Education of a Poet’ is set in a fictional school named after Alexandre de Rhodes (1591 – 1660), a French Jesuit missionary popularly believed to be the father of ‘Chữ Quốc Ngữ’ (the Romanized alphabetical writing system now officially used in Vietnam). In these oil paintings, the artist imagines the student actions of this fictional school, illustrating them in particular pose - reading, playing games or wearing a blindfold. The semi-abstract images are rooted in the artist’s interest in ophthalmology (the anatomy, physiology and diseases of the eye), which is an extension of her fascination in how society ‘sees’ and understands the order of the world.
Phan is drawn to the study of reality as a collection of stories and artifacts in fragments, as categories conceived as patterns and diagrams. In much the same way that the Vietnamese language borrows from the Chinese and French lexicons, the telling of history as a fragmentation of near-fictions also compels Phan. Her paintings reflect her own remnants of reality which embrace poetry, colonial affect, educational idioms and conflicts in perception, like a painted jigsaw puzzle that is yet to be given its own border.
Phan Thao Nguyen uses religious belief as a starting point to trace the history of modern Vietnamese script, a Romanized alphabet system supposedly first introduced in the 17th century by Alexandre de Rhodes – a French Jesuit missionary – as an alterative writing system to the traditional pictographic character. Thao Nguyen creates her own imagined school named after de Rhodes, of which the curriculum is a place to experiment the belief: in the un-seeable, the poetic and the beautiful. In this obscure school, where everyone is blindfolded, she showcases blindness and illiteracy as the real obstacles of learning for pupil and teacher. She asks what justifies belief when there is no literacy and knowledge, but only poetry and beauty?
Two found books: Voyages et missions du père Alexandre de Rhodes en la Chine et autres royaumes de l’Orient, avec son en Europe par la Perse et l’Arménie1884 and Mission de la Du Tonkin 1858
Alexandre de Rhodes -The School Badge 2014. Fabric, thread. 2 x 4.5cm
The Alphabet 2014. Hand embroidery: silk, silk thread, wood. 40 x 60cm
Education of a Poet 2014. Paintings on X-ray film backing, glass, steel
'To see' in 'Education of a poet' 2014. Oil on X-ray film backing. 43 x 35.3cm
'The illiterates' in 'Education of a poet' 2014. Oil on X-ray film backing. 43 x 35.3cm
'To teach' in 'Education of a poet' 2014. Oil on X-ray film backing. 43 x 35.3cm
'7 1/2 - the Ishihara eye test for color blindness' in 'Education of a Poet' 2014. Oil on X-ray film backing
'Landolt C' in 'Education of a Poet' 2014. Oil on X-ray film backing. 43 x 35.3cm
'Collars' in 'Education of a Poet' 2014. Oil on X-ray film backing. 43 x 35.3cm
'Playground' in 'Education of a poet' 2014. Oil on X-ray film backing. 43 x 35.3cm
Daughter of the Water God (On-going)
This on-going project is a year-long collaboration between the artist and a fisherwoman. One is raised in the city after “Doi Moi" (Renovation), one was born in a poor fishing village during the Vietnam war. For the last 30 years, she does the odd job of salvaging dead bodies in the river and the ocean. Doing this dangerous task with just bare hands and simple equipment, she has salvaged more than 500 bodies.
According to Buddhist belief, death of drowning is unjust death, therefore the soul of the dead cannot be reincarnated. Vietnamese myths say that people who do salvaging bodies job will have a hard life, because they steal the water god’s food. Daughter of the Water God dives into the life of a particular woman in order to navigate the blurring boundaries between myth and reality, between death and reunion. The result will be a multimedia installation that combines fictional elements and documentary video.
Đổi Mới (English: Renovation) is the name given to the economic reforms initiated in Vietnam in 1986 with the goal of creating a 'Socialist-oriented market economy"
Daughter of the Water God, video still, 2015 (On-going)
Daughter of the Water God, video still, 2015 (On-going)
Man Looking Towards Darkness
_A black curtain at the entrance of the exhibition space, the curtain is sewed using jute fabric, hand-dyed with dark indigo. These fabrics are woven by Tay women living in Cao Bang province, using a traditional method. Jute fabric weaving is a dying tradition, because it is an uneconomic and time-consuming process that requires skillful hands and organic materials.
