A Love Letter to James Nguyen


Dear James,

As I write an image of you is lodged in my mind:

Above the cacophony & transaction of the opening night of the behemoth Sydney Contemporary, five figures arduously make their way towards each other, walking atop plastic chairs, one leapfrogged step at a time. Each retells of a woman’s repeated failures to flee Vietnam to seek asylum in Australia; her fevered run for boats that never came, the embarrassing loss of her elastic waisted pants in the mud of mangroves. Slowly the figures come together in the centre of the space, voices rising and competing to have their version of the tale heard; three men speaking English and understood by their onlookers and two women speaking Vietnamese and thus largely unheard by the opening night crowds – this barrier no accident I know because you told me.

This is Fair Crossing (Eva), companion to your first major solo show at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Exit Strategies. You orchestrate this chair walk with your mother, father and brother, and your aunty, the central figure in the story being retold. It’s a fantastic counterpoint to the fair; a disturbance to the grand narrative of commerce & value that gives Sydney Contemporary its glitzy sheen. You’ve captured something special in this work James – this particular search for asylum is but one of thousands that course through the veins of Australia, nourishing the nation’s sense of itself, too often unnoticed amongst the supermarket of privilege we daily shop.

You wrote to me of the work that it “reflects on the idea of family reunions, fighting to get your voice heard and in the process ultimately losing your voice in the collective moment.” I love that idea, that all our efforts to be heard will ultimately be absorbed into the collective; that a chorus of voices can speak things that we as individuals cannot. That’s an important lesson.

I love also that you work with your family, as both performers and subjects. It works because it’s intimate, it suits the content of your work. Like so much of what you do, it is utterly fitting – there is a reason for everything, an internal logic, and I have always been drawn to that. You’ve taken your experience of growing up in a textiles factory in South-West Sydney, a tale of the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia in the 1990s, and turned it into this show that’s simultaneously grand in its scope and so, so intimate. Congratulations James – the show is intelligent, nuanced and complex. It’s also nostalgic without being overly sentimental, and I’m a total sucker for that.

I’d like to describe to you the experience of walking through the gallery, how the works piled up on top of one another in my mind and ultimately left me feeling this great warmth and connection to not just your family and your story but also my own, because there are certain things about family, about home, about the textures of our day to day lives, that resonate across experience. Hung in the window, Flatbed Knit Polo Collars (2015) is the first thing I see; that huge wonderful patchwork quilt of hundreds of leftover polo collars, made collaboratively with your mother the seamstress and draped heavily from the roof.

It’s both beautiful and very clever, the way it resonates with a Modernist aesthetic but affords no such easy or removed engagement with its material. There is nothing abstract about the way it’s assembled; its materiality is inevitably and externally bound to the global division of labour in the free market; the movement of migrant peoples; the bodily effects of mass production on its workers; your own childhood in a factory producing just such materials. I agree with what I think you’re saying, or at least it crystallised this idea for me – that we cannot speak of an engagement with material if we do not also engage with the origin of that material, its socio-political environment. Everything else is just surface, and the surface can be dangerous.

Your ability to take up a very singular and personal story and infuse it with a universality brings to Exit Strategies a lyricism and depth that rewards time spent with the works. How thoughtfully & pleasantly my time passed there. And then up, to that incredible new commission in the large gallery above. Those four videos, sublime in black and white and performed by your parents taking up the role of you and your charming brother. The Gimbal series – Gimbal (bike), Gimbal (playground), Gimbal (trolley), Gimbal (walk from school) – so good James. They have such fluidity and motion, perfect dreamy slices of a time-warped past. I felt like spinning around and around as well until I fell over amongst them. And because everything you do seems to have its own complete reason, the works are projected on tarps, an object that is so Australian and conjures camping and the rough and ready life of the free; but also increasingly conjures the vast unimaginable horrors of a refugee camp, or a terrifying journey at sea and the vain measures taken to protect against the murderous elements. A complete aesthetic paradox, included just so and not just for show.

Watching your parents reenact scenes from your own life is such a simple way to communicate the experience of second-generation Australians; the comparative privilege and safety among a history of hardships. It is so beguiling to watch your father walk your mother along that low wall on their way to school, holding her hand and occasionally pointing out this or that. Likewise the bike, the swing set, riding the shopping trolley at one end each. The works are so intimate & joyful and that is their power I think; that you don’t need to hold the reality of migration and privilege and the experience of people like your parents at any remove, approach it with any artifice, because it’s just life – it’s the walk to school and the games we play as much as the global movement of peoples in times of war, famine and persecution.

From here I step into to the smaller room – usually a storage cupboard and charmingly so, functional and unassuming like your work. Inside is Tripod, a series of videos.They have that great sense of the absurd; your sense of humour; that feeling of futility and failure and our strange habits, especially in the domestic sphere. The works that most stick in my mind are those that induce material dissonance – a disembodied hand presses an iron against a whole uncooked chicken in a moment of confounding materiality; the flat side of a sharp knife is pushed against a tongue, at once redundant and violent; a backpack is zipped up inside out. And of course the original chair walk across a river in the suburbs. Such simple yet mysterious little acts; domestic yet unfamiliar; tiny little tears in the fabric of our day to day lives. And in beautiful candy colours, such a nice contrast to the lush black and white of the Gimbal series.

I sent you a list of words recently James that I had written on my room sheet as I walked around. DOMESTICITY; INTIMACY; MATERIALITY; DISRUPTION; LABOUR; FAMILIARITY; VIOLENCE. These are the vague sensations that were left impressed upon me. These words are whole worlds within the world. You can’t talk about childhood without talking about place without talking about migration without talking about labour and material. We can’t talk about material without talking about labour and violence and the machinations of the global economy. Perhaps that’s why it seemed inevitable for me to begin with the art fair; that great bloated market machine. James to my mind you succeeded in capturing all these things through something that is so singular and that’s the trick. We need to abolish the idea that our intimate and domestic lives can happen outside the global machinations of commerce and war and labour and violence; the domestic is the global. We need to be intimate with the world or with no one.

Exit Strategies showed and not told this, disrupted that false and dangerous division between the local and the global. But what ultimately is your greatest achievement is that within this terrifying soup of amoral relations; within this world spinning faster and faster out of control on a gimbal gone crazy, you’ve made work that is loving & joyful & perhaps even optimistic. If there is beauty and harmony and sometimes peace within the intimate domestic spaces of one life, perhaps we can open this out to the world. Optimism is almost a controversial position these days, but perhaps it’s the only strategy with which we can resist the seeming inevitable. We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the power of optimism.

When I sent you that list of words and asked you to respond you did, from across the sea. And your response was so very fitting, a humble & quotidian & winsome series of images; tissues atop a text that you’d picked up the day before at Dia: Beacon. Remnants of your own life; blood dripped at an exact moment by chance; images for my words because words and images needn’t always communicate in the same way. Print them in black and white, you requested, without prescribing which image belongs with each word. I will faithfully oblige, being in total agreement that that is the way things should be. I hope readers enjoy them as much as I did.

Warmest Regards,
Kate Britton