ST. IVES, England — There is the calm, there is the storm, but what follows? The desire for resolution — for a sense of an ending — is a common creative preoccupation. However, resolution is not sought by all: The Vietnamese multimedia artist Thao Nguyen Phan, for one, has proven resistant to such chains of order. Instead, for her solo exhibition at Tate St. Ives, she has chosen to defy the sequential nature of history, finding various ways to chronicle the many layers of devastation, the many tempests, experienced throughout the Mekong Delta.
In approaching the Mekong River — which connects the communities of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to those of neighboring regions across Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand — Phan places emphasis on the land and the lives sustained by the mighty watercourse. She continually adjusts her perspective: Sometimes the Mekong is foregrounded, most notably in the double-faced sculpture “Perpetual Brightness” (2019-ongoing) — on one side a lacquerwork map of the river, on the other a depiction of august ceremonies and alcohol consumption at the riverside — and sometimes it flows beneath the surface. This is a road less traveled but Phan demonstrates it to be one paved with promise.
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Histories — alternative, obscured, contested — run like rivulets through the exhibition: Vignettes of Phan’s imagining are elegantly rendered in watercolor on the unbound pages of a colonial-era Jesuit travelogue; found objects (a sunflower-shaped centerpiece once of agitprop significance, a white dove sculpture plucked off the streets of Ho Chi Minh City following New Lunar Year revelry) are transformed. Divorced from their original context, these upcycled items are now more suggestive than representative: Are they beacons of progress, of repair, of hope?
Children feature heavily in Phan’s work; they are the primary subjects of “Mute Grain” (2019), a deeply affecting three-channel video about those who perished during the 1945-46 Vietnamese famine and the generations of “hungry ghost[s]” born of that profound horror. During this period of allied Japanese and French occupation, Vietnamese farmers were forced to uproot rice crops to grow jute and castor, causing mass starvation and temporarily severing the link between the people and the promise of the land. Phan’s inclusion of archival imagery — inserted between scenes of child performers moving through paddy fields, playing with grains, making spaces their own — is compelling.
Children are also performers in the folkloric elements of the short film “First Rain, Brise Soleil” (2021-ongoing): Here, Phan weaves a web of myth around the durian fruit — from explanations for its distinctive smell to derived associations with mourning — and in turn explores the history of conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia. She sets this lore against another, one in which seasonal downpour, unexpected destruction, and a meditation on the titular design practice are primary, with the layered narrative providing the film’s overall shape.
The painting series Dream of March and August (2018-ongoing) serves as an unofficial coda to both films, borrowing “First Rain, Brise Soleil”’s attention to detail and building on the emotional force of “Mute Grain.” It portrays fictional siblings, the living March (Ba) and the deceased August (Tám), as they attempt to connect across the beyond. The deft paintings are a lush ode to tropical foliage next to a somber celestial plane, with the youthful faces of March and August reflecting not only grief but also contemplation, consideration, curiosity. They hang together as if in dialogue, engaging in a dance without a defined beginning or end.
Thao Nguyen Phan continues at Tate St. Ives (Porthmeor Beach, St. Ives, Cornwall, England) through May 2. The exhibition was curated by curated by Anne Barlow, director of Tate St. Ives, with Giles Jackson, assistant curator.