_A photograph captures three stones that lie under an ancient banyan tree in Phuong Thong village, which is in the Tien Lu district of the Hung Yen city. During the Japanese occupation of Indochina (1940-1945), The Japanese built the Dai Nam jute factory in this area. It was a part of the compulsory sale of rice to the state and industrial plantation campaigns such as “uproot rice, grow jute,” and resulted in the horrific famine of 1945 that killed 2 million Vietnamese people. For a long time, these stones were used to detach jute fiber for factory use. Nowadays, the villagers no longer grow jute. The stones become a resting place under the banyan tree.
_An document to borrow the stones from the exhibition organizer
I found these stones by chance. I simply thought that I could bring them to the exhibition. However, it was an unsuccessful conversation between me (the artist), the local government, and the local people. Even though I got the approval from the local government, the villagers did not agree to let us borrow the stones for the exhibition. For them, the place where the stones lie is a zone of spiritual beliefs, where the ancient banyan tree, the communal house, and the historic memories locate.
This unexpected turn over provokes thoughts on human impacts on nature, environment and society. It also reveals how the affects of those impacts, seemly invisible, actually are clear and deep.
Curtain made from Indigo dyed jute fabric, silk, hand embroidery, framed document, photograph
Curtain: 310cm x 350cm Photograph: 40cm x 60cm
Uproot Rice, Grow Jute
Site specific installation at Muong museum, Hoa Binh province, Vietnam
On 22 September 1940, the French signed an accord, which granted the Japanese troops the right to occupy Indochina. The occupation of Northern Indochina allowed the Japanese to block China from importing arms and fuel from French Indochina. The Japanese presence in Indochina lasted until the end of World War II. During the occupation, jute supplies from India were interrupted. Jute was used to make sacks as well as gunpowder, a crucial material for the war industry. Looking for new jute supplies, the Japanese authorities forced Vietnamese farmers to uproot rice and grow jute. This was one of the main reason for the horrific famine in North Vietnam 1945, resulting in the deaths of 2 millions people.
The installationUntitled (Heads)is made from locally grown jute plant. The jute plant, a body that is both the cause and witness of a tragic event, is now reincarnated with poetic meaning inside the artwork. I dried the jute stalks, cut them into smaller modules and then manually combined them into a structure. The structure is similar to the shape of a chandelier but is actually inspired by the Ma Mot tree, a ritualistic tree constructed by Thai minorities in Northern Vietnam for religious purposes. On the Ma Mot tree, object such as animal bones and amulets are hung on the tree, each object representing a dead or evil spirit. The purpose of this action is to cure illness.
In a previous installment at San Art,Untitled (Heads)was placed at the entrance of the gallery space. The audience was welcome to touch, play and rotate the piece. At the end of each branch was attached a small bronze head, which was a representational portrait of a farmer that I got to know during my research. The ideal place to install this piece is outdoors or on balconies, where nature can age the piece gradually.
A kidney stone, also known as a renal calculus (from the Latin ren, “kidney” and calculus, “pebble”) is a solid concretion or crystal aggregation formed in the kidneys from dietary minerals in the urine.
This stone stayed in an anonymous Vietnamese man’s body for more than a decade and was the reason for his endless pain. The stone, which had become an inseparable part of him, finally was removed from his body in 2012.
On a random occasion he showed me the picture of the stone, something he treated as precious and fragile. It was unusually large for a kidney stone. I imagined all the pain he had to endure, which filled me up with empathy. However, he seemed to be proud of it. Looking at the picture, for me it was like love at first sight. Suddenly I wanted to encounter the stone in person. I convinced him to send me the stone from his home in Vietnam to my place in America. I thought the stone would not be able to come to America because its origin was suspicious. If I listed it as a “kidney stone” on the declaration form from the Vietnamese post office, the stone would not be able to depart. So we thought of a tactic. He labeled the kidney stone as a “souvenir rock” and displayed it in an ordinary gift box.
The stone, with its new identity as a souvenir, arrived to America in the month of November. While crossing the borders, the stone traveled further than its owner ever had. Once the stone arrived to America, thinking of the stone as a new immigrant, I decided to return it to its true identity. It is no longer a souvenir, but a kidney stone.
Renal Calculus 2012-current. Video Installation. Kidney stone, steel table, glass dome, magnifying glass, framed text, artist book and video