number of branches to seven. Unlike the purism of Gray’s lacquered screens, Perpetual Brightness is full of allegory, both in terms of its subject matter and its execution. The screens are double-sided, one side is a fragmented map of the Nine Dragons river, executed in an abstract manner, using the Vietnamese lacquer painting technique, made in collaboration with artist Truong Cong Tung. The flow of the river is inlaid and eggshell, with lacquered pigment like the alluvium. Lacquer painting was my major when I studied at Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts, before my MFA education in Chicago opened up the horizon to other mediums such as installation and video. The concept that surrounds the use of lacquer in my work is best described in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows:
“Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware.
[T]he lacquerer of the past was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived.
Lacquerware decorated in gold (…) should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but party suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie.”
On the other side of the screen, silk panels depict a ceremony of mourning and the worshipping of the spirits of the stranded whales, a ritual that has been practiced by fishermen across the coast of Vietnam for generations, one which I once witnessed in Can Gio, a town at the tail of the Mekong before it reaches the Ocean.
Perpetual Brightness criticizes the desire for a physical brightness, the brightness from electricity consumption and the brightness of the dollar bill, manifested in the accelerated speed of dam building on the Mekong. Lacquer and silk painting, unlike its counterpart, oil painting, require water to exist as a medium. Lacquer paint can only dry in a relatively humid atmosphere, then the paint is sanded away under running water in order to reveal the layering of paint underneath. Each lacquer panel is indeed an archaeological site. In the same way, paint pigment on silk is absorbed by the method of washing away each layer of painting. The lacquer palette is entirely a natural material: soil, stone, lacquer tree sap, gold and silver leaf, and eggshell. This is a similar process to that of the Mekong River that brings alluvium and sediment to the delta and washes away the impurities from chemicals and industrial activities. Becoming Alluvium is my contemplation on the glory and the tragedy of the Mekong River and the civilization of the nations that are nurtured by it. 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. Originating in Tibet, the Mekong goes through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and ends in Vietnam. Through its journey, it witnesses the flourishment of Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. However, unlike the teachings of compassion and mindfulness that are taught by the Buddha, in reality, the land that the Mekong flows through experiences extreme turbulence and conflict, on a human scale and a biological scale. 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 habitat. Through painting and moving images, Becoming Alluvium is my humble Gitanjali to the tragic allegory of this grand river, my attempt to collect testimonies for the captured sediments and the variety of species that are sacrificed for human’s constant seeking of perpetual brightness.
Thao Nguyen Phan, September 2019
1. A direct reference to the work of my art school influencer, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and his film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and also my upbringing in a traditional Vietnamese family, whose spiritual beliefs are based on the coexistence of the trilogy of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, not to mention the local deities.
2. This is inspired by a Lao folklore tale about the origin of the Irrawady dolphin (in Lao the Pakha fish), and the accident of the collapse of the Saddle Dam D in 2018.
3. This begins with my tribute to modernist sculptor Diem Phung Thi in my previous work, Magical Bow.
Thao Nguyen Phan
Duration: 16 min 28
Video produced by the Han Nefkens Foundation
Han Nekfens – LOOP Barcelona Video Art Production Award 2018 in collaboration with the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, WIELS, Brussels and Chisenhale Gallery, London.
Born 1987, Vietnam
Works in Vietnam
VIDEO EXHIBITED AT
Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona
November 16, 2019 to January 6, 2020
February 1, 2020 to April 26, 2020
Chisenhale Gallery, London
June 26, 2020 to August 30, 2020
Thao Nguyen Phan
Han Nefkens Foundation, Barcelona
First Edition November 2019
This book is published on the occasion of the Han Nekfens – LOOP Barcelona Video Art Production Award 2018 in collaboration with the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, WIELS, Brussels and Chisenhale Gallery, London.
Thao Nguyen Phan
Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona November 16, 2019 to January 6, 2020