Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s work explores the power of storytelling through video and sculpture. His projects are based on extensive research and community engagement, tapping into inherited histories and counter-memory. Nguyen extracts and re-works dominant, oftentimes colonial histories and supernaturalisms into imaginative vignettes. Fact and fiction are interwoven in poetic narratives that span time and place.
Major recent projects include The Boat People, 2020, a single channel video installation displayed alongside hand-carved wooden sculptural objects. The video centers itself around a series of objects found in and around Bataan, Philippines and anchors itself to the multiple layers of history in wars, migration, and perseverance contained in the land itself. Set in an unspecified post-apocalyptic future at the precarious edge of humanity’s possible extinction, the narrative follows a band of children led by a strong-willed and resourceful little girl. Calling themselves The Boat People, they travel the seas and collect the stories of a world they never knew through objects that survived over time. The group replicates the objects they discover in wood as a way to piece together a history they are trying to understand. They then burn the carvings and scatter the ashes in the ocean to set the objects free. The little girl, who we discover is the last woman on earth, comes face to face with a mysterious statue head buried in the sand on the beach. They engage in a dialogue that explores concepts of a future and a past world through an existential lens. This dialogue, both literally and figuratively, brings the dead object to life again. The Boat People was produced during Nguyen’s residency at Bellas Artes Projects in Bataan.
The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, 2019, is a four-channel video installation that had its world premiere at the Sharjah Biennial, and its US premiere in SOFT POWER at SFMoMA. This project envisions the memories and desires of descendants of the tirailleurs sénégalais, West African colonial soldiers who were among the French forces sent to combat Vietnamese liberation uprisings in the 1940's. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, hundreds of Vietnamese women migrated to Africa with their children and their Senegalese husbands who had been stationed in Indochina. Other soldiers left their Vietnamese wives behind and took only their children, sometimes raising them without knowledge of their origins. Nguyen collaborated with members of the Vietnamese community in Senegal to write and stage imagined conversations with or between their parents or grandparents that highlight nuances in strategies of remembering. As narrators and actors, the voices of these descendants embody a historical conscience that challenges understandings of decolonising societies.
The Island, a single channel video installation that premiered at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, is a short film shot entirely on Pulau Bidong, an island off the coast of Malaysia that became the largest and longest-operating refugee camp after the Vietnam War. The artist and his family were some of the 250,000 people who inhabited the tiny island between 1978 and 1991. After the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shuttered the camp, Pulau Bidong became overgrown by jungle, filled with crumbling monuments and relics. The film takes place in a dystopian future in which the last man on earth - having escaped forced repatriation to Vietnam - finds a UN scientist who has washed ashore after the world’s last nuclear battle. Integrating footage from Bidong’s past with a narrative set in its future, Nguyen questions the individual’s relationship to history, trauma, nationhood, and displacement.
Empty Forest, 2017, is a body of work comprising objects and videos which pit traditions of worship against practices of consumption. These objects and films play between the fantastical imaginaries of the past and new imaginations of the future to explore the complexities of our relationship with nature as well as the possibilities of an alternative relationship to mythology and the natural world. These interests are further explored in My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires, 2018, a two-channel video that dissects the relationships between the Vietnamese mythology and the country’s political complexities. Vietnamese beliefs in the magical healing power of animals have led to the current global predicament that threatens the extinction of rhinos and other species, simultaneously fueling the extensive illegal trade in endangered animals. Told through the point-of-view of the wandering spirit of the last Javan rhino that was poached in 2010, the film takes us through a complex structure of narratives both gruesome and beautiful, real and mythological, that have built and upheld Vietnamese traditions.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen was born in 1976 in Ho Chi Minh City. In 1979, he and his family emigrated as refugees to the United States. Nguyen graduated from the Fine Arts program at the University of California, Irvine in 1999 and received his Masters of Fine Arts from The California Institute of the Arts in 2004. He currently lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, where he is a co-founder and former board member of Sàn Art. Nguyen was a founding member of The Propeller Group in 2006, an entity that positions themselves between a fake advertising company and an art collective. Accolades for the group include the main prize at the 2015 Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur and a Creative Capital award among others.
Nguyen's videos and films have been included in major international festivals, biennials, and exhibitions including the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, Sharjah, UAE (2019); SOFT POWER, SFMoMA, San Francisco, CA (2019); the 2019 Sharjah Biennial, Sharjah, UAE (2019); 2017 Whitney Biennial, New York, NY (2017); the 55th International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen, Germany (2009); 8th NHK Asian Film Festival, Tokyo, Japan (2007); 18th Singapore International Film Festival (2005) and 4th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, Bangkok, Thailand (2005). His work is included in the permanent collections of institutions including Carré d'Art, Nîmes, France; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; SFMoMA, San Francisco, CA; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.