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The History of Vietnam, Reimagined

By Caroline Suganda

Prior to exhibiting in Berlin, Thao-Nguyen Phan exhibited “Poetic Amnesia” at The Factory Contemporary Art Centre in Ho Chi Minh City.
 
Courtesy of Rolex
Prior to exhibiting in Berlin, Thao-Nguyen Phan exhibited “Poetic Amnesia” at The Factory Contemporary Art Centre in Ho Chi Minh City.

It was the beginning of an intense art immersion week. You can tell just by the over 100 people gathered here at Kulturforum, Berlin. Unlike the usual fashion set I’m used to, the people who gathered here were not “dressed to be seen”, but rather, to engage and feed off each other’s creativity and knowledge in this space. And I suspect, they were there to partly take refuge from the snow drizzle outside.

No frills, no embellishments. This space is expansive and quiet (aside from our footsteps that took us downstairs to the coat check area). Set to one end is a small stage and seated across it, today’s duo of stars who occasionally return greetings to the people around them. They seemed like an unlikely pair — a young Asian woman and a much older Caucasian lady, without conversing, who appear most comfortable in each other’s presence.

Thao-Nguyen Phan, a 31-year-old Vietnamese artist is here today to open her first solo exhibition on a global stage for the first time. While her name might be familiar to some of us here in Singapore (she’s a degree graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts, had a short stint as an artist in residence in NTU Centre for Contemporary Art at Gillman Barracks, and her latest video work, “Tropical Siesta”, which is a part of the show exhibited here in Berlin, is currently on show at the Esplanade until 8 April), her name is almost unheard of in the rest of the world. Today, she’s here with her mentor, a veteran in her industry, the legendary Joan Jonas.

Courtesy of RolexPhan and Joan Jonas at the opening of “Poetic Amnesia”.
Phan and Joan Jonas at the opening of “Poetic Amnesia”.

For the past two years, Phan has been working very closely with Jonas, who is considered one of the most important female visual artists to emerge in the late ’60s. As a pioneer of video and performance art, her work feels right at home in the theatre, as much as it is in a museum. Her current exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, which runs till August, will include her performing on certain nights.

Jonas and Phan did not meet by chance. They were brought together with the help of Rolex’s ongoing philanthropic programme, Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. “I chose her out of the three finalists given to me,” said the artist, who’s in her 80s. A big fan of Asian art, she was charmed by Phan’s paintings.

In its eighth cycle now, the two-year programme is a nomination process with 250 different experts on the panel, and only three to four candidates make the shortlist, who are then presented to the mentor. According to this cycle’s film protégé, Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane, being nominated is a dream come true — one he’s been working towards since he heard of the programme in 2005. This dream has materialised into a lifetime’s opportunity to be mentored by Mexican film director, Alfonso Cuarón, the man behind award-winning films, “Children of Men” (2006) and “Gravity” (2013).

Courtesy of RolexFrom left: World-renowned composer Philip Glass was a mentor to Peruvian protégée, Pauchi Sasaki, who also learnt about the business side of being a musician; “Voyages de Rhodes” by Thao- Nguyen Phan is made up of over 100 framed watercolour images painted on pages of a book.
From left: World-renowned composer Philip Glass was a mentor to Peruvian protégée, Pauchi Sasaki, who also learnt about the business side of being a musician; “Voyages de Rhodes” by Thao- Nguyen Phan is made up of over 100 framed watercolour images painted on pages of a book.

This mentorship programme builds on Rolex’s late founder, Hans Wilsdorf’s philanthropical spirit. He has been contributing to society since the ’40s by supporting individuals and institutions who are set on creating a better future and inspiring others along the way. Out of Rolex’s first philanthropic programme, the Awards for Enterprise (which supports people doing innovative work in the areas such as science, technology and the preservation of cultural heritage), comes this arts programme, which was two years in the making. While a lot of funds for art philanthropy tend to go to institutions, this particular programme chooses to support individual artists and encourage the interaction of different artistic disciplines. And riding on the belief that behind every great artist, is a great artist, the mentoring programme, Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, was set up to support artists in the fields of visual arts, film, literature, architecture, dance, theatre and music.

Courtesy of RolexFilmmaker Alfonso Cuarón invited his Indian protégé, Chaitanya Tamhane, to spend a month in Mexico on the set of his new film, “Roma”.
Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón invited his Indian protégé, Chaitanya Tamhane, to spend a month in Mexico on the set of his new film, “Roma”.

The crowd that gathered at Kulturforum listened to Jonas and Phan, who had been invited to share about their experience of working together the past two years, up to the opening of the show, “Poetic Amnesia”. Phan’s show is her universe of voyage beyond geographical marks and chronological dividends, delving deep into her home country, Vietnam’s storied past, while expressing her social concerns, which is swathed in cautious optimism.

The two met for the first time in February 2016, at Jonas’s hometown, New York. They spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, covering the Asian section, especially the Japanese prints. It was Phan’s choice.

