Art Radar speaks with James Nguyen about his first major solo exhibition opening at Sydney’s 4A Centre.
The young artist discusses his work, his history and thoughts on Australia’s contemporary art scene and socio-political landscape, as well as his reflections on the world’s migration crisis.
James Nguyen (b. 1982, Vietnam) relies on performance, the camera and the act of filmmaking itself to create works that explore the realities of migrants, refugees and diasporic communities in Australia. Focusing on his own personal origins and experiences, Nguyen often involves his family members in his videos and performances in a wide practice that also spans drawing and installation.
“Exit Strategies” (4 September – 10 October 2015) at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney features a new body of work commissioned by 4A. The show marks an important contribution by a young generation Vietnamese-Australian artist, as project curator Toby Chapman writes in the press release:
Through restaging and framing intimate familial gestures in the face of financial ruin, Exit Strategies draws human and personal connections alongside broader geopolitics of war, economic reform and nationhood.
James Nguyen graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) from the National Art School, Sydney, in 2012 and is currently undertaking a Masters of Fine Arts at Sydney College of Arts (SCA), University of Sydney. He has been the recipient of the Clitheroe Foundation Scholarship and the Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship in 2014. He has participated in several group exhibitions and his first solo exhibition “EXIT Strategy” (2013) was at Bradfield College, North Sydney, while his recent solo exhibition, “The Man With the Movie Camera”, was presented at both SCA Gallery and FELTspace, Adelaide in 2014.
Art Radar interviewed the artist to hear more about his newly commissioned works in the 4A exhibition, his personal history and his insights into the Australian contemporary art scene and the recent refugee crisis.
James, you were born in Vietnam and then moved with your family to Australia. When and why did you decide you wanted to be an artist? Did your family history and your life experience as part of the Vietnamese diaspora play a role in shaping your decision to pursue art-making?
I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but it took my friends to notice that I wasn’t happy at work and brought me vouchers for some painting classes a couple of years ago. I don’t think my family history, as part of the Vietnamese diaspora directly shaped my decision to pursue art-making. Although as kids, my parents always encouraged us to ask questions and not take things at face value. I think this default stance; their humour and their hard work ethic are the main things that have most influenced my work.
You have said before that your video and performance practice explores the “performative potential of the camera”. Could you explain what you mean by this expression and give us an example of how you use your camera in this way?
When I watch beautiful or interesting moments of cinematography in movies and on TV, I get excited about the amount of work and thinking that goes into these shots. In my own work when I perform for the camera, I also like to think about my relationship with the camera, and how the camera can process and change the performance it documents. To me, the performative potential of the camera helps me to think about the relationships between the performance, the apparatus of its documentation, and how the audience engages with recording once the performance is over.
You often involve your family members in your works, as seen in your current exhibition “Exit Strategies”. I am curious to know why you have chosen to have your family be a part of your artworks. When was the first time you had a family member take part in a project?
Because most of my recording is pretty basic, I end up roping friends and family into the process of filming and performance. I think the first time I had a family member deliberately involved in a work was for my undergrad exhibition at the National Art School. I wanted to perform in two places at once, so I asked my brother to dress up in identical coveralls and perform as a second me.
Prior to this, my brother has been my go-to camera person. He’s actually much better at handling the camera, and for better or worse, I’ve become pretty reliant on the help and assistance of friends and family when making these videos and performances.
How did the idea for the new body of work in “Exit Strategies” at 4A come about? What does the exhibition reflect upon?
During the Beijing Studio residency organised by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art at Shen Shaomin Studio, I had an interesting conversation with Aaron Seeto about not being such a wuss when dealing with stories around family and the Vietnamese diaspora.
Returning to Australia, I continued to think about this and worked with Toby Chapman at 4A on developing “Exit Strategies” for a new body of work that examined my family’s experiences in the Clothing, Textiles and Footware industry during the 1990s. The exhibition reflects on the social and political implications of personal stories in the face of broader national economic reforms to the manufacturing industries.
Your family becomes a central part of your artworks in the exhibition, not only as subjects of the stories you narrate, but also as ‘actors’. In Gimbal your parents play the roles of other people. Could you explain the video and why you wanted them to do this?
In Gimbal, I wanted to work with my parents to produce a couple of cinematic recordings of them. We don’t have many photos or home movies with them because they were always working when we were kids, and as a family, we kinda missed out on these homemade recordings.
For the work, I took my parents back to their old textiles factory in Chipping Norton, and got them to re-perform the many rituals that my brother and I did to kill time, keeping ourselves occupied whilst our parents worked. Simple things like walking home from school, learning to ride a bike and hanging out at the local shops and playground are simple everyday events that my parents could readily recollect, and playfully engage with as they “performed” our odd childhood spent at the factory.
I think by letting my parents act out and occupy the point of view of my brother and I, we set up a situation where both parties could empathise and reflect on the past with a certain level of freedom and joy. Without making them feel neglectful or guilty, the re-enactments turned out to be a cathartic form of play.
In this space, my parents were able to help me to create a new body of work, and in the process, we physically worked together rather than just discuss or argue about the past. In looking back and re-imagining our histories, we produced something new together and ended up with a document that could function as a family keepsake.
