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. (more…)