On Stains, Traces and Silent Witnesses
Over the last ten years, the French- Vietnamese artist Thu-Van Tran has built up a body of work that combines different conceptual, cultural and material registers. Central to her practice is the duality of growing up in two cultures. Undertaking thorough research into historical and political trauma, memory, the legacy of colonialism, labour issues and worker’s rights, she creates an allusive and subtle weaving of themes, material practices and images. An important aspect of her work is the cultural significance of text, reading, writing and knowledge. This recurs is most evident in her works on erasure or censorship. The question of darkness (dystopia, barbarism, censorship) and light (utopia, enlightenment, knowledge) recurs in several of the artist’s works. This also relates to her exploration of dark colonial histories, as in her research into the origins and history of the rubber plantations.
Tran’s project for the Prix Marcel Duchamp consists of two imposing large site-specific wall paintings, Les Couleurs du Gris (Colours of Grey), which dominate the space, as an expansive grey field. The paintings, non-pictorial and achromatic, create a contemplative, almost sacred space. Yet this pared- down space and abstraction is deceptive, revealing different layers of materiality, image and meaning. The work is, in fact, a continuation of Tran’s long-term investigation into the semantics of colour: the grey is produced by mixing six different colours that gave their name to the defoliants used by the US military during the Vietnam War (agent orange, purple, blue, green, pink, white).
This grey field serves as the material and conceptual backdrop for the 16mm film Si rien ne sort d’ici (If nothing comes out from this). The film is separated into what the artist calls four ‘breaths’, and focuses on four gestures and thoughts. Scene one shows plaster casts being broken, revealing letters of the alphabet that compose the phrase ‘Si rien ne sort d’ici’ (‘If nothing comes out from this’). This is a symbolic gesture that refers to the birth of language. Scene two shows a group of female Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong who gather in public space on Sundays, as if in silent protest. Scene three depicts a volcanic eruption, a telluric force that haunts the artist, as does the overbearing humidity of the tropical forests. The last scene returns to the motif of the rainbow in a moment of beauty and redemption. The succession of gestures and images infers different ‘liberations’ of sorts. The title, Si rien ne sort d’ici, is a phrase that, for the artist, is a call to utterance, to expression and, finally, to an emancipation of the self.
The same six colours are also used in the drawing Trail Dust. This meticulously composed hand-drawn image creates a dense, ominous, toxic landscape, which Thu-Van Tran has also stained with defoliant colours. This work constitutes a true South-East Asian landscape, one scarred and stained, physically and mentally, by foreign intervention, war, persecution and exploitation, but also inspiring a poetry of evanescence.
Finally, Sois le Bienvenu (Welcome), is a sculpture consisting of a deliberately broken ensemble of fossilized- looking letters which when observed carefully read ‘Welcome’. In light of the global migration crises (which Thu-Van Tran and her family experienced thirty-five years ago), the artist suggests that the word ‘welcome’ has lost its meaning. The work is made of algae, an unstable material that produces a changing mineral landscape. The artist seeks to re-site these words full of meaning and generosity (come in, welcome), in the present, while also addressing the social imaginary. This work is much in line with the Duchampian gesture of bringing an object and a phrase into a transformative encounter.
Thu-Van Tran successfully combines research, conceptualism, critical awareness, meticulous, labour-intensive production and aesthetics. Her work is visually engaging, political and allusive, rather than didactic or moralising. Form and process bear equal weight to content: her critique of historical injustice and master narratives and her remedy: a subjective form of corrective historiography. Thu-Van Tran’s practice reminds us of Marguerite Duras’ statement “When the past is recaptured by the imagination, breath is put back into life.”
1 Vircondelet, A, Duras: A Biography, trans. Thomas Buckley, Dalkey Archive Press, 1994, VII.