Thao Nguyen Phan confronts Vietnam’s colonial past, but not in the way we might expect.

Thao Nguyen Phan, First rain, Brise Soleil, 2021 – ongoing (video still). Three-channel video installation, colour, sound 16’. With the support of Han Nefkens Art Foundation and Tate St Ives.

I’ve seen the future of art, and it spells Thao Nguyen Phan. When Phan dates her work, it’s often with a year and a dash – and the word ongoing. This doesn’t indicate an inability to give the works a final form, but a desire to continue the work, to prolong the dialogue with the viewer, and to develop the ties in-between the works.

In Phan’s Charlottenborg exhibition every work relates to – and puts in play – every other work, which means that this isn’t just an exhibition of wonderful works, but a wonderful exhibition. Intelligent and emotional, intimate and monumental, melancholy and full of light – from its evocative title, Reincarnations of Shadows, to its beautiful architectural layout – this has it all.

Phan is born and lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She studied art there, as well as in Singapore and Chicago. At Charlottenborg there are two entrances – or two exits if you so will – to the circle of six rooms that make up Phan’s exhibition. To get a more focused unfolding of the show, I recommend taking the entrance on the left, and going clockwise. Then, the first thing you will see is Voyages de Rhodes (2014–2017), a series of watercolours jutting 90 degrees out from the wall, made on the pages of a book.

The book is a travelogue from 1653 by the French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes, one of the first missionaries to arrive in Vietnam during colonisation. The watercolours are like an enigmatic social lexicon of rules one may or may not have to obey, of possible stances one can take, of destinies one can’t escape. They frequently depict children or young adults involved in group activities like marching or playing. Several show groups of pioneers (communist scouts) banging on drums.

One painting shows human heads with spades for bodies and handles on top of their heads; it’s somehow like a Kraftwerk cover, but spookier. Some paintings are carefully captioned, like “the celebration of solitude,” or “the invention of womanhood,” or “blood rice.” One watercolour shows a group of young men that seem to discuss, study, or pray. One of them wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Nike logo, but Phan has changed the spelling to Nice. A gentle joke about capitalism, sure. But it’s hard not to note the rhyme on rice. And through that simple rhyme, we get the whole spectrum of the economic system – from the necessity of rice to the lunacy of branding.

One watercolour shows a man in a landscape dominated by a large blue blob. It’s captioned “surreal history,” which is an apt description of Phan’s work. But its dreamlike quality has nothing to do with special effects or pictorial wobbliness. Phan uses the dream as a modus operandi, an interface between reality and imagination, a space to explore possibilities.

In Mute Grain (2019), a black and white three-channel film about the fictional brother and sister March and August, named after the two anguished months in the Vietnamese agricultural calendar, when the old harvest has been eaten while the new one is not yet ripe. Mute Grain is a meditation on the Vietnamese famine of 1945, in which an estimated two million people died. One of its causes was the Japanese occupying power’s order to farmers to uproot their planted rice and instead grow jute for industrial textile production. The story about March and August is the story about their connection as the key for spiritual survival.

Installation view, Thao Nguyen Phan, Reincarnations of Shadows, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, 2024. Photo: David Stjernholm.

No monument has ever been erected to the famine, but Phan’s No Jute Cloth for the Bones (2019–23), a large installation of hanging jute stalks in the last room of the exhibition, is in fact such a monument. In the third room, displayed along a series of abstract paintings inspired by postcolonial modernist architecture, Man Looking Towards Darkness (2016) is an embroidered black curtain, also in jute. It shows human figures, always from the back, involved in various everyday activities, which sometimes turn violent. The figures are embroidered with silk as white outlines. Only the colour of the hair is ‘realistic,’ which creates an unexpected mimetic short circuit.

Shown alternately with Mute Grain is the film First Rain, Brise Soleil (2021–ongoing). On the three screens we are told the fictional story of a building worker specialised in constructing brise soleil, an outer concrete shell perforated to keep the sun out and let the air in (before air conditioning became the norm). It’s a pensive commemoration of modernism’s dream of hope, process, and development, and of a certain kind of modernist architecture – with its very own set of poetics – distinctive to Vietnam and Cambodia.

The brise soleil as a permeable and transformative membrane can be seen as a central metaphor for Phan’s work. All the elements float into and out of each other, metamorphosing on the way. Phan calls her films “moving images,” using archival, documentary, and fictional footage interspersed with drawings and animation. A crucial aspect of their fluidity is the text-over narration, as subtitles on the screen, which smoothly steers clear of the tendency of voice-over to dominate a film’s imagery. Like the images, the text is also drawn from several sources. And out of all this, in a vibrant but unhurried flow, Phan crafts a film aesthetic that is revelatory and spellbinding – and her very own.

The closest Phan ever becomes to being autobiographical is in a portrait of another artist. In the last room, together with the installation of jute stalks, there’s a series of small delightful sculptures by Diem Phung Thi (1920–2002), who also is presented in a film projected on the wall. In 1946, Thi became one of the first Vietnamese women to graduate as a dentist. Then she moved to Paris, practised dentistry and did a doctoral thesis. But in 1960, Thi gave dentistry up. The only way she could handle the Vietnam War was to make art. The title of Phan’s film on Thi is almost identical with the title of the exhibition: Reincarnations of Shadows (moving-image-poem) (2023).

It’s easy to remain mute in front of history’s horrors, and almost everyone knows Theodor Adorno’s statement from 1949: “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Fewer know that in 1966 Adorno took it back and wrote: “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” There are far more works in Phan’s six Charlottenborg rooms than can described or even mentioned here. But what they all have in common is Phan’s ability to confront the agony of Vietnam’s history, while never losing her unique artistic voice. Oscar Wilde said that Balzac invented the 19th century. And now, Thao Nguyen Phan has invented Vietnam.

Thao Nguyen Phan, March on a Honda Dream from Dream of March and August, 2020. Watercolor and pigment on natural silk 60 x 80 cm. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Truong Minh Tuan.