Behind the scenes of the exhibition “Reincarnation...

Behind the scenes of the exhibition “Reincarnations of Shadows by Thao Nguyen Phan: In conversation with the curators

Digging deeper into the implications of Thao Nguyen Phan‘s solo show (currently ongoing at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan) requires a certain sensitivity and connection to the different facets of the artist’s practice. We talked about it with the curators of the exhibition, Lucia Aspesi and Fiammetta Griccioli.

Thao Nguyen Phan, “Reincarnations of Shadows”, installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2023, photo Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano

From East to West, the Vietnamese artist’s work is between reincarnation and shadows. She combines different media, including installation, traditional painting and moving images, which tend to expand into watercolor stories on silk. An ever-changing vision of events shapes subjects and narratives through multiple reincarnations. A boy who has been the victim of an accident is revived in the sacred dolphin Irrawaddy, the river adapts to the political changes of the countries it crosses, man becomes an animal again during famine. The new site-specific works for Pirelli HangarBicocca and the works from recent years refer to the regenerating flow of the Mekong River, which due to its location is the perfect narrator of the darkness hidden behind wars and intricate popular stories. A recurring element in the exhibition is the traditional use of Vietnamese lacquer which, for example, gives vent to a fragmented map of the Mekong Delta. Brown, black and red, the ancient pigments, meet egg white and abstraction, layered on solid wood. The preciousness of these paintings, then, crosses the narrative fantasy of the stories on silk. But, in the words of the curators, «if in the first part the main corpuses of Phan’s research from the last ten years are exhibited, in the second part the visitor enters into a deeper dialogue, focused on hidden symbols and rituals, left in the shadows, handed down through oral stories and often conditioned by the effects of colonialism».

Thao Nguyen Phan, “Reincarnations of Shadows”, installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2023, photo Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano

The work No Jute Cloth for the Bones (2019-23) separates the two researches. It «embodies the duality that underlies the entire exhibition project Reincarnations of Shadows. On the one hand, the concept of reincarnation, chosen by the artist as a channel through which to evoke forgotten oral histories, to confront the cyclical violence of history and ecological destruction, and on the other, the generation of shadows in the making of a filmic image. This proximity to a spectral dimension of the video is at the center of Thao Nguyen Phan’s investigations, who have chosen to characterize the exhibition itinerary with permeable and translucent elements. The large site-specific installation No Jute Cloth for the Bones is a suspended “wall” of dried jute fronds that separates the two main areas of the exhibition and, like a membrane, allows light and air to cross this threshold, generating continuous apparitions. At the same time, the viewer’s body can pass through the work and, by touching its surfaces, arouses new sounds, shadows, and signs each time».

Thao Nguyen Phan, “Dream of March and August”, 2018 – ongoing, in collaboration with Truong Cong Tung, installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2023, photo Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano

What criteria was established for the selection and placement of the works? «For the conception of the exhibition with Thao Nguyen Phan, we let ourselves be guided by the cyclical nature that characterizes the narration of her films, conceived as a sequence of “reincarnations”. Presented as single projections or on multiple screens, the videos follow a non-chronological development that is poetically revealed in a game of associations between the story, the sounds and the actions of the non-professional actors in continuous oscillation between reality and fiction. Her works are characterized by a powerful visual imagery where human presence, nature and architecture come together in fleeting representations. These are then translated and expanded into the drawings, watercolors and installations in the exhibition and made with specific materials such as silk, lacquer and jute».

Diem Phung Thi, selection of sculptures for the exhibition “Reincarnations of Shadows” by Thao Nguyen Phan, circa 1960s and 1970s (detail), private collection, Vietnam, installation view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2023, photo Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano

With Reincarnations of Shadows (Moving-Image-Poem), 2023, as well as in the choice to include some sculptures by Vietnamese artist Diem Phung Thi, Phan realizes «a limited art history». As the curators tell us, «her poetics moves along a delicate path capable of generating reconciliations between remote times and histories. In a small space immersed in semi-darkness, with a generous gesture, Thao Nguyen Phan has included in the exhibition the work of another artist very dear to her: Diem Phung Thi (1920-2002). The conversation is expressed through the presentation of a selection of sculptural works and collages by this historical figure, and is intertwined with the moving images of Phan’s new work that traces the life of the Vietnamese sculptor, Reincarnations of Shadows (moving-image-poem) (2023), in which biographical notes retrace the social and political turmoil of her home country. The two-channel video brings together archival elements and elegant shots by Diem Phung Thi’s sculptures exhibited in Milan, in an intimate dialogue that goes beyond the limits imposed by canonized art history, where wonderful artists are overlooked, forgotten or underestimated. For us, the new work becomes a way to observe this story from a different perspective, a possible alternative to existing stories that make the artistic medium the space for negotiation, a place of openness».

Alessia D’Introno


Thao Nguyen Phan, Reincarnations of Shadows
curated by Lucia Aspesi e Fiammetta Griccioli
in collaboration with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen
14/09/2023 – 14/01/2024
Pirelli HangarBicocca
via Chiese 2, 20126 Milano


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