In the Vietnamese-American artist’s work, lo-fi science experiments enact a perpetual transfiguration of matter, catalyzing entropy with the elemental forces of gravity, smoke, water and fire. Emerging from the close-up world of her photographs, her newest video opens up the angle, embarking on a journey through the sprawling spaces of Ho Chi Minh City.
Words by FRANKLIN MELENDEZ
There’s a funny paradox at the heart of Diane Severin Nguyen’s photographs: they seem custom-made to confound language while inadvertently generating an excess of it. It’s a conundrum I experience firsthand as I write this, vainly tethering words to her diminutive portals as they shift indifferently between states of matter. Not quite solid, liquid, nor gaseous—or at times simultaneously all three—they seep, bubble and ooze in a type of primordial hypostasis, a perpetual becoming that flirts with form while recoiling from its exigencies. One thing is certain: they’re far too concrete to be described as abstract. Nevertheless, they remain slippery and resistant to easy taxonomy, only hinting at origins that might be more rooted in the mundane than the obscure. Here, fibers filtered by light could just be a pile of shed hair; there, alien flesh in an amniotic sack remnants of the catch of the day; a gelatinous membrane splits open to reveal a toothy, latticed smile.
“So much of it has to do with failure,” notes Nguyen with a laugh. “Probably more than I should admit to!” “Contingency” might be another word for it, as her visual alchemy departs from the stuff that surrounds us: anything and everything that we touch and handle, from the things we ingest to the currencies we circulate to the devices that mediate our unbounded global views. It is a haphazard, gluttonous mix, with no clear distinctions between the organic and the inorganic, the fleshy and the mechanical, the constructed and the found. “I’m constantly looking and searching,” she notes of her process. “Searching for materials and objects that echo the state of the photograph, that are somehow in-between a fully signified ready-made object and something that’s pure substance. It’s pretty intuitive—mostly an awareness that certain things are inherently more photographable or photogenic in a way that’s unexpected. I’m very interested in the transfiguration of something through the lens.”
Nguyen’s micro-engagements open up onto the macro, brushing up against all the contingencies—material, historical, discursive—that determine the parameters of making and consuming an image. It is a wide-ranging project that is also unexpectedly (and quite surprisingly) romantic. That much is be evident in her latest undertaking, Tyrant Star, the video centerpiece of an latest installation which debuted last June at Art Basel Statements. Emerging from the close-up world of her photographs, the video embarks on a much more legible journey through the liminal spaces outside of Ho-Chi-Min City, that unnamed expanse between the rural and urban sprawls. Successive shots trace its contours, from garbage floating on water in rhythmic undulation to a piece of Durian fruit being torn asunder. At first, this seems like a stark opposition to the photographs, a foray into the journalistic, but for Nguyen, it is simply an extension: an exploration of another side of her inheritance: “I work with all of these different materialities and I don’t name them. The video provided a space for that.”
This naming unfolds as an excess of language, from the layered voiceover soundtrack of traditional Vietnamese poetry (parts of which Nguyen translated herself) and their accompanying subtitles to zooms on signage to layered visual puns. “I filled it to the brim with words,” she stresses—a deluge that seeks to immerse us in the affective tonalities of this place, in a set of conflicting materials, configurations, and impulses that are indebted to a fraught history of pain, poverty and disfiguration, but also beauty. Within it, we might also glimpse an analog for Nguyen’s photographic practice as it encounters unique sites and bodies, from children playing to an aspiring pop star. The latter Nguyen found on YouTube and enticed to perform a re-arranged karaoke version of the ‘60s boomer anthem “The Sound of Silence.” With party-light patterns dancing against her skin, she never quite crystallizes into that fixed glossy ideal, but rather emotes alongside incongruous elements that resonate one against the other to generate a weird type of synesthesia. For Nguyen, this performance captures one of the formative exchanges of her work: “I like thinking about photography as a cover song, in that it twists the affect on a given reality.”
Diane Severin Nguyen (American, b. 1990) is a an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. Nguyen completed her BA from Virginia Commonwealth University (2013) and is an MFA candidate from Milton Avery School of the Arts, Bard College (2019). Bad Reputation is pleased to debut her first solo exhibition in the United States.