Tammy Nguyen Has Three Paintings on Display at MoMA PS1
Tammy Nguyen is is a multimedia artist whose work spans painting, drawing, printmaking, and bookmaking. Intersecting geopolitical realities with fiction, her practice addresses lesser-known histories through a blend of myth and visual narrative. She is also the founder of Passenger Pigeon Press, an independent press that joins the work of scientists, journalists, creative writers, and artists to create politically nuanced and cross-disciplinary projects.
Until April 18, 2022, an artist book and two of Tammy’s paintings will be on display at Greater New York 2021 at MoMA PS1. We had the opportunity to interview Tammy to learn more about her work!
You have two paintings and an artist book on display at the Greater New York Exhibition. Could you discuss these pieces, the reasons they were selected, and some of your inspirations behind them?
“So let’s start with the artist book, which originally was a four-part series called Four Ways Through A Cave. For the past two years now, I’ve been exploring the idea of truth. More specifically, I’m interested in foregrounding Plato’s Allegory of the Cave — which is a story about truth — with different fictions and histories of Southeast Asia.
So the prisoners in the allegory assume that the shadows in the cave are true because there’s no point of comparison. After the prisoner escapes from the cave, the sun illuminates the truth throughout Plato’s Republic. I’m interested in how Plato explores the idea of goodness, wisdom, and higher knowledge as markers or aspirations of the truth. I wonder if the truth is even more true once you’re out of the cave. In general, I just think that the truth is so relative to whatever is illuminating your world, which inspired me to write Four Ways Through a Cave.
This text juxtaposes two places: the Phong Nha karst and Forest City. The Phong Nha karst is a cave system that expands Northern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and is home to the Ho Chi Minh Trail — a supply route during the Vietnam War that sent weapons and ammunition from communist-led North Vietnam to their supporters in the South. Many historians actually credit the Ho Chi Minh Trail as the reason why the Northern army was able to see its victory in the end. I had the chance to visit and write about the Phong Nha karst in 2019. I then visited Forest City, which is a tax-free island for the wealthy in the middle of Malaysia and Singapore. Forest City is advertised as the safest, most sustainable, and most relaxing island. When I visited, it was so is so vividly comfortable; there are kids running around, swimming pools everywhere, and you never even have to worry about traffic. With so many markers of luxury and success, I returned to the idea of truth; I was just so fascinated that there’s this completely artificially made island that holds values that are so vividly true.
Through writing about my experiences at Phong Nha and Forest Island, I was able to weave these two places together. Nha is an ancient geological formation that holds so much of the planet’s memory, and Forest City carries a lot of philosophical significance of just human civilization. So the artist book featured in PS1 were sculptural artist book explorations in thinking about ways that the metaphorical prisoner (representative of anyone) navigates their way out of the cave and sees light. So as you flip through and expand the pages of the artist book, the light starts to come through by way of circular cutouts and gold leaf. The inspiration for the two paintings on display actually came from this artist book.
Both paintings use Italian artist Coppo di Marcovaldo’s Madonna and Child as a compositional structure. The first, Citizens Cauldron is a Madonna and Child rendered in Phong Nha, in my reimagination of Phong Nha where the viewer is placed inside of the cave and looking outward. And so the Madonna and Child, which is overgrown with moss and leaves, is backlit. So behind Madonna and Child, there’s a halo that, in my painting, is the actual cave opening. The other painting, In the Heart of Rimland, is an illustration of Madonna and Child wrapped in a bathrobe and a visor. So hare, she’s placed in futuristic utopia like Forest City.”
Do you feel that viewers need to understand the context of these pieces to have a full appreciation of them?
“I think that the more and more you know about a person’s practice, the richer and richer your experience of it will be. I also really appreciate the complete ignorance of a project because I’m open to how my work is embraced by different audiences. I really enjoy a changing relationship with artists that I admire. I love being in ignorance about where the references come from. I do think that relationships with artworks are better when they’re longer friendships.”
Many of your pieces, your paintings are illustrations of nature. What fascinates you about nature and how you utilize it as a medium through which to express yourself and your ideas?
“My engagement with nature actually started when I was in graduate school at Yale. I had just returned from living in Vietnam for four years and observed a stark contrast between American and Vietnamese ideals of individualism and freedom. In Vietnam, the family unit often takes priority over individual aspirations and ambition; In contrast, in America, individualism is respected and encouraged. When I came back from Vietnam, I really wanted to make work that engaged with this contradiction.
So I made this really bad painting of my grandmother turning into a bird, and my professor encouraged me to visit Yale’s ornithology library, which I loved so much that I became a taxidermist. I then started drawing these birds and found so much imagination through the process of observation. So I started to bring animals and birds specifically into my work. It wasn’t exactly about Vietnam but there was something about learning from nature that spoke to my interest in contradiction. I enjoy drawing from nature because I like distilling different rhythms and moments of collapse and contradiction.”
What do you consider to be an artistic goal of yours?
“I really like my experience of art to be one of my own salvation, and I hope that my artworks can offer something close to that for my audience as well. I think a lot about confusion and how I want my work to be confidently confusing, which returns to this idea of contradiction. In general, I have this pursuit of nuance that I hope my art captures.”
I’m also really excited to just create something beautiful to be enjoyed. It’s okay if you don’t know anything about Phong Nha or Forest City — I just want to provide a fun, reflective experience.”