Voyages de Rhodes


Watercolor on found books

23.5 cm x 31cm (51 drawings)

23.5cm x 15.5cm (75 drawings)

In the artwork series titled ‘Voyages de Rhodes’, Phan takes a book written by Rhodes as her canvas. This text, originally titled ‘Rhodes of Viet Nam: The Travels and Missions of Father Alexandre de Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient’ shares his multiple encounters and observations. It is Phan’s visual interpretation of his stories that forms the basis of her own paintings, which she places on particular pages of this book, that she has carefully removed and individually framed. Nearly 100 pages weave across a series of walls, these frames nailed perpendicular to the wall, as if the book itself is daring to transform its own significance. Here we see images in watercolor (that at times recall the drawings of Francis Alys) as children climb water towers; as they march in file as a band beating drums; as women tend to what appears to be a conveyor belt with toy cars (only this conveyer belt in the rear has become a constructed bridge). In other images, Phan’s fantasy takes on a more sinister tone: as children appear harmed (disembodied); under duress (wearing blindfold), in a process of metamorphosis (the sexual organs of these children becoming tropical plants – such as papaya, sugarcane and dragonfruit) or undertaking an absurd task (such as attempting to use chopsticks without their hands as they kneel on the ground). Other images metaphorically twist particular literary references beyond the text of Rhodes, such as the image emblazoned with the words ‘White Optimism’, which refers to the Vietnamese poet Tran Dan, whose writing in the mid-1950s satirically referred to the Communist zeal for social realism, which he labelled as a kind of propagandist ‘black optimism’ – however here Phan labels as now white, a connotation that spells racist overtones, but for her is more a posthumous finger pointing at how the translation and contextualization of time can radicalize words. This vast collection of imagery and text is Phan’s own visualization of a Vietnam that is at once foreign and yet familiar, that is at once humorous in its revealing of cultural differences and yet darkly demonstrative of how such readings may be misunderstood as socially threatening.  

Excerpt from 'Poetic Amnesia' curatorial essay by Zoe Butt

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