Artist Phan Thao Nguyen: “I will spend part of the S$60,000 prize...

Artist Phan Thao Nguyen: “I will spend part of the S$60,000 prize supporting children in Gia Lai”

Phan Thao Nguyen and her Grand Prize in Signature Art Prize 2018 in front of her work “Tropical Siesta” at the National Museum of Singapore. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

Phan Thao Nguyen was having a cold and had to wear a light scarf around her neck all the time. That did not stop her from beaming at the National Museum of Singapore on Friday night 29/06, where she won the Grand Prize of 60,000 SGD of Signature Art Prize 2018.

Winning against more than 112 other nominated artworks from 46 countries & territories in the Asia – Pacific & South Asia, the small-stature artist, barely in her thirties, came into the spotlight with her work “Tropical Siesta” – a two-channel video installation with six oil paintings on x-ray film backing. The video artwork tells the imaginary story of a rural Vietnam through the eyes of children, based on the observations recorded by French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes when he traveled across the country in the 17th century.

Phan Thao Nguyen is the very first female artist to win the Grand Prize in the decade-long history of the competition (since 2008).

Hanoi Grapevine had the pleasure to meet her for an interview in Singapore.

Where did the idea of making an artwork based on Alexandre de Rhodes’ records come from? “Tropical Siesta”, much like other works in your ”Poetic Amnesia” project, creates a sensation of “mystery” in its theme – why is that?

“Tropical Siesta” […] is a quiet, deeply poetic artwork. Sensuously visual, the film pulls the viewer into its enigmatic world – a world governed entirely by children. Even as it explores a number of complex issues in Vietnamese history, the work feels fresh and very much alive. The artist, Phan Thao Nguyen, is a powerful, poignant storyteller. – Joyce Toh, Head of Content and Senior Curator, Singapore Art Museum

Actually, we Vietnamese tend to assume that Alexandre de Rhodes is the father of Romanized Vietnamese. We usually think that it is a must to find a character, make them into a monument, and let them become the hero or someone who could represent our many ideologies. However, during my research on Romanized Vietnamese, I learned that de Rhodes could not be consider the father of this script, as there were many before him, Francisco de Pina for example, and other Vietnamese missionaries who contributed to the complete Romanized Vietnamese script. Alexandre de Rhodes was the fortunate one because he wrote the “Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum” (Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary) and “Cathechismvs in octo dies diuisus” (Catechisms in eight days), and those documents are the ones that remained, and thus we considered him the father of Romanized Vietnamese. Through these stories, we can make a connection to other events: when something occurs, we need to reassess to it see what is the truth, and each person, observing the issue through their own lenses, has a very different perspective from one another. That is why there is such an air of mystery in my work.

Are you religious? Why does this video bear the theme of missionary work, which is quite a spiritual topic?

The story in “Tropical Siesta” is not about religion, but my journey to understand the changes in Vietnam when shifting from the influence of Chinese culture – using chữ Hán (classical Chinese) and chữ Nôm (Vietnamese written in Chinese script) – to the influence of Western colonists – using Romanized Vietnamese. I didn’t emphasize on Christianity in Vietnam but on the country itself in this transformation process.

The two-channel video installation “Tropical Siesta” by Phan Thao Nguyen at the National Museum of Singapore. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

In “Tropical Siesta”, the children were asked to reenact several observations recorded by de Rhodes. Some scenes were quite “scary” – like the one where a girl in the yellow ‘ao dai’ lied in the water, her heavy makeup made her look much older; or the one where the kids lined up to go out and play with the ladder around their necks titled “Su trung phat” (The punishment). What do you say about the filming process of these images, and the contrast between the children’s innocence and this rather “harsh” content?

Phan’s work […] converges history, personal myth, and poetry. And the fact that she uses children transforms the piece into something beyond history, because we all know that children bring to anything a certain kind of honesty and sincerity. – Wong Hoy Cheong, artist & independent curator

In fact, the video’s content is quite figurative, as it is a metaphor for my personal understanding of Vietnam – whose history and transformation process bear many ruptures and pains. It is not something people mention often, but the truth is comparing to other countries, Vietnam suffered immensely from wars, from colonialism, or even right now, from other social issues. You actually could not see this distress when filming with children, it is a sensation that you created during the editing process. The kids didn’t feel like they were reenacting something really harsh, because in reality they loved to participate in a film this way. A lot of filming was actually just them playing around. But while editing the videos, I cut out these “playing” parts and kept the ones I needed. And so that sensation was made through the editing process.

So how did the editing process take place, can you share more with us on that?

I worked with a cameraman on the filming process. The music was composed by Nhung Nguyen in Hanoi. I edited the video myself and created the animated sections (in the video – interviewer).

How do you feel after your work went public – especially now that it is well-known to the Asian art community?

I feel really happy and also hope that the public will be even more welcoming towards contemporary art. Because to be honest, I think that this subject as well as the way it was portrayed will appear controversial to many. I worry that back in Vietnam, people will not agree with how I made it. But I also think that it’s an artist’s personal expression. An artist could not create much of a change nor influence, but I always hope that when [the artists] receive international recognition, they will be more openly accepted in Vietnam, especially on art programs of the government, of museums, or even on television…

Six oil paintings on x-ray film backing, a part of Phan Thao Nguyen’s “Tropical Siesta” at the National Museum of Singapore. Photo: Singapore Art Museum

What is your comment on the development of Vietnam’s contemporary art scene at the moment?

Vietnamese contemporary art scene is in such an exciting and intriguing phase. It is very different from that of other developed countries, where there are advanced art education and many systems in place. Vietnam is in its transition stage from the socialist economy to free trade, but on the cultural side – not only [visual] arts but also literature, music, theater – are still facing suppression. These are changing, in a bottom-up manner, as artists are creating their own art, working with each other and organizing their own exhibitions and creating platforms separately from [the state’s] orthodox museums. Their art are very original and exciting because the artists themselves want to create it. In Vietnam, there has yet to be an art market with art collectors to support the artists in order for them to make a living from their craft.

How do you plan to spend your 60,000 SGD prize? Have you any plan for future endeavors?

I haven’t given it much thought, but one thing for sure is that I will spend part of the prize to found a supporting fund for children who helped me make this film in Gia Lai. They were living in the rural with unfavorable conditions, but all are such bright kids with tremendous potential. I do hope that I can support them in my ability so that they can go to school and follow the career of their choice.

Through your art practicing experience and the production process of “Tropical Siesta”, what do you think about the power of visuals and videos in artistic expression? What is the difference between them and other conventional media such as paintings and sculptures?

“Tropical Siesta” actually includes both oil paintings and videos. I was trained as a painter, and so paintings to me are an accustomed medium still. The use of two-channel video is different in the way that moving images can convey the story well – while paintings are more about the feel of the medium. With “Tropical Siesta”, I want to combine both elements, so that it is not just telling a story with its details and characters,… but also emphasizing on visual language and, at the same time, on storytelling, creating for myself as an artist and for the audience a diverse perspective unrestrained by any doctrine or convention.

Thank you!

Translated by Hanoi Grapevine


  1. Congratulations to the artist !

    Will wait (impatiently) for the translation into English language of the VN text on the Hanoi Grapevine to learn more!

    Al best,

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