“A Lotus in a Sea of Fire”: A Post-Apocalyptic Future by Tuan Andrew Nguyen

This blog runs in association with eLucidAction.

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.

 

A Lotus in a Sea of Fire, 2020. Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper. 27 x 48 in. 68.6 x 121.9 cm. Edition of 5 plus 2 artist’s proofs (#1/5) © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York.

 

The Boat People, 2020. Single-channel video, 4k, Super 16mm transferred to digital, color, 5.1 surround sound Edition of 5 plus 2 artist’s proofs. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York.

 

The Arrival of The Boat People, 2020 Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper 27 x 48 in. 68.6 x 121.9 cm Edition of 5 plus 2 artist’s proof. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York.

 

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.

 

A Lotus In A Sea Of Fire, 2019 Hand-carved gmelina wood 6 1/2 x 13 x 8 in. 16.5 x 33 x 20.3 cm. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Dan Bradica. The Quanyin (also Padmapani), or female Buddha of Compassion, is regarded as one of the most widely beloved Buddhist divinities, with powers to aid all who pray to her. She is generally seen as a source of unconditional love, and more importantly, as a saviour, and also known as the “Goddess of Mercy.” Some observers have commented on the similarity between Quanyin and the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is likely that this similarity is a product of the 16th century conquest and colonization of the Philippines by Spain, when Asian cultures influenced engravings of the Virgin Mary.

 

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.

 

The Fire Outside, 2019 Hand-carved gmelina wood 16 1/2 x 6 x 7 1/2 in. 41.9 x 15.2 x 19.1 cm. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Dan Bradica. The Fire Outside is a replica of a gas mask manufactured by the American army for Filipino soldiers during World War II, now on view in the Mt. Samat Museum in Bataan. After the Battle of Bataan in WWII, between 60,000 – 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war were subjected to the Bataan Death March, a brutal journey that resulted in the death of 18,000 Filipino soldiers, and was later judged to be a Japanese war crime.

 

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.

Links: Website (www.tuanandrewnguyen.com) | Instagram (www.instagram.com/tuan.andrew.nguyen)

Memorial To A Piece Of Floating Debris, 2019 Hand-carved gmelina wood 20 x 22 x 1 in. 50.8 x 55.9 x 2.5 cm. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Dan Bradica. This is a replica of a memorial plaque from the PRPC Museum which commemorates the treacherous journey of nine men and three women who fled Vietnam by boat in 1981. “Vietnamese boat people” is the name given to some 700,000 refugees who fled Vietnam by boat or ship after the Vietnam War. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea. Other estimates compiled put the number of fatalities closer to 700,000.

 

Mile 00 Everywhere OR Replica of Bataan Death March Marker Mile 00, 2019. Hand-carved gmelina wood. 59 1/2 x 16 1/2 x 16 1/2 in.
151.1 x 41.9 x 41.9 cm. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Dan Bradica. This is a replica of Bataan Death March Marker Mile 00, a white concrete obelisk that marks the start of the path taken by nearly 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers as prisoners of the Japanese Imperial Army after the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942. There are 138 Death March markers, one marking each kilometer. Placed beside a main road, they have been subject to damage, some accidental, some negligent, some intentional. The markers were erected several decades after the war by the Filipino-American Memorial Endowment Incorporated.

 

A God, A Casket, A Crossing, 2019. Santa Clara Marine Plywood. 16 x 72 x 18 1/2 in. 40.6 x 182.9 x 47 cm. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Dan Bradica. 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 PRPC Museum.

Not The Sword That Killed Magellan, 2019. Hand-carved gmelina wood. 38 x 5 1/2 x 1 in. 96.5 x 14 x 2.5 cm. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Dan Bradica. Not The Sword That Killed Magellan is a replica of a kampilan, a traditional Filipino blade, on view in the Mt. Samat Museum. The sword was widely used by warriors and chieftains in battle and for headhunting. According to Filipino history, it was a kampilan that the legendary hero Lapu Lapu used to slay the Spanish Conquistador and explorer Magellan, who is credited with the first circumnavigation of the globe.

 

Not The Smell of Napalm, 2019. Hand-carved gmelina wood. 23 in. high (58.4 cm). Wooden base: 13 x 12 x 2.5 in. (33 x 30.5 x 6.4 cm)
Pedestal: 30 x 30 x 4 in. (76.2 x 76.2 x 10.2 cm). © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photo by Dan Bradica. Not The Smell of Napalm is a replica of foliage found in the jungle of Bataan by the beach. Suggestive of a fossil, the carved leaves embody the perseverance contained in the memory of the land itself. Napalm was used extensively by the United States against entrenched Japanese forces in the Philippines during WWII, and became a central weapon of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Reports state that roughly 388,000 tons of American napalm bombs were dropped in the region
between 1963 and 1973. In addition to its devastating effects on human targets and civilian bystanders alike, napalm bombs could create firestorms that burned through acres of jungle in matter of seconds, leaving a defoliated landscape in its wake.