Thao Nguyen Phan
Becoming Alluvium is the first exhibition in Australia by Ho Chi Min City-based artist Thao Nguyen Phan. This single-channel colour film is her most recent work and continues her ongoing research into the Mekong River and the cultures that it nurtures. History and mythology flow and ebb through this film, like the river it traces which snakes through Tibet, China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Non-chronological in narrative and associative in logic, Becoming Alluvium unfolds over three-chapters telling stories of destruction, reincarnation, and renewal. It deftly weaves social history concerning industrialisation, economic migration, food security, and ecological sustainability with folklore and myth.
Becoming Alluvium by Vietnamese artist Thao Nguyen Phan presents a cyclical narrative that observes and contemplates the interconnected nature of humans, the cultural imaginary, and our environment. Tracing the social histories of the Mekong River which flows through and connects several nation states and cultures, the film opens with a quotation from Bengali poet and political reformer Rabindranath Tagore; “Why did the harp-string break? / I tried to force a note that was beyond its power, that is why the harp-string is broken.”[i]
Created in three-parts or ‘reincarnations’ Becoming Alluvium traces the journey of two brothers through several (non-consecutive) lives, that each present a different aspect of the river. In the prologue, Phan positions the river as both ‘mother and enemy’ simultaneously; a force that can both sustain life and destroy it. We learn the boys were among the victims of a dam-break, a ‘broken harp-string’ that spawned a cascade of reincarnations – in the case of the brothers they become an Irawaddy Dolphin and Water Hyacinth, respectively. Their connection to the river does not break.
In the first reincarnation, we see the industrialization of the river and its economic potential – we see what it can give. Through the French narration drawn from Marguerite Dumas’s The Lover, we encounter the river as a conduit for the creation of value; it drives wind turbines, provides transport pathways, and has its silt harvested to build the foundations of land reclamation projects in neighboring China and Singapore. The brothers witness this activity, impassively but leading us forward towards the next incarnation. In an exchange with curator Ellen Greig for the work’s debut at Chisenhale Gallery in 2020, Phan commented “In recent decades, human intervention to the river has been so violent that it now forever transformed – effecting its tides and flow, and ultimately the fate of its habitat.”[ii]
The second cycle introduces us to the shadow mountain ranges of the metropolis; the vast amounts of waste produced by capitalist culture, the “things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new”. We see these items in use by families at leisure and play holding drinks, wrapping snacks, or used as toys, and then a second time as refuse strewn across the riverbanks in such a tight chokehold there is no vegetation left. The narration wonders if this compulsion to consume is not driven by the thrill of the new, but rather the more desperate search of a cleansing salve to treat a persistent impurity. What drives us to keep consuming when the dire consequences are so readily evident?
Departing from the established documentary footage, the final chapter visually transforms into a mythical landscape rendered in animated watercolour, and recounts a folktale of the Mekong delta. A Princess demands a gift of jewels made of dew drops for her wedding and the best goldsmiths in the kingdom are engaged to this impossible task at risk of beheading. Despite their best efforts, none can produce something fit for the Princess. A monk challenges the Princess, saying he will make the jewels if she can collect the dew drops – on her attempts her hubris as the dew drops merge and pool in the collection bowl. Chastened, she realises her error and transforms herself into the dew, which in turn is subsumed into the eternal flow of the river.
This final story unfolds across a background of reappropriated etchings from artist Louis Delaporte’s documentation of an 1866-68 government sponsored ‘exploration’ of Cochinchina, tasked to ‘discover’ the source of the Mekong. This symbolically introduces us to the moment where the value of the river shifts from something that sustains, into something that serves. Where its economic value overflows its cultural value, and the tightly mapped colonial system is violently laid onto the watercourse. As the repeated motif of headless protagonists throughout the film symbolise, our knowledge of the earth is literally severed from this moment.
Becoming Alluvium sets us the challenge of imagining what it might mean to listen to the river once more. Internationally the ‘rights-of-nature ‘movement is legally enshrining our collective responsibility for the natural world through granting personhood to forests, rivers, and mountains. Guided by indigenous knowledge and notions of kinship, this view reframes humans as part of the greater ecology not in command of it. “Indigenous laws mirror and reinforce relational worldviews that view living entities as relatives, not resources. This in turn shapes social conduct that emphasizes respect and responsibility to the natural world.”[iii] Looking at the world this way draws us, as humans, inextricably into the cycle.
Phan described Becoming Alluvium as “my attempt to collect ‘testimonies’ from the captured alluvium and the variety of species that have been, and continue to be, sacrificed in the name of the human desire for progress.”[iv] Through creating this work she found a means to listen to her river and the film is a witness to the stories, cycles, and shared losses that connects all beings within its ebb. Presenting this work in Meanjin/Brisbane it calls to mind our own silty river Maiwar and the need for us each to connect with the complex dreaming, histories, economies, and ecosystems it houses.
[i] Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Gardener: 52.” 1913. Wikisource, en.wikisource.org/wiki/TheGardener(Tagore). Accessed 24 September 2020.
[ii] “Chisenhale Interviews: Thao Phan Nguyen”, Interview by Ellen Grieg. Chisenhale Gallery 2020.
[iii] Lloyd-Smith, G. Rights for nature: How granting a river ‘personhood’ could help protect it, The Conversation, 4 June 2021. theconversation.com/rights-for-nature-how-granting-a-river-personhood-could-help-protect-it-157117
[iv] “Chisenhale Interviews: Thao Phan Nguyen”, Interview by Ellen Grieg. Chisenhale Gallery 2020.
Thao Nguyen Phan, Becoming Alluvium, 2019, single-channel colour video, 00:16:40.
Trained as a painter, Phan is a multimedia artist whose practice encompasses video, painting and installation. Drawing from literature, philosophy and daily life, Phan observes ambiguous issues in social conventions and history. She started working in film when she began her MFA in Chicago. Phan exhibits internationally, with solo and group exhibitions including Chisenhale gallery (London, 2020); WIELS (Brussels, 2020); Rockbund Art Museum (Shanghai, 2019); Lyon Biennale (Lyon, 2019); Sharjah Biennial (Sharjah Art Foundation, 2019); Gemäldegalerie (Berlin, 2018); Dhaka Art Summit (2018); Para Site (Hong Kong, 2018); Factory Contemporary Art Centre (Ho Chi Minh City, 2017); Nha San Collective (Hanoi, 2017); and Bétonsalon (Paris, 2016), among others. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award. In addition to her work as a multimedia artist, she is co-founder of the collective Art Labor, which explores cross disciplinary practices and develops art projects that benefit the local community. Thao Nguyen Phan is expanding her “theatrical fields”, including what she calls performance gesture and moving images. Phan is a 2016-2017 Rolex Protégée, mentored by internationally acclaimed, New York-based, performance and video artist, Joan Jonas.