Tammy Nguyen, Studio Visit & Interview

September 19, 2014 |


SATW: You are currently working on a number of different exciting projects and I have always been impressed by your immaculate work ethic and determination. Tell us about some of your current and upcoming projects.

TN: Right now, I have two solo shows up both of which were created during the last year.  One is called Hermes, the Epiphytes at Wave Hill; the other is Chickens of the Torrid Summer, at the Norwalk Community College. They are thematically and materially different but are both continuations of my fascination with human contradictions.

Chickens of the Torrid Summer is my imagination of war and “epic violence”. It is one iteration that displays my wonder with the Vietnam War through the relatable, or at least identifiable, proxy of a chicken— as bird, fighter, rooster, mother, and poultry. I feel deeply a part and totally distanced from the Vietnam War.  I am part of its aftermath and/or afterlife as the American-born daughter of Vietnamese refugees—thriving with no memory of war, constantly frustrated that I don’t understand it.

The show consists of prints and paintings.  The prints diagram chickens twisting around in a rectangular frame, as if embryonic. They also look like illuminated manuscripts sharing information about double-yolked eggs amidst a jungle made of Vietnam War comic book foliage.  A series of paintings display chickens with their skin being removed— their eyeballs roll around in fat, and a thick air of polluted grey. A diptych presents a cock fighter and his eyes/ future eggs/ a nest.

The reflections present in this show have led me to a new project I am working on now.  I am not sure where it is it going yet, but I’ll start from the beginning. Years ago, I was driving around Saigon, and I found an old US military document which is a researched plan to reconstruct Danang, a large city in central Vietnam. This document, written in 1969, identifies Saigon as a “primate city”— a city isolated by rural and inadequate areas that is large and growing so quickly that it absorbs the country’s resources projecting an unstable national future. Thus, this article makes an urgent case for the development of Danang for the prosperity of modern Vietnam.

Part of the reason Danang is so attractive is that its geography can be advantageous:  it has a large river that runs through it, a beach, a bay, and is surrounded by mountains. Danang is also a significant location for military strategy and many world powers had its eye on it— the French got there in the 17th century and named it Tourane. I took the opportunity last summer to use this document as a guide to survey contemporary Danang. I was really compelled by the term “primate city” and I was also lucky to find an endangered species of langurs that live on Son Tra Mountain— the mountain that housed the US military base during the Vietnam War. With the help of a local naturalist, I studied the langurs and I am now developing a new fiction where these primates and the military document can transform into something new, something twisted. Very excited about this, so please stay tuned!


SATW: How did you come upon birds as a main subject in your work and how do they function in your pieces?

TN: The birds became a dominant subject two years ago when I was making a body of work about family, traditionalism, my Vietnamese heritage, and my love-hate opinions of all of it. I was reflecting on ancestor worship and making images of my grandmother transforming into creatures that were sentimental to my childhood such as dinosaurs, robots, cougars, and birds. At this point, the bird stood for what death could transform into, one of my many imaginations of reincarnation. Then, Sam Messer (my professor at Yale), asked me if I had ever thought about studying birds. Of course I hadn’t, but then I did with Richard Prum, a profoundly inspirational ornithologist and evolutionary biologist at Yale.

After taking a course on evolution, ornithology, and then also doing some taxidermy for the Peabody Museum, I began to illustrate stories from natural sciences. But, as if a secret concept, I would interchange the words evolution and tradition so that they could mean the same thing and challenge each other. As I did this, I found myself more free to invent. Stories of strange species freely incorporated themselves into my world. The avian world is just like the human world! There are birds that kidnap others’ children, those that have many lovers, and those that stick to one. Oddly, when I look at the depiction of animals, I can see more about myself and human relationships. I am also more open to how I could be wrong and I feel more tolerant of others. This is destabilizing; I love that and I am still talking about my grandmother.

SATW: I love your mix of the mythological and the scientific in your work and am particularly impressed by the text you’ve written for your book, Hermes, the Epiphytes. Can you tell us a little about this text and that juxtaposition and how you hope it might function?

