<b>In the aftermath of the Lunar New Year, the centre of Ho Chi Minh City glittered like an amusement park. When Joan Jonas visited her protégée Thao-Nguyen Phan in her home town, swags of communist stars, outlined in LED, arched
above streets that also flashed gaudy whirligigs, illuminated parasols, or garlands of megawatt lotus flowers, emblem of Vietnam.</b>
Less than 12 months earlier, when Thao-Nguyen first went to New York to meet Joan Jonas, she was struck by how much was possible in a place where experiment was celebrated and audiences were educated. In her whirlwind year as a Rolex
protégée, Thao-Nguyen had witnessed, and sometimes helped, as Jonas prepared performances and talks around the world, and a mutually respectful friendship had grown.
This was Jonas’s first visit to Vietnam and crucial to deepening their artistic understanding. In Thao-Nguyen’s studio, cast-off decorations scavenged from the New Year’s streets lay on the floor, cloth-covered frames of once-flamboyant
lotus flowers stripped and transformed into lighted sculpture and props for her video-in-progress.
Sunflowers she explained symbolize the Communist Party, and the lotus “is the representation of purity, because the lotus grows in dirty mud but it doesn’t have the smell of mud. It is the symbol of the nation because we live in poor
conditions, but that doesn’t mean we are affected by the bad conditions.”
Like so many artists since the 1960s, Thao-Nguyen is heir to a practice that Jonas helped pioneer, fusing technology with the enigmatic intuitions of poetry. Jonas’s influential experiments in layering sound, music, movement, dance,
drawing and moving images allowed the audience to engage with a work of art in more complex ways, and helped deliver trailblazing performance and video art in the process.
For half a century, Jonas has mined the world’s cultures, conflating origin stories, literary forms and ancient and contemporary media to create what she calls “magical haunted spaces” in which to rethink universal themes, such as
the beginnings of cultures and beliefs, the construction and fragmentation of identity, and the abuse of the natural world.
Thao-Nguyen’s art is rooted in her training as a painter – at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago – and her attention fixed on her own backyard. Installation, video and sculpture are additional
tools she brings to the task of unearthing her country’s buried history.
Thao-Nguyen is petite and girlishly pretty in a manner that belies the force of her work. “I’m concerned with criticizing the educational system in Vietnam, where history is erased and there is a big amnesia,” she said in February,
when guiding a visitor on a studio tour of the work she was preparing for her first major solo exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City. She had already titled it <em>Poetic Amnesia</em>, an apt description of both approach and