Are you tired of traditional storytelling? Tuan Andrew Nguyen's pointed and poetic forms of storytelling will change the way you think about art. Nguyen, a Vietnamese American artist, uses rigorous research to create powerful and emotional artwork that explores intergenerational transmission, cultural identity, and the complexities of colonial history. His films feature archival footage that questions the motives and coercive tactics of the moving image, while exploring themes of truth and narrative. Despite the challenges of gaining trust as an artist, Nguyen continues to create meaningful work that goes beyond the commodity of traditional art forms.
In the Studio: Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s Pointed and Poetic Forms of Storytelling
Born in 1976 in Saigon, Nguyen emigrated with his family as a refugee to the United States in 1979, and grew up in California. He began regularly visiting Vietnam during college, and after receiving his MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 2004, relocated to Ho Chi Minh City, where he cofounded the Propeller Group artist collective in 2006 and the nonprofit art space Sàn Art in 2007.
While there can be a certain melancholy among diasporic artists grasping at generalized ideas of a motherland, Nguyen circumvents that disappointment by rooting his work in specific histories that he rigorously researches in order to make room for poetry.
Such intergenerational transmission recurs frequently in Nguyen’s work. We Were Lost in Our Country (2019) features interviews with members of the Aboriginal Ngurrara community in Western Australia alongside testimony about the Ngurrara Canvas II, an immense painting made by 40 Ngurrara artists that depicts a map of their land created as evidence to reclaim that land from the Australian government.
Nguyen is never satisfied with research as a static mode of exposition: when archival footage is interwoven into his films, it is in part to question the motives of the camera and the coercive tactics of the moving image, while conjuring distinct power in the refusal to present a single truth.
Research involves listening to people’s stories and being attuned to the frequencies of knowledge making its way to you. Many of my projects are based on topics that I learned through stories as a child. The Island, for example, was shot on an island off the coast of Malaysia that was the site of one of the largest refugee camps after the American war in Vietnam.
Introducing myself as an artist to different communities has not helped me in regard to gaining trust. People are uncertain of what artists do. If I introduce myself as a filmmaker, though, people who don’t have a background in art oftentimes find it easier to imagine what we might produce together.
I’m fascinated with the relationship between the intangible narrative and the very tangible object. I think it comes from not having many things when we arrived in the US.
The narrative element gives life to the objects, helping them move beyond commodity. It’s very animist at its core. Moving images and sound allow me to do things that wall text alone does not. I am able to layer narrative and meaning, and present questions in more complex and entangled ways.