Thao-Nguyen Phan, The art of reinvention

The art of reinvention

April 2017 - Thao-Nguyen Phan 2016-2017 Visual Arts Protégée

Visual arts protégée Thao-Nguyen Phan lives in Ho Chi Minh City with her parents, her husband the artist, Truong Cong Tung, and their two year-old daughter. She interrogates the costs of literacy, religion, war, and industrialization in drawings, paintings, videos, artist books, and installations that tell intimate, enigmatic stories rooted in Vietnamese history. Her mentor Joan Jonas lives and works in SoHo, New York, where she has been at the centre of the art world since the 1960s, when her experiments in performance and video revolutionized artistic practice. Thao-Nguyen talks to Amei Wallach.

What did you know about the art of Joan Jonas before you came to New York as a finalist for the Rolex Arts Initiative?
I had read about her work when I studied at the Chicago Art Institute, but I had never seen it in person. So I did my own research. I listened to Joan doing a talk on YouTube and just tried to understand her work.

You both make work in the realm of myth and story-telling, though yours comes more out of painting and drawing than performance. Did you feel an affinity or were the differences more apparent?
I guess we are making very different work in terms of our age and in terms of where we live. New York is the centre of the world while Ho Chi Minh City is at the periphery. But when we began to talk I felt that I could understand where she came from when she was my age in the 1960s.

When I first met her she took me to a dance interpretation of
King Lear, where the king was a woman. In New York audiences see all different kinds of work. In Vietnam there is censorship, so you cannot publicize performances. They take place inside the artist’s studio with invited audiences, or in galleries, or sometimes unannounced in the street. The New York audience understood the piece; I saw that they are trained to understand it.

How does the fact that Joan Jonas came out of the 1960s speak to you?
There was a lot of new art in the 1960s in the West, like video and conceptual art. In Vietnam we were closed to the world for a very long time. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the country was unified and the northern Communist government took over the country. After the economic reform in 1986, foreign investors and foreigners came to the country and it was the first time that we got information from outside Vietnam. So I’ve felt a similar spirit to 1960s New York in Vietnam, when people began to experiment with video and performance for the first time.

When did you first see Joan Jonas’s work?
In April I went to Singapore to see They Come to Us without a Word at the Center for Contemporary Art. It was the same piece she showed at the Venice Biennale [where Jonas represented the US in 2015]. To me it was very poetic and beautiful. After that I came to New York for a rehearsal of They Come to Us without a Word II at The Kitchen performance space. Every day for a week I saw how she worked with her actors, mainly children that time, and how she put her work together. I have never seen anyone putting a piece together as Joan does, combining performance, video, installation and working with actors.

And since then you have actually worked with her?
In Spain, in Santander, I was in a workshop Joan did with 12 different artists from all over the world for three weeks. It was my first long trip with Joan. She made a new piece [for the Botin Foundation] in Santander, which related to the city itself. It was so interesting, not only observing her working but becoming part of her piece.

How did Joan conduct the workshop?
Joan didn’t really give direct advice. She didn’t say do this or that; she would share her knowledge by constructing an experience for us. She would say, take a piece of Japanese paper and make shadows, and while making those shadows, make sounds with the paper. I felt the instructions were like a guide to make a poem.

You and Joan have drawing in common, but has your drawing practice changed through knowing her?
Working with her helps me to experiment with turning drawings into an installation and having people interact with them, so that it becomes a more performative experience. And when I came back to Vietnam I began to work more on that experiment and develop it.

Did video become more important to you after you travelled to Rome with Joan in December?
Since I met Joan I’ve had a big interest in video. She gave me confidence to make a video that I will have in my show at The Factory in Ho Chi Minh City in April. In Rome we stayed together at the home of Alessandra Bonomo, who was giving Joan a solo exhibition. I showed Joan the video I am editing and her comments were very helpful. She is a very good teacher.

As you come to know Joan better, what is the big take-away for you?
I am not only learning from her work but learning how she keeps her passion to make new work. She became an icon in the 1960s, but I feel I can understand how she keeps making something challenging and new. I don’t know what my future will be, but seeing how she keeps reinventing her art career, I feel it’s possible.