Courtesy of RolexPhan visited Jonas in New York four times where they shared their work at Jonas’s New York studio.
Phan visited Jonas in New York four times where they shared their work at Jonas’s New York studio.
Courtesy of RolexPhan and Jonas spent time together walking around New York’s Soho neighbourhood; Jonas says, “I really enjoyed being with Thao and we didn’t have to talk all the time. We could just be with each other. And I think that’s quite a special experience because I was very interested in what she was thinking and in her work.”
Phan and Jonas spent time together walking around New York’s Soho neighbourhood; Jonas says, “I really enjoyed being with Thao and we didn’t have to talk all the time. We could just be with each other. And I think that’s quite a special experience because I was very interested in what she was thinking and in her work.”

Phan, who is based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, visited Jonas several times, during her various shows — four times in New York, once in Rome, Italy, once in Santander, Spain, and the longest (for a month) in Kochi, India. During these visits, Jonas was very involved in the editing process of Phan’s first video work, “Tropical Siesta”, a two-channel video installation, which is part of her current exhibit.

Video is an important part of Jonas’s work, and that became Phan’s biggest takeaway from this mentorship. “I’m trained as a painter,” says Phan, who’s been painting for about eight years now. “I’m always interested to expand the medium of painting into different disciplinary. Joan is known for video and performance work. From her, I really learnt how to expand my work, to be more performative. I’m also starting to use video as an important part of my work.” Apart from video, Phan is also intrigued by Jonas’s way of working, which challenges the delivery medium. Upon entering the exhibition space, the floor is littered with three-dimensional blocks of diacritic used in chu quoc ngu, Vietnam’s Romanised script. This is one of Phan’s starting point. French Jesuit missionary, Alexandre de Rhodes was the father of this now widely-used writing system. At that time, when Rhodes came to Vietnam in the 17th century, 90 per cent of the population was illiterate but the Romanised script was an easy way for people to learn to read and write very quickly, as compared to the Chinese-based characters previously used. “I was curious about that particular period and I wanted to know why the missionary first came, do all the work to convert the people, and invented many new things. And I don’t see it as negative. I see it as potential topic of interest. That’s why I started to do my research and my exhibition is kind of an imaginative way of thinking of that topic,” explains Phan.

Courtesy of RolexFrom left: Visual arts mentor, Joan Jonas; Phan working in her studio in Ho Chi Minh City.
From left: Visual arts mentor, Joan Jonas; Phan working in her studio in Ho Chi Minh City.

A queue had formed in front of Phan’s artwork series, “Voyages de Rhodes”. Phan had taken an old French book by Rhodes, which was published in the 17th century, titled “Rhodes of Viet Nam: The Travels and Missions of Father Alexandre de Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient”, as her canvas for watercolour paintings. More than 100 framed pages are hung perpendicular to the display wall, creating a systematic pattern that guides the viewer to walk across the space.

Although Phan does not understand any French, she discovered a profound attachment to the text of the book. The paintings she drew on these pages are related to the contents of the book but rather, the images are her imagination and interpretation of her curiosity of both the past and contemporary life in Vietnam. The mediums used were also a way to recall the war sketches Vietnamese soldiers used to paint on newspaper with watercolours.

Courtesy of RolexFor her “Tropical Siesta” video, Phan drew out her script, instead of writing it.
For her “Tropical Siesta” video, Phan drew out her script, instead of writing it.

This sense of voyage and exploration of Vietnam’s past was further explored in a video work, “Tropical Siesta”. The two-channel video, which was played simultaneously, is a combination of Phan’s writings and storyline from Rhodes’s other books. Reinterpreted by children in the film, it signifies Vietnam’s longing for the freedom to write its own history and a deliberate ignorance of a past that was too disheartening to look back into.

Courtesy of RolexPhan at a workshop at Spain’s Centro Botin arts centre.
Phan at a workshop at Spain’s Centro Botin arts centre.

After observing Jonas and Phan’s conversation and interaction, you’ll realised that the art master also had some take away from her great pupil. “It’s quite a special and emotional experience for an American to visit Vietnam,” Jonas recounted. Phan arranged a visit to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi for Jonas. During this trip, Jonas had the opportunity to meet a lot of local contemporary artists and learnt of the struggle they faced in Vietnam. They had no support from the government, and often they had to get their own funding and run their own space. It’s very alternative and experimental, in a poor way. There’s no market, unfortunately. Only market for touristic paintings. According to Phan, there are only very very few local collectors. But, because the scene for contemporary artist is so fresh and young, there’s a very optimistic spirit of what they can do as there’s no burden of history of art in the country. “The young ones [contemporary artists] really want to look ahead,” said Jonas. “But, on the other hand, Thao is involved in the history of the country and her show perfectly describes the content.”

There are not many Vietnamese artists who have exhibited internationally, at least not in Berlin, which is considered the arts and culture capital of Europe. But Phan said, as humbled as she has been since the beginning, she doesn’t want to be seen as a representation of her country as their styles of work are varied. What she wants the world to take away from her exhibition is that, “Vietnam is turbulent yet optimistic. I hope my work, which used the story of Vietnam to reflect contemporary and universal issues today, can relate to the stories of other people in other places.”