TN: The texts in these books are my original poems, which simultaneously retell Greek myths and explain specific plant morphologies.  All three narratives are told from the point of view of Hermes who has transformed into epiphytes (the books themselves are shaped in human-plant forms). They intend to seduce, confuse, and then destabilize the reader/viewer. Before I wrote the poems, I spent a lot of time looking, learning, and drawing epiphytes, or air plants. Epiphytes are funny trickster-like plants. They are benevolent and mischievous as they cling onto host plants (like trees) for support.  This is so that they can gain the most nutritious proportions of sun and water. To me, this trait is very similar to humans seeking opportunity; and this comparison became the jumping point for the books.

I asked my friend and colleague Bruce King, a classics scholar, if he had any thoughts on tricksters, or even the connection between botanics and mythology. He suggested that I think about Hermes, the popular trickster of Greek mythology—the messenger for the gods and kind protector of travelers and thieves.  Separately, Bruce also described a frequent Homeric analogy between plants, particularly shoots and flowers, to heroes, youth, and beauty. The perfect death of a hero should be when he is young and beautiful much like a flower that dies in full bloom. As heroes are half mortals, they can only come close to immortality through an early death in their highest moment as they become preserved in literature and poetry. This idea is so beautiful to me; it resonates with horror and delight; it is scary, contains anxiety, yet also hope all at the same time.

From this idea, I wrote the poems with this fantasy: What if Hermes had turned into epiphytes, and each epiphyte was a messenger that sent stories where classic myths were explained and intertwined with biologically true descriptions of plants?  What if the plants among us are the characters in the myths?

“Hermes, the Epiphytes,” is a direct simile, obviously fictitious.  However, as the scientific information emerges in the narratives, and the images waver between illustrative and suggestive— what began as metaphor could feel like it has more real-life urgency. In one book, Achilles is the epiphyte Bromelia neoregelia. Achilles is also the hero who should die in full bloom. In real life, the Bromelia neoregelia turns deep red when it is about to bloom—like the entire plant turns red. Then, soon after the flower blooms, the plant dies and another plant must start anew. I hope that by making Achiles the Bromelia neoregelia, tension is created, like a simultaneity between life and death. I want my reader to feel that myth and biology exist on such a co-dependent equilibrium that their comfort in faith and science is replaced with friction— the kind of two identical magnets repelling each other.


SATW: Your books are beautiful, complex, constructed beings that ask to be touched, moved and interacted with. How do you think about viewer-interaction in your work as well as ideas of presentation? How did you arrive at the “book” format and how do you want your books to be read?

TN: When I make a book, I usually thinking about “the reader” as one person.   I want my artist books to be both an operatic and private experience, where the reader can be deeply transported away. When I was little, my dad read me a picture every night before I went to bed and I vividly remember illustrations unraveling like animatronics in my head. Some of these thoughts were: What does it feel like to hold Heggedy Peg’s fake wooden leg? Could I have a bite of the Stinky Cheese Man? (I already had a palette for stinky cheese.) Is Anansti’s web big enough that I would stick to it? I don’t think I can listen to a mosquito buzzing in my ear…

When I make artist books now, I often refer to those bed-time thoughts, and I still wonder what it would be like if those illustrations stepped a tiny bit closer into reality.  If the book Heggedy Peg was made out of wood, I would have been terrified. I would be touching her lie, her trick. In my books, I try to bring the stories to literal reality just a tiny bit. In My Twin Aunts, the reader pulls the pages apart, as if ripping the conjoined twins away from each other. Salmonella is shaped like a chicken, and as a reader you spread its legs, and peels its paper guts away. I try to make the structures of my books theatrical enough so that they can provoke a stronger and physical relationship between the reader and the content.

SATW: Do you think “craft” plays a role in your studio? Does “craft” ever determine the form of your works? In what way and what does the term “craft” mean to you?

TN: Craft— the act of making— synthesizes my ideas with my environmental and material context. A mastery of craft impresses me. The maker (carpenter, noodle maker, tailor, translator) easily gains my respect with a display of effortless, excellent craft. As a maker, I am always striving to become like the masters that have won me over. Mastery, I suspect, is not just about precision— it’s not a hard-headed memorization of methods. I think that it has a lot to do with how you breathe and intuitively move around within whatever field.

I think craft does determine the physicality of my works, though it often defeats me, taking the work somewhere unintended. While bookmaking takes a lot of planning, things don’t really come together until I let the materials behave the way they want to, letting the linen wrap around the wood, and giving the corners an instinctual amount of allowance.

