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
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
This work explores the concept of pain and beauty. The mattress is a typical object found in every modern house. It is an experiential place of longing and sleeping. The mattress also relates to the Freudian concept of the unconscious, where most of our dreams happen. It is the home of the night, where our mind wanders. Traces of love, fantasy, pain and imagination take place, free from the constraints of social, cultural, political boundaries. No one can censor our dreams.
Growing up in Vietnam, I used to sleep on straw mat. When first sleeping on a mattress, I felt pain in my body for months. Sleeping on a new mattress is like wearing someone else’s clothes, where the trace of our bodies and the feeling of home are missed. The pain I have is similar to the placement of this up-side-down mattress, which provokes a sensation of displacement and confusion that is Kafkaesque. In this piece, I violate the protective nature of the mattress by covered it up with a layer of tear-drop shape pins and hang it from the ceiling.
A video is projected on top of the mattress, displaying repetitive action performed by a white man in a formal suit, meticulously pinning the mattress. The video represents the moment of suspension that is vulnerable, performative and cinematic. Listening to the sound of pinning the mattress, my mind is stimulated by its repetitiveness. Similar to the sound of a clock at night, however, the sound of the mattress being pinned is fragile and irregular, its beat is probably is closer to heartbeats, something we can hear and feel but cannot control.
A twin mattress is an isolated island, a single person’s world. In this place, its surface becomes a projection screen, a canvas for our body, the object of longing and endless journey of sleep, an action that we will continue to the rest of our life.
This is an 4:08 minutes excerpt of the original 35 minutes video
Installation. Pork, glass table, chair and photograph.