Recovering The Past

Words: Amei Wallach

New York-based performance and video artist Joan Jonas accepted Rolex’s invitation to be a mentor because, she says: ‘I enjoy meeting young artists and am curious about their concerns in this chaotic and difficult time. I hope to have a dialogue that might clarify thoughts and ideas.’ Moved by Jonas’ ‘extraordinary power to reinvent, being so groundbreaking from one work to the next’, protégée Thao-Nguyen Phan described meeting Jonas ‘as something like destiny’, a ‘lasting relationship… For my career, the programme has been a very immense support.’

Thao-Nguyen Phan Joan Jonas rolex
Joan Jonas

In the aftermath of the Lunar New Year, the centre of Ho Chi Minh City glittered like an amusement park. When Joan Jonas visited her protégée Thao-Nguyen Phan in her hometown, swags of communist stars, outlined in LED, arched above streets that also flashed gaudy whirligigs, illuminated parasols, or garlands of megawatt lotus flowers, the emblem of Vietnam.
     Less than twelve months earlier, when Thao-Nguyen first went to New York to meet Joan Jonas, she was struck by how much was possible in a place where experimentation was celebrated and audiences were educated. In her whirlwind year as a Rolex protégée, Thao-Nguyen had witnessed, and sometimes helped, as Jonas prepared performances and talks around the world, and a mutually respectful friendship had grown.
     This was Jonas’ first visit to Vietnam and crucial to deepening their artistic understanding. In Thao-Nguyen’s studio, cast-off decorations scavenged from the New Year’s streets lay on the floor, cloth-covered frames of once-flamboyant lotus flowers stripped and transformed into lighted sculpture and props for her video-in-progress.

Thao-Nguyen Phan Joan Jonas rolex
Thao-Nguyen Phan

     Sunflowers, she explained, symbolise the Communist Party, and the lotus ‘is the representation of purity, because the lotus grows in dirty mud but it doesn’t have the smell of mud. It is the symbol of the nation because we live in poor conditions, but that doesn’t mean we are affected by the bad conditions.’
     Like so many artists since the 1960s, Thao-Nguyen is heir to a practice that Jonas helped pioneer, fusing technology with the enigmatic intuitions of poetry. Jonas’ influential experiments in layering sound, music, movement, dance, drawing and moving images allowed the audience to engage with a work of art in more complex ways, and helped deliver trailblazing performance and video art in the process.

To read more about protégée Thao-Nguyen Phan and her mentor Joan Jonas purchase our August 2018 issue, or to continue supporting Creative Feel‘s role in the arts and culture sector subscribe to our monthly magazine in digital or print format.