The result of her recent residency in Berlin, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s latest project explores the anonymity of a migrant’s life in a new city.
Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai spent a year in Berlin as an artist in residence at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, where she recently presented her new project “Another World” informed by her current artistic research centred around individual versus social and real versus fictitious conceptions of life.
“Another World” is the result of Vietnamese artist Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s one year residency, after receiving a grant by KfW Stiftung for the International Studio Programme at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. The project was showcased at Künstlerhaus Bethanien from 4 to 27 March 2016 after the end of the residency. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue entitled In Silence, including Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s past work as well as an essay by curator and Director of Ho Chi Minh City’s Sàn Art space Zoe Butt and an interview with Indonesian curator Syafiatudina.
For “Another World”, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai worked with over 10 women aged from 25 to 35, each with a clearly different appearance and lifestyle. Nguyen’s previous work has largely centred around female sexuality and gender, and more recently on migrant Vietnamese communities in Korea and Cambodia. During her Berlin residency, she shifted towards the exploration of the concept of identity and human relations, revolving around her own personal experience as a temporary migrant.
In an interview with Syafiatudina published in the exhibition catalogue, Nguyen explains about her connection to others in the project:
I have gained from opening my mind and my self to connecting with other people. In this project, my focus on fake identities raises various questions about identity, culture, and the relationships between human beings and their social networks. Using this nexus as vantage point, I’m projecting my feelings and analyzing the loneliness and the loss caused by migration.
Nguyen approached these women in the street and talked to them about her project. Then she visited their private spaces, to know more about their life and subsequently to take photographs of herself dressed in their clothes and accessories, impersonating them as if through a process of metamorphosis to become a new person. These ‘performances’ functioned as social experiments or as Nguen called them, “adventures” through which she would enter their world and make it her own. A photographer, Chi Phan, followed Nguyen in her performances and documented them for the exhibition.
In the catalogue interview, Nguyen says:
I behaved as if I was the owner of that room, in that moment, with another life, another history.
Nguyen impersonated an older punk mother, from whom she learned the meaning of the word ‘punk’ for the first time, not just as a reference to style but also to a way of life. She also took the role of a ‘glitter’ girl, whose outfit and house were extremely girly, with pink, bows, candy and unicorns everywhere. Zoe Butt, in her catalogue essay, writes about Nguyen’s project in Berlin:
Walking the streets of Berlin Mai felt liberated from the social framework of her Vietnamese self. Here the landscape was entirely foreign, the social customs unfamiliar, the social memory of an entirely different cartography. She found herself lured by this new sense of anonymity and the chance to reformulate her own identity.
In the catalogue interview, Nguyen goes on to explain how she came up with the idea for her project, after realising through various quotidian experiences that she was living in a place not her own:
This is my first time in Europe, a place so distant from home geographically and culturally. It is a place where I harbor no past, no judgment, no binding: A place where nobody knows who I am. I am constantly occupied with the idea that I could become anyone here, do any crazy things, and forget about all of the social boundaries and taboos in my homeland. But identities are invisible, and roots are strongly attached to them. […] Feeling lost / as an outsider / as a stranger is obvious and happens frequently. This project, as mentioned above, is an adventure of mine in the western world, a strange world, in which the questions about cultures, freedom, liberation were raised.
In the catalogue interview, Nguyen explains about her exploration of both face to face and virtual interactions:
Both enable me to get in contact with people whom I rarely meet in my daily life. […] This project encouraged me to touch the life of strangers. I also enjoyed talking with strangers on mobile phone apps. It’s like reading a book and frees your imagination as far as possible; you are neither limited by visual impressions, appearances or colors, nor by other sensual impressions such as noises or smells. A man on Tinder told me: “If you meet people in real life, they put on a mask of friendliness and politeness. But on the internet, people show their real self very quickly. They lose the mask so fast. Because why should you wear a mask, if you never see these people in reality.”
Nguyen chose to trust in people for her project, as she says “[…] if I don’t have faith in people, I think I will lose more.”
In her catalogue essay, Zoe Butt says of Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai and her practice:
Within the field of Vietnamese contemporary art, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai is a leading light of her generation. In Vietnam (and indeed much of Southeast Asia) there are too few women whose art has gained significant local reputation and international credit. This is due in large part to a central topic of interrogation in Mai’s artistic practice – the almost stultifying expectations of a woman to maintain the traditional customary role of wife and mother. […] In this landscape, dominated by male perspectives, there is no space for public debate on contemporary art. What gives Mai faith in dedicating her life to her art is her unexpected interaction with material and its memory, with the tales that ensue, challenging the presumptions of how we as individuals are coded and thus controlled by society today. Mai’s work is an intimate and highly personal exposure, an innate process of production that is as vital as air to the art of survival.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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