Thuy Anh Nguyen and the beauty of the body in pain

Thuy Anh Nguyen and the beauty of the body in pain

Posted on

Written by Ut Quyen for Hanoi Grapevine
Photos provided by the artist
Do not re-post or copy without permission from the author and Hanoi Grapevine

2019 was an extremely busy year for Nguyen Thuy Anh when she started with multiple group exhibitions at the beginning of the year, three upcoming shows, including her first solo which will take place on June 18 in the Assembly Room, New York. Vietnamese audiences have known Thuy Anh through such works as “Dear ancestor” (2015) and “Fit” (2017) displayed at Nha San Collective in 2017 might be surprised by the changes in her recent works which transform in concept and visual expression.

Hanoi Grapevine has an online interview with Thuy Anh about the current work and life of a young Hanoi-born artist in one of the busiest capitals of the art world – New York.

Nguyen Thuy Anh and Shohei Kondo at the opening of their duo exhibition “Dichotomy of Desire” in New York.
Photo: Oliver Gill

Your ‘Dear Ancestor’ displayed in ‘Behind the Terrain’ exhibition two years ago contains provocative and rather indignant message, one I found quite common in a lot of Vietnamese female artists when they are first exposed to the Western feminism. Your recent works carries a much more simple, subtle expression of your concept while retains a respect for the feminine body. How has this transition happened?

When I started graduate school in 2016, my practice started to change. My perception about concept or meaning was no longer the same as in older works like Dear Ancestor or even, my installation Burden. Rather, I have grown conscious of the necessary distance between subject and object. I wouldn’t say idea of feminism is gone, but it is no longer my main focus. I think about the body and the strength of the body within its softness and femininity. In a way it is still feminism but not the didactic type.

I also care about spectatorship and ways in which the work of art means to challenge viewers. I want to approach my object in a more layered manner meaning it is less accessible or easy, and the audience would have to labor for it.

Your works presented at the recent ‘Dichotomy of Desire’ exhibition emphasize the contrast between the soft, warm feeling of the flesh to the hardness and coldness of metal. There are images of objects covered with skin-like silicone mounted on metal to create a pain of flesh as if being tortured. What personal experiences inspired you to create these works?

Carry on from both sides, 2018
Metal, Fiber, Thermoplastic, Silicone, Screw

When it comes to artwork referring to body in pain, the public often demands a story to account for, and to make pains make sense. It’s really not my responsibility as an artist to explain the personal background in my works by offering story about my life. Even though the work can refer to a personal event, such event doesn’t have to be displayed in order to make the work accessible. Also, it is inauthentic to tell life stories as a way to convince audiences that the work is worthy of attention. I believe in my practice and I believe, if viewers can feel something upon looking at the work, the work has successfully done its job.

Of Place and Nation, 2017
Silicone, Polyester Fabric, Thermoplastic, Casted Concrete, Sand and Mixed Media.

Also pain is a complex and historical subject. It is a subject that contains dichotomy of pain and pleasure, or even a subliminal beauty. When talking about beauty we often describe something achingly beautiful or even agonizingly beautiful. I am fascinated by such affect, as what proves to touche the psyche the most in terms of arts and beauty are often closer to pain. The ability of empathy or to feel are heightened through a sense agony. It is the very sensation I want to turn physical, to be felt by their presence, also a concept throughout all of my work whether performance, video, sculpture, or installation.

‘Meet-by-touch’ is especially appealing to me. Can you share a little bit about the process of implementing this project?

The project started it in 2016. But the person I originally collaborated with never sent by deadlines and didn’t even sign the contract. It was not until summer 2017 when I came back to Viet Nam to meet a new and much more committed participant I then could start the project again. I have also learnt my lesson about the big difference between inviting someone to be a participant instead of a collaborator, a title that comes with an assumed authority no one else should have had over this project.

Meet-by-Touch, 2017 – 2018/On-going
The artists send each other impressions of their body parts via postal service on a month to month basis, between Hanoi and New York City.

Thankfully, my participant was a great and loyal friend. During one year process, we were required to send clays to each other exactly the same date every month and to be committed to the project. There were not much verbal communication other than some practical communication asking “Have you received the “touch” this month?” etc. There was time he sent me a Happy New Year postcard and a small gift which was sweet of him, but of course I do not include that in the final presentation of the project. I want to keep the work rigid, abstract the way it is. It’s the type of performance project that is supposed to test your endurance against time and distance, even though the formal outcome of it seems simple and mundane.

Clay objects are displayed with photos of other clay artifacts, how do they correspond to each other as objects?

The photos are the body impressions on clay that I send to him and the ones he sent me are presented in physical object. They are arranged chronologically by month. Actually I’ve never shown the whole project. There are a few months missing. I hope in my upcoming show on June 18 there will be a much more comprehensive presentation of it. The photos are presenting memories, the impression that I already sent. It doesn’t make sense to present what I already gave away and try to merge them together in the same physical manner. The final form of project should be displayed in my point of view, in which what I have sent is nothing but memory. There is a feeling of lost in these photos. It felt a little bit agonizing but also endearing, the way memory works. I also arrange objects or sculptures with photos on the shelves as a reference to this type of in house souvenir display. I am interested in contrast or irony as a content in the work, how to condense a long timeline, a year in his and mine’s life time into a small installation that is intimate and domestic.

In the very busy schedule of exhibitions during the first half of 2019, how do you find time to prepare for the upcoming solo exhibition on June 18?

Currently I only need to finalize one more work for the solo show which is curated by Banyi Huang. As Banyi and I discussed, there will be only three to four works. There will be one big installation work which includes three metal sheets with silicone body tool attached, each with 1.6-1.7m high. Next to it is an extremely small work to create a conversation about scales in space and audiences feel the monumental of a big scale work can also simultaneously zoom in to the intimate of smaller objects.

To be able to stay and practice art in New York is probably the dream of many artists in the world, not only in Vietnam. However, one living in this dream must have faced many difficulties?

People often say ‘New York minute’ because a minute, even a second passing here might play a crucial meaning to your career and your life. For example, if you skip one opening you might also miss a great opportunity. It is certainly hard to keep up with the city, with its on-going events. I often cannot help feeling a little guilty when I want to stay at home as my introversion kicks in. On top of that, making the type of art I do is extremely expensive which requires extensive amount of space, equipment and certainly labor of more than one, which makes it feel impossible at times. I have lost count of times where I went online and made the futile calls for help transporting sculptures that were as big as my body.

Other difficulty is we do not have a Vietnamese artist community here to support each other like, let’s say, some communities I have seen with Chinese and Taiwanese artists here. What I meant by community, it is the type that can challenge one another to grow and to actualize art projects in physical space.

To be honest, living in New York wouldn’t be so hard, a “dream” even as you said it, depends on the type of “dream”. I personally have seen people migrate here who have found a decent job just enough for their rent and other life fulfillment, and they seem to be quite complacent. But if you are an ambitious and competitive person in your field and that’s the reason why you are here it becomes a completely different story.

Thanks for your sharing! Hanoi Grapevine and our audiences are looking forward to further news from your upcoming first solo show.

For more information about Anh Thuy Nguyen please visit


Leave a Reply