With your mother, you created Flatbed Knit Polo Collars, a large-scale sculptural screen made with surplus shirt collars saved from your family factory. What do you want to communicate here?
Having so many moving image works in the exhibition, I think Flatbed Knit Polo Collars evolved out of a exhibition planning point of view to create a sculptural or “painting” element that could add to the overall texture of the installation. Throughout the process of designing and making the work with my mother however, the work evolved into a banner that paid tribute to the silent stoicism and often-unacknowledged labour of migrant and refugee women.
The work actually reminded me of the family dynamics between my father and mother. The collars are indeed surplus stock left over by my Dad’s failed business, however, it was the endless hours spent by my Mum on the sewing machine, producing each garment piece by piece, as she worked to pay off his debts and then sent him to university once the textiles business finally collapsed.
Could you tell us more about the accompanying two-channel video?
The accompanying video work was a simple way for me to put these personal stories within the context of Australia’s deregulation of the Clothing, Textiles and Footwear Industry during the 1980s and 1990s. In the process of researching for this exhibition, I discovered the documentary FEARLESS – Stories of Asian Women. In the final episode Heart On The Sleeve, this documentary covered and clearly articulated the exploitation of Vietnamese outworkers in the Australian fashion industry.
Instead of re-treading material already covered by the documentary, I invited Hien Tran (a good family friend and the main activist voice in the documentary) to re-watch it and reflect on being the subject of the documentary. The process again looks at the implications of documentation and the documentary medium on time and the subject. Like the audience, the process of revisiting this documentary gave me real insight into the strength and political conviction of migrant women like Hien, whose significant contributions to the community I had previously not recognised.
Your brother has been a ‘performer’ with you in your artworks before, where performance is a central device you use to explore themes that are often political. What is the importance of incorporating performance in your work?
I find it easier to work in a more direct manner with my brother to make political statements. As individuals, we can’t really speak for anyone but ourselves, and even with that, we often have contrasting perspectives that are difficult enough to navigate without having if filtered through a fictional character or situation. In saying that though, I find that political discourse often escalates to such a bizarre and grotesque level that any performance intervention seems wholly unnecessary.
Could you tell us a bit more about your collaboration with BAD MUDDA (in collaboration with Salote Tawale) and Astute Art Investments International?
I have a pretty limited skills set, so when I collaborate with other artists and curators, I get really excited by their abilities and intelligence. Through collaborations, I feel much more capable of tackling more ambitious projects and ideas. Working on BAD MUDDA for example, I felt much more able to confront difficult ideas around racism and identity in a project for Underbelly Arts Festival, knowing that I had the support and conceptual rigor that artist Salote Tawale brought to the project. Additionally, the collaboration allowed us take risks outside of our practice, for example, making a series of radio plays although neither of us had done that before.
Similarly, Astute Art Investments International, which evolved out of 4A’s Beijing Residency at Shen Shaomin’s Studio gave me the opportunity to work with a group of amazing people: Joanna Bayndrian, Veronica Shen and Nikki Walkerden in an open and very flexible collaboration that explores and finds opportunities for working with local and international artists in the Asia-Pacific region.
Australia is home to a vibrant art scene. What is it like as an Asian-Australian artist to be working within this environment?
I’m not a huge traveller, but I think Australia has a strong and globally relevant contemporary arts scene. There are so many incredibly hard working people who are making totally inspiring work. In the face of funding cuts and restructuring, I think there is real motivation at the small to medium experimental end of this community to pursue and generate our own opportunities.
The number and quality of collaborations, festivals, new projects and ARI’s etc. are due to the collective voices of many artists with a diversity of backgrounds and interests. As an Asian-Australian artist working in this environment, I feel pretty privileged to be part of the huge diversity of artistic practice that makes up the greater Australian art scene.
Finally, I wonder if I could ask you for your thoughts and reactions on the current refugee crisis and the great number of migrants coming out of the Middle East and Africa. In watching this happen, does it stir a particular reaction in you? Does it make you recall your own experiences in some way?
I can only speak for myself, but I get totally pissed off when Australians are so ready to strip the human dignity from the most helpless victims of war. Through no fault of their own, these people have lost their homelands, their families, their livelihood…basically everything, and we expect them to turn around, strap themselves to some old UNESCO monuments and simply wait to die.
I find it really offensive that both sides of government will capitulate to a bunch of idiot voters, rather than being responsible leaders who would choose to do the decent thing and provide a resource that we have tons of … safety. Australia’s unwillingness to take on refugees during this time of crisis makes me feel as if this country will always treat refugees as scum. Australia doesn’t want to make the same terrible mistake of letting in people like those drug-smuggling, welfare cheating Viets who have now taken everybody’s jobs, and can act all hyper-smug about being model minorities.
The most confronting thing is that my parents and many of their Vietnamese friends are quite open about their unwillingness to support these new waves of refugees. It is quite grotesque that in an attempt to be True Blue Aussie, and participate in the broader culture, my parents can only feel included by embracing the casual and overt racism of their adopted country.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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- Living ‘day by day’ between Cambodia and Vietnam: Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai – interview – April 2015 – Art Radar caught up with Sovereign Asian Art Prize 2015 finalist Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai to hear about her latest project in the Vietnamese migrant communities in Cambodia and Vietnam
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