rior to discovering art, you were a pharmacist. What led you to pursue visual art? Do you see any similarities between pharmacy and art?
Prior to art, I was working in hospital pharmacy and working in aged care and palliative care. I have always been interested in pursuing an art career but it wasn’t until I got stuck in a mental and social rut at work and it took my friends to notice it enough to get me night time painting classes at NAS (the National Art School) before I seriously considered giving art a shot.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I can draw any meaningful similarities between pharmacy and art, apart from a generic observation like they both have different roles to play and are good and bad in different ways?
Are there any other artists / creatives in your family?
I remember as a kid growing up in Vietnam, I was pretty spoilt and have fond memories of my extended family always telling jokes and exaggerating stories. Most nights were filled with casual music playing and singing, however, these things were escapist activities rather than seen as a potential career. My dad was pretty involved in making skits and uni-reviews while he was in the seminary, so I guess like most people they were creative but this was not how they would define themselves.
“[My parents] are deeply political people with strident opinions and views and I find that I am much more able to communicate with them when we partake in the process of ‘making art’.”
From left: TheNguyens (a collaboration with Jessamine Chen, Katie Nguyen, Joey Nguyen and Yin Lan Soon), “Elastics,” moving image installation at Verge Gallery. Image courtesy Siân McIntyre. James Nguyen, “Between Suitcases and Skywriting,” MFA exhibition SCA galleries, single channel projection in self inflating projector bag and stack of prints. Image courtesy Salote Tawale.
our work explores the complexes of familial relationships between yourself, your brother and your parents as Vietnamese migrants adjusting to life in Australia. What in particular are you interested in exploring and what have you learned about yourself and your family through this process?
My parents have their own views on various aspects of my life like my pursuit of a “creative career.” They are deeply political people with strident opinions and views and I find that I am much more able to communicate with them when we partake in the process of “making art.” Because our communication is limited by both generational differences and a language barrier, I have previously given them very little credit for conceptualizing what I am doing. My mum, who speaks limited English actually challenged my own arrogant presumptions of her lack of understanding when they visited me in New York. After taking my parents to see David Hammons at Mnuchin Gallery I asked her if she “liked” it. She responded in Vietnamese how she felt the “playful and defiant responses to the struggles of Blackness presented by the artist was very moving, and yes, she “liked it” more than a lot of the other crap. This just proved how my hypocrisy and assumptions were not much better than the very people that I am critical of, and that yup, I too had such low expectations of my own mothers’ intelligence that I should be surprised by her casually insightful observation
You took part in a collaborative fellowship at the Centre for Documentary in Brooklyn. How was this experience and what did you take away from it?
I was given the opportunity to participate in the Collaborative Fellowship at UnionDocs Centre for Experimental Documentary Arts with the Anne and Gordon Samstag Traveling Scholarship last year. It was an incredible privilege, firstly, I was given the support and time to reflect on my practice and be exposed to really rigorous and thorough theory and practice around documentary making. I was given access to the small but strong community of documentary makers in New York, who were particularly open and supportive in sharing their knowledge and skills. It was a real community of artists. Coming out of this experience, I think I’m trying to be more committed to the idea of using documentary forms to think about and explore political and social ideas in a more direct way. Also contemporary documentary practice is much more open and innovative than I had expected and that there is space for me to work in this frame … well, part of it anyways.
“…Migrants are sold and are activity recruited into the myth of a new/continuing/recurrent terra nulliusm. Alienation from the Australian landscape is in this instance solely focused on an internal conflict that arises with the inability to reconcile with the “distant motherland” as opposed to how waves of immigration have structurally contributed to the erosion and erasure Aboriginal sovereignty.”
ou have a couple of group exhibitions coming up, including ‘Looking at me through you’ at Campbelltown Arts Centre. Could you please tell us about the work you will be exhibiting?
The show gave me an opportunity to think about various statistics in Western Sydney. Working from my own observation of the rapid redevelopments, and constant conversations around property, I wanted to make a work around land use and food sustainability. Getting connected to the Macarthur Centre for Sustainable Living meant I was able to take time out to think about land use, basic land care and the community around sustainability that already is thriving in Campbeltown. I began to think about the historic contribution of migrants in food production through market gardens etc around Sydney. Gradually, I began to notice how much of the migrant story and mythologies around land use and “resettlement” were generally mythologised as a ground zero; as a starting point where refugees and migrants would create a new life from nothing. This is conceptually uncomfortable as it extricates itself from the histories that came before. In this situation, migrants are sold and are activity recruited into the myth of a new/continuing/recurrent terra nulliusm. Alienation from the Australian landscape is in this instance, solely focused on an internal conflict that arises with the inability to reconcile with the “distant motherland” as opposed to how waves of immigration have structurally contributed to the erosion and erasure Aboriginal sovereignty. So the works I’ve made are just me beginning to think through some of these things: property ownership/development, migration, land use/contestation and the consequences of displacement. I’m making a garden bed on the front lawn of the gallery with an accompanying essay/proposal.
As the son of migrant parents from Vietnam, have you experienced xenophobic attitudes first hand? How has this manifested itself in your art practice? Do you feel that Australia is becoming more tolerant?
Of course I have experienced xenophobic and prejudice first hand, who hasn’t? People will always find a point of difference in order to consciously or unconsciously act on a judgment. I am much more concerned about the silent or invisible structural examples of xenophobia that are much harder to be called out. But the one thing that has burned into my memory was an instance when my dad took me to buy some hot chips, and with his broken English, he asked “Can I have a hot chip please?” As an unfunny joke, the man at the counter picked up one potato chip and deep fried it and wrapped it up for my dad. My dad cooly held his composure and put the exact change on the counter and left with the wrapped up chip. We went to the car where he broke the chip in half and asked if this was the most delicious chip I have ever eaten. This event made me want to make sure that I spoke good English when addressing people in public and also to be wary of fish and shop owners.
“Bad Mudda” (collaboration with Salote Tawale), Performance and radio play for Underbelly Arts Festival 2015, image courtesy Melissa Howe.