Painting is another story, maybe because it seems simple: paint and surface. When I let my intellectual intentions take over, I will most likely find a shitty painting at the end of the road.  I am still working on not working on my paintings so that the water can go where it wants to go, so that the oil can be all greasy in the way it wants to be. The craft in painting versus book arts are like driving different types of motorized vehicles. I should also say that my understanding of craft is separate from poetry, though they can support each other in a great work of art. I have a relatively traditional notion of craft, which I do not think is necessary in contemporary art at large— it is integral for some artworks, and makes no sense in others. You can still have poetry without traditional craft, and of course you can have high craft with no poetry at all.


SATW: You are currently the head art teacher at Pierrepont School, how do you like teaching and how does it inform your studio practice?

TN: I am so lucky to be teaching at the Pierrepont School, its an amazing, fluid place of learning. My studio also happens to be in the upstairs attic space, so I am also really grateful for that. Teaching at the Pierrepont School, though a job, has given me the opportunity to revisit many ideas that I was curious about as a child in a more urgent, more “adult-like” way. The school really values the academic caliber of their teachers, so I am surrounded by amazing scholars and thinkers of their own fields who are so generous about their passions— a music teacher shares with me her process of writing a libretto, books are constantly recommended back and forth from the history and English teachers, poetry, and tales of the ancient world are a common topic at lunch time. In this environment, it is easy for me to find the time and also the resources to explore new topics— the genesis of Hermes, the Epiphytes took place at Pierrepont.

And then there’re the kids! Pierrepont School is a K-12 school situated in a big house on top of a woody hill. It is a school designed for talented kids who are rigorously engaged with academics and the arts. Open the front doors, and you might find book-filled backpacks toppling over each other creating a jagged pathway to a 6th grader scaling a wall using a vacuum-cleaner-powered-suction-Spider-man-jet-suit that he designed himself. You might feel that you have seen this school before, well that’s because it’s basically the school in X-men for gifted youngsters. Basically.

I think this environment informs my studio practice in more ways than I am aware of, but I know that I feel very motivated to make art everyday. A typical day is one with a few hours of teaching and a few hours of studio, both head-spaces inform each other. In terms of my work, I feel that one idea keeps forming into the next, perhaps by a child’s clever remark.

SATW: As an Asian-American artist, how do you think your work fits into the social climate of art now and what artists/group of artists, if any, do you feel most aligned with?

TN: The muses in my studio right now are:  Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo, Francisco Goya, William Blake, Hokusai Manga, Jim Shaw, Italo Calvino, WPA muralists, George Orwell, Thomas Nast, Chris Ware, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Frank Netter. Most importantly, Marguerite Duras comes to work and goes home with me, she’s in my back pocket. All of these voices come together and they go into my mental crock-pot for my own homemade historical stew. While I know that I am contributing to art history with my own voice, I really have no idea if my voice will be forgotten, glorified, memorialized, referenced, simplified, misunderstood, or misplaced. That’s all really scary to me, makes me anxious, especially since I have decided to go balls out for this vocation.

I want rich dialogue and content all the time, but we live in a culture of sound bites (blogs, status updates, tweets, gifs, and lots of pictures). Makes sense, these are the times, and I don’t have time to have a rich conversation about everything anyway. But, consequently, these snippets serve as cultural currency. They emerge from a whole orchestra of diversity and nuances. The more instruments in your section the better the chances your sound bite will be heard and precise — but even then the sound bite is not going to totally articulate whatever your specific message is.

The Asian-American contemporary art section of the world orchestra is tiny.  The Asian one is a little bigger, but I don’t think it’s that big either.  It’s really hard (in New York) to get news about what’s going on in Asia and Asia(n)-whatever unless you put some effort into seeking it out. There isn’t a lack of Asian artists, so this should change. A context is partly created by strength in numbers and I don’t think that the Asian art context is big enough, as of yet. So, rather than thinking about fitting into a context, I prefer to align myself with individuals. Here are a few people on my growing my list:

1.     the artist Meena Hasan (who is interviewing me)

2.     the artist Chitra Ganesh

3.     the artist Saya Woolfalk

4.     the artist Chie Fueki

5.     the curator Zoe Butt

6.     the composer Justine Chen

7.     the poet Eleanor Chai



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