BY Maika Pollack in One Takes | 25 SEP 20
Featured in
Issue 214

Thao Nguyen Phan Paints a Dying World

In 'Perpetual Brightness', Phan’s ailing animal becomes a metaphor for a culture, and a world, adrift on the verge of ecological disaster. 

BY Maika Pollack in One Takes | 25 SEP 20

Thao Nguyen Phan, Perpetual Brightness, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Han Nefkens Foundation, Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, and Chisenhale Gallery, London

In Thao Nguyen Phan’s watercolour on silk Perpetual Brightness (2019) – part of the artist’s first UK institutional show, ‘Becoming Alluvium’, at the Chisenhale Gallery in London – a boy kneels and embraces a lifeless dolphin spread across three of the work’s six panels. The animal carries a circle of tiny children, wearing khaki shirts and navy-blue shorts, who pour cups of blood on its back. On other panels, rendered with fine brushstrokes and deft aplomb, delicate scenes feature multi-armed blue figures evoking the Hindu god Krishna, a parade of insects playing instruments and people floating past with cleaning equipment. The works are bordered by Vietnamese lacquer, eggshell and silver-leaf frames that have glass both front and back, allowing you to see the verso and recto of the panels. 

Perpetual Brightness is shown alongside Becoming Alluvium (2019), a video projection about Southeast Asia’s Mekong River. The world’s 12th longest river, the Mekong is in danger of drying up due to insistent damming, while over-fishing has severely depleted its aquatic life. Illustrative yet dream-like, Phan’s works challenge our preconceptions about her native Vietnam by propelling us towards the phantasmagorical. Her use of backless frames, as in Perpetual Brightness, enables the works to be illuminated from behind, causing them to glow in an effect redolent of magic-lantern shows. Phan’s mentor, the artist Joan Jonas, also destabilizes the space between video and painting, animal and human, myth and reality, with her mixed-media installations; both artists use light play to impart haunting effects to their paintings about the destruction of the natural world. In Perpetual Brightness, the large dead dolphin, while magical realist in its representation, is based on an actual Irrawaddy dolphin repeatedly spotted in the Mekong Delta until it was caught in fishing nets in 2019. In Phan’s work, the ailing animal becomes a metaphor for a culture, and a world, adrift on the verge of ecological disaster. 

Thao Nguyen Phan is an artist. She is the recipient of the Han Nefkens Foundation – Loop Barcelona Video Art Production Award 2018. The resulting project, ‘Becoming Alluvium’ (2019), was on view at Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, Spain, WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, Belgium, and Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, earlier this year. She lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Maika Pollack is director and chief curator of the John Young Museum of Art and University Galleries and assistant professor of curatorial studies and art history, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, USA.