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“A Lotus in a Sea of Fire”: A Post-Apocalyptic Future by Tuan Andrew Nguyen
A few days ago I discovered the work of Vietnamese-American artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and it somehow seemed very relevant to our time of uncertainty, with the pandemic sweeping across the globe. The project also appealed to me instantly for the richness of narrative. An installation that has video and sculptural components, Nguyen’s “A Lotus in a Sea of Fire”—on view online at James Cohan, NYC from February 28 to May 3—opens with the haunting image of the Buddha’s bust (of or another Buddhist figure) on fire, by a seashore at twilight.
This, it turns out, is an unspecified post-apocalyptic scenario of the future. Massive, unknown events have surpassed and humanity is at the precarious edge of possible extinction. The ones who remain behind—a band of children, led by a strong-willed and resourceful little girl—calls itself The Boat People. The band travels the seas and collects the stories of a world they never knew through objects that have survived over time.
The project becomes a tender meditation on time, loss, memory, the value of objects, the complexity of culture, and the manner in which we construct and transfer meaning. The exhibition revolves around a film that is related to the region of Bataan, Philippines and anchors itself to the multiple layers of history in wars, migration and perseverance contained in the land itself. Universal themes are examined here through a deliberate and conscious immersion in the particular. Also, fact blends smoothly with the vehicle of fiction to reveal truths of a permanent nature.
Nguyen is interested in objects that have stood the test of time: objects that humanity has created, and in turn inherited. His work parses both the stories objects contain and our memories of the objects themselves. The film was shot at various landmarks in the area including the Boat People Museum, a site which preserves archival records of the Philippines Refugee Processing Center refugee camp. The museum has the original boat that crashed onto the shores of Morong in 1981, carrying eleven of the first Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Bataan.
Bataan was the site of the PRPC [Philippine Refugee Processing Center], which processed roughly 300,000 Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees who fled their countries after the Vietnam War. A large number of these refugees landed on the coast of Bataan by boat. This is a replica of one of the original vessels that were kept on the grounds of the PRPC and is now on view in the museum.
The characters in the story, as the encounter various artifacts, engage in a dialogue that links the future and the past. The objects include Japanese machine guns, American-made gas-masks, a memorial to a World War II massacre, refugee boats, the hands and head of a Quan Yin, the female buddha of compassion, and a kampilan and a traditional Filipino blade that resembles the famous sword the hero Lapu Lapu used to slay Magellan.
The female buddha of compassion is by the coast. The artist writes on the use of fire: “There’s a way that spiritual practices, specifically in Vietnam, have been embedded with strategies of political resistance. Fire and self-immolation have been well known acts of political resistance where the spiritual and the political collide. Fire becomes a strong metaphor for freedom and liberation, spiritual and political. This is exemplified in Thich Quang Duc’s act of self-immolation. The image of this action has been burnt deeply into my own psyche. A collision between the spiritual and the political—the struggle for freedom.”
The ocean that abuts the coast in Bataan is a space of transition and of opposition. It is into this ocean that the children scatter the ashes of their totemic objects, in order to set them free, rendering the ocean a repository for memory. It is the words of the children that, in the end, literally and figuratively, bring the mysterious statue head buried in the sand on the beach back to life again, indicating that our language, interpretation, and active engagement alone can bestow any importance and function to the inanimate things around us.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen was born in 1976 in Ho Chi Minh City. In 1979, he and his family emigrated as refugees to the United States. Nguyen graduated from the Fine Arts program at the University of California, Irvine in 1999 and received his Masters of Fine Arts from The California Institute of the Arts in 2004. He currently lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, where he is a co-founder and former board member of Sàn Art. Nguyen was a founding member of The Propeller Group in 2006, an entity that positions themselves between a fake advertising company and an art collective. Accolades for the group include the main prize at the 2015 Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur and a Creative Capital award among others.
The Boat People was co-produced by Bellas Artes Projects and James Cohan, New York. Nguyen cast five children from the local fishing village as the main characters of the film. Making their film debut are Gryshyll Reyes Ilarina as Riana, Michael Mendoza Soronio, John Carlos Cruz Moris, Jescee Dheivid Taba Recinte, and Benedict Recinte Revelo.
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