Ongoing reincarnation: Thao Nguyen Phan at Pirelli...

Ongoing reincarnation: Thao Nguyen Phan at Pirelli HangarBicocca

In the Vietnamese language, the Nạn đói Ất Dậu stands for that famine – of rice and other indigenous food – which, in 1944, affected the peasant populations of Vietnam. The cause of the shortage is to be found in the agricultural policies of the French and Japanese colonists, stringent dictates that uprooted local production to make way for foreign but more profitable crops, such as raw jute. The very same jute today hangs in bundles from the ceiling framing of Pirelli HangarBicocca Museum, dividing into two environments the space, the work titles No Jute Cloth for the Bones (2019 – ongoing). We are now crossing the “middle bridge” of Reincarnations of Shadows, the first solo show in Italy by Thao Nguyen Phan (1987, Ho Chi Minh City).

Thao Nguyen Phan, No Jute Cloth for the Bones, 2019 – ongoing. Ph. Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca

Three horizontal screens unfold at the entrance of the exhibition, looping two three-channel videos. The first one, Mute Grain (2019), reconstructs landscapes made of tin and fireflies in the famine-stricken countryside. Two brothers, whose names, March and August, represent the two poorest months in the Vietnamese agricultural calendar, chase each other over the cliff of a cave in the mountains: a limbo between death and life, between current neo-colonial history and that of World War II. The two of them only speak to each other via filmic writing, through subtitles. They share bowls of rice, a look toward the South, «where the sun still rises», and an unconscious life as spirits that leads them in recollecting, in sixteen minutes, two hundred years of Vietnamese history. All the while, the soundscape is made up of bells, crickets, and oral testimonies of survivors of starvation: «I made galettes using that rotten rice».

Thao Nguyen Phan, Mute Grain, 2019. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation with Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Ph. Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca

The juxtaposition among oral histories, folklore, and images from historical archives is reiterated in the other three videos on display in the exhibition. First Rain, Brise-Soleil (2021 – ongoing) and Becoming Alluvium (2019 – ongoing) respectively address the influence of pro-American modernist architecture in South Vietnam, and the collapse of a dam on the course of the Mekong River, emblematic of the profound change Vietnamese territory underwent due to colonialism. Becoming Alluvium is the video that most condenses Phan’s politics and poetics. Starting with a chronicle report, that of two brothers who died in 2018 during the dam collapse: lying with their heads and feet dangling on the bank of the incriminated river, the two narrators exonerate it by staging there their past lives: one as a writer, one as the Khmer princess, and one as a boat driver. These lives are resolved in the sprays of lacquer and watercolor that Phan combines with the film. The artist juxtaposes the rawness of the images of colonial expeditions in Mekong to the phantasmagoric and political irony of a headless princess and a priest who, as in the most beautiful myths, bring a river delta to life.

Thao Nguyen Phan, First rain, Brise-soleil, 2021 – ongoing. Produced by Han Nefkens Art Foundation with Kochi Biennale and Tate St Ives. Ph. Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca

In the second room, Reincarnations of Shadows (moving-image-poem) (2023), produced in collaboration with HangarBicocca, focuses on the “resurrection” of Vietnamese modernist sculptor Diem Phung Thi (1920 – 2002), whose ambiguous “multiplicity” as member of the Vietnam’s independence resistance, yet child of Western modernism, is taken as a model of how nuanced and contradictory the shadows of history can be. The video is completed by Thi’s sculptural works, displayed contiguously on tall pedestals. Reincarnations of Shadows from a distance looks like a planetarium, with constellations of monolithic blocks, thin fabrics and fluttering luminaries connecting the moving images with their physical referents. Indeed, for the artist, video is above all a process of reincarnation of images, where they can reborn each time they are exhibited and projected in different contexts[1]: a metempsychosis that often puts on view faded and somewhat more physical memories of the past lives than the images can actually do. Thao Nguyen Phan draws, sews and paints headless princesses and children whose genitals are transformed into flowers and fruits. She does this with the delicate techniques of Vietnamese tradition such as silk painting and lacquering of funerary objects. Sculptures, installations and canvases are the points of light, the physical embodiments of the moving images. The artist plays, in a totally contemporary way, with expanded cinema.

Diem Phung Thi, selection of collages for the exhibition Reincarnations of Shadows, 1960 – 1990 ca. Ph. Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca

Yet in conversation with Jaap Guldemond – chief curator and head of programming at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam – Thao Nguyen Phan makes no reference to either association or departure from a certain filmic tradition. She is careful to reiterate that she does not want to be confused with an activist, to emphasize that her videos are not just images of vindication. Much of how the artist sees and occupies the exhibition space, indeed, rather than from a need to transgress or intestate herself in a certain tradition, seems to depend on conversations: with people, objects, events that, as already mentioned, can only be reincarnated in the moment of the exhibition. If we look carefully, Reincarnations of Shadows is a double-solo with ghosts. There are many hands: those of Phung Thi, but also the ones of who tampered with the lights. And then the many voices of existing beings and invented entities. In short, there is a very extensive power granted to shadows. Imagination and history, the real and the unreal are reincarnated in the same environment, with a subtle maximalism approach to staging, as if, in the dark halls of HangarBicocca, we spectators are also being subjected to a series of visions.

Thao Nguyen Phan, Becoming Alluvium, 2019. Produced by Han Nefkends Foundation with Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona; WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels; Chisenhale Gallery, London. Ph. Agostino Osio, courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca

Shadows are not real people trying to speak through the artist: after all, she is not an activist. Neither are they the frightening figures in the images of French colonial expeditions or the ears of corn on a sunny day in North Vietnam. They are, above all, what the gaze invents when it looks at all these things. And Phan promptly claims, at a time when a Vietnamese artist is, de facto and perforce, a postcolonial artist, the autonomy from the gaze of the elsewhere-from-self, the sovereignty of self-constructing histories over the narratives entertained pre and post colonization. All the events investigated by Phan with this exhibition, before drying up into official narratives, were sifted through folklore, they have constituted the daily “harvests” and they were part of a unofficial history, thus, unlike the dominant narratives of war and peace, they do not belong exclusively to a selected few[2]. In short, in Reincarnations of Shadows, historical cycles and recycles are like those of wheat: seasonal, cultivable and changeable at one’s own will, if and when – eventually – one owns the land.

Alessia Baranello

[1] Notes from the exhibition press conference. Public Program, Thao Nguyen Phan in conversation with Jaap Guldemond, September 14th, 2023.

[2] «I believe that folklore, orally passed down stories and everyday tales contain a higher level of truth. While rich in fantasy elements, they are part of the collective consciousness, unlike official narratives that often belong to a select few», Thao Nguyen Phan, from the press release of Reincarnations of Shadows.


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


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