During the No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia exhibition in New York, the Guggenheim’s Nisma Zaman asked Nguyen about his background, the development of his artistic practice, and the arts organization he co-founded in Saigon.
How did your family’s move to the U.S. affect your sense of identity and history, given your knowledge of and interest in the Vietnam War?
I was born in Vietnam, but my family escaped by boat because of the political climate. That was only two years after the Vietnam War. We ended up in Malaysia for a little bit, at a refugee camp, then in the Midwest, in Oklahoma, in a small town called Tahlequah. We lived in Oklahoma for a while, then moved to Texas, so most of my upbringing was in the Midwest.
You become highly aware of your identity because of the demographics of those areas at that particular time. And you become highly aware of the political events that led up to you being there. My parents moved from Texas to California, and growing up there was also an interesting experience; the shadow of Hollywood was really big. You’re captivated by how Hollywood portrays things, and by Hollywood’s infatuation with the Vietnam War.
When I started studying filmmaking, I was studying a lot of the films that were being made about the Vietnam War. And it was confusing and enlightening, because you’re consuming history through a certain lens. Directors like Oliver Stone, and even Stanley Kubrick, and all those who have made films about the Vietnam War, they were of a particular subjectivity. At the same time, I was being told histories by my family. So I started to imagine that it was like layers of webs, this complex network of relationships we call “history.”
How did your feelings about Hollywood’s portrayal of history coalesce into your first works, particularly The Two Tuans?
I started making videos early on. I was an undergraduate art student at UC Irvine. When I started, I was registered as a biology student, but I thought, “I’ll double major as an artist, because it’ll be fun. It’ll relieve me of some stress.” But as I started getting deeper into science, the more abstract it became, so I started taking art classes. And, ironically enough, art became more and more concrete, valid, and urgent.
It was a really interesting time in L.A., also, because it was just after the Rodney King beatings, and the racial tensions in Southern California at that time were at an all-time high. Gang violence, racially motivated violence—it was happening everywhere. So I started thinking about the violence that I was seeing as a young man of color, and about the violence that my family had tried to escape.
When I started to think about The Two Tuans, I started thinking about the youth that I was hanging around with, the language they were using to talk to each other, their methods of confrontation, and how they deal with violence and confrontation. And “yo momma” jokes became, you know, something that I thought could talk about a bigger history. So I took a very famous photo, a photo that’s burned into everybody’s psychology, a photo that comes from the Vietnam War, taken by Eddie Adams, of a General from the Southern Vietnamese Army, about to shoot, in the head, a suspected Vietcong soldier. And I pasted myself on them, and I tell myself “yo momma” jokes back and forth. Which is kind of ridiculous.
How was the work received, or how might it have changed people’s perceptions?
It’s hard, as an artist, to know how your artwork was received. When I was making The Two Tuans, I was trying to talk to my peers, to the youth around me. So, I tried to make these connections to history. But you know, it’s art, it’s shown in a gallery, and access to that world is limited.
In what ways did the making of The Two Tuans affect you personally?
When I was making The Two Tuans, I started to think about the different relationships that exist that are affected by other relationships in the past, and by events in history. I decided to base myself in Vietnam after I graduated from CalArts for many different reasons. One of the more concrete reasons was because my grandmother was in Vietnam. She was a poet and an editor-in-chief of a political newspaper during the Vietnam War. But as I merged into current-day Vietnam, I started to understand that histories are not stagnant.
How would you characterize your transition from video-making to object making?
I’ve always been obsessed with objects, so moving from video to object making wasn’t so hard. You think about objects when you’re making film, anyway. You think about the props, and what props mean, and props as character.
What led you to co-found Sàn Art, and how would you describe the organization’s mission?
In 2007, four of us, four friends who are artists, who all had the chance to study abroad—me, Phunam, Dinh Q Le, and Tiffany Chung—decided that Saigon needed a space for convening, a space for discussion, a space for experimentation. We pooled our resources and started a nonprofit space called Sàn Art. Sàn means “ground” or “platform.” And that’s all we intended it to be, a platform for artists and the sharing of art.
We’ve gotten a lot of attention internationally, and our team has grown. The four members don’t really have a hands-on relationship with the gallery now. The gallery is run by a curator, and a director, Zoe Butt. And it’s got a staff of three or four people now. So, it’s still doing well. We still have to face issues with censorship though—that’s going to be a long process.