Tate St Ives started the year with Thai contemporary artist Thao Nguyen Phan’s first UK museum exhibition, which opened in February 2022. It includes new and recent videos, paintings and mixed media works which reflect the artist’s ongoing research into the Mekong River, intertwining folklore and myth with urgent issues around rural industrialisation and food security.
Thao Nguyen Phan is internationally renowned for her poetic, multi-layered artworks which explore the historical and ecological issues facing her homeland Vietnam, while speaking to universal ideas surrounding ideas of tradition, ideology, ritual and environmental change. Through storytelling, mixing official and unofficial histories, her work challenges what she describes as political amnesia. This exhibition will bring together a selection of Phan’s videos, paintings and sculptures from the past five years, alongside new work exhibited for the first time. This includes First Rain, Brise Soleil (2021), a major new multi-channel film commission, and an accompanying series of paintings.
Phan’s mesmerising work intertwines mythology and folklore with urgent issues around industrialisation, food security and the environment. The threat posed by the destruction and excessive consumption of Earth’s resources is a recurring theme across her practice. Her recent projects have expanded on ‘the beauty and suffering’ of the Mekong River, which runs through Tibet, China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before meeting the sea on the coast of Vietnam. Phan’s latest moving image work First Rain, Brise Soleil 2021 continues this exploration of the Mekong, proposing a new way of being that draws on indigenous knowledge and respect for the ecosystem.
The exhibition also includes Becoming Alluvium, Thao Nguyen Phan’s 2019 video, which tells an unfolding story about destruction, reincarnation and renewal of not only the Mekong, but of the necessity for human life to live in respect and awareness of the tangible and intangible world. Composed of video, animation and found imagery, it explores the environmental and social changes caused by the expansion of farming, overfishing, dam construction and the looted heritage as an aftermath of colonialism. The video is exhibited with the accompanying work Perpetual Brightness (2019–ongoing), a multi-part screen made using traditional Vietnamese silk and lacquer painting techniques. Made in collaboration with artist Truong Cong Tung, the paintings tell imaginary stories of the Mekong and its human and non-human inhabitants.
Also featured is Mute Grain (), Thao Nguyen Phan’s three-channel film interpretation of the Vietnamese famine of 1945, which took place during the Japanese occupation of French Indochina (1940–45) and killed an estimated 2,000,000 people. The work revolves around a young woman named Tám (August), who becomes a hungry ghost unable to move to the next life, and her brother Ba (March), who anxiously searches for his sister. March and August represent the poorest months of the lunar calendar, when farmers once borrowed money and worked side jobs to sustain themselves. Mute Grain weaves together oral histories with elements of Vietnamese folk tales and the literature of Yasunari Kawabata to reflect on issues of colonialism, agriculture and food security. The exhibition is also showing Dream of March and August (2018–ongoing), Phan’s series of suspended watercolour on silk paintings, which expand on Mute Grain’s tale of the two siblings.
The exhibition galleries have been transformed into a darkened environment, dividing the film and static works with an installation of hanging jute stalks. During the Second World War, Japanese troops forced Vietnam farmers to grow jute for military supplies instead of rice, contributing to the devastating 1945 famine. This organic, interactive installation, titled No Jute Cloth for the Bones 2019, references the historical and ongoing destruction of Vietnam’s collective consciousness.
The exhibition of Thao Nguyen Phan’s work runs until 2 May, 2022, at Tate St Ives, tate.org.uk