Mary Fletcher

Portrait Of August From Dream Of March And August, 2020. Image by Truong Minh Tuan, courtesy of the artist

The booklet issued with admission tells us this 35-year-old woman artist, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, ‘collapses and then redrafts the standardised histories of Vietnam and wider south-east Asia.’ However, many of us don’t actually have much idea of the history to collapse.
This exhibition will expand our knowledge if we have the patience for it – because the pace is very slow in the videos and  the paintings are small, pale and exhibited so we can’t see them very easily – many behind a barrier and at right angles to the walls.
I lack patience and found the rope-upholstered seats, which only accommodate about eight people, very uncomfortable. Visitors were taking the time to watch on a wet Sunday afternoon, having paid £12 to enter the gallery. I watched three videos presented on three screens and taking 20 minutes. Some of the shots are very beautiful and poetic. I loved the ingenious insect finding lanterns made from tin cans which children wheel through fields. I absorbed something of the symbolism, of the tragedies of famine and fire, of the smelly thouren fruit, the patterned concrete sun screens, the busy city and the wide Mekong river.
I was shocked by the words on the screen, ‘they began to sell their children and their wives’ presented so matter of factly and so oblivious of the sexism in the way it says ‘they’ not ‘men’. A patriarchal power structure is conveyed. A lot of it is acted out artfully, for example children posed with fairy lights in their clothing at dusk. It doesn’t come from the artist’s own direct experience and it’s filtered through layers of artistry which to me get in the way.
The whole space seems dimly lit and dominated by the faint sounds from the videos and the delicate paintings which are so hard to examine closely. The atmosphere was very quiet, almost reverent.
It seems Thao Nguyen Phan is ambitious in scope and presents a lot of work, but I found it frustrating and bewildering. An attendant advised a second visit but most people won’t be going twice. Maybe I should have bought the book about it from the shop. I encourage people to see for themselves – and be prepared to make an effort to respond.

Thao Nguyen Phan at Tate St Ives, Feb and 5 to 2 May 2022

Volume 36 no. 4 March/April 2022

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