Anh-Thuy Nguyen at the Assembly Room
The 26-year-old Anh-Thuy Nguyen comes from Hanoi, but she has lived in America for eight years. After pursuing an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, Nguyen has been quite active in avant-garde circles in New York. Her show Organon at Assembly Room on the Lower East Side investigates the body through a sculptural, conceptual, and performative practice. While the work is not overtly feminist, it is fair to say that Nguyen’s art originates in a strong sense of what it is to be female at the beginnings of the 21st century. Her sense of the body is exquisite, collapsing the dichotomy between the physical and the metaphysical.
Nguyen’s pieces in the show indirectly suggest their subject matter. A lot of contemporary art often includes a statement or narration, especially in areas concerning politics and gender. Potentially situated at a similar subject, Nguyen’s approach only offers a minimal outline of possible meanings, without any explicit explanation. This might pose a challenge as her ideas may not be easily legible to mainstream viewers outside the art world or the academy, on top of the fact that the art itself does not formally eschew (conventional) beauty so much as simply avoid it.
Regardless of aesthetic niceties, it seems like such a challenge is precisely her point. In conversation, the artist made it clear she was not concerned about gaining a widespread recognition but rather a meaningful one. It is the job of her audience, then, and the work of the writer to make sense of a protracted distance between the intimacies of her vision. Organon, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is an “instrument for acquiring knowledge”, hence the knowledge the artist proposes through the demonstration of objects and methods. It is true that this exhibition curated by Chinese-born, Columbia-educated Banyi Huang, demonstrates continuous intellectual resolve as well as a sharp sense of visual coherence. Upon looking at the work with details of flesh-tinted silicone has been molded, cast, painted in organ and body-part shapes, it is clear that the body is a comprehensive and consistent subject despite their generally ambiguous portrayal. Organon as an exhibition comes with apparent concerns about the separation between bodies and bodies, as well as the gap between the body and the self.
One of the most interesting pieces in the show is Meet by Touch (2017-18), in which Nguyen shows a line of small clay objects, above which are photo documentation of similar clay objects. Nguyen’s piece consists of clay impressions of her body parts, sent to an artist in Hanoi, who took the photos and who sent her impressions of his own body--hence the small clay pieces physically on the show (there is an empty space for a mailing that never arrived). Again, the seemingly close familiarity occurs at a distance, in this case, an exceedingly long one given that one artist is in New York and the other is in Viet Nam. Yet the clay pieces are about intimacy since they are directly formed by parts of each artist’s physical being. The elements of Meet by Touch document a year-long exchange, in which each participant abstractly learned about and communicated each other’s body--without actually meeting. The artwork is a perfect combination of contemporary experience, in which closeness and distance appear to be equally combined--and, perhaps, wished for.
Another remarkable artwork is the seemingly simple piece titled Semiotics of Distance (2017), in which two metal stands, topped with pieces of a traditional aluminum serving platter (cut by the artist herself), support a long, textured flesh-tinted silicone tube. The found platter refers to hearth and home, while the silicone tube, according to the artist, alludes to the human gut or umbilical cord. On the wall is a video of two young men, dressed in black, who circle the sculpture and move around the metal stands with deliberate gravitas. They are two participants in a specific, repetitive ritual, in which the distance between them is fixed by the length of the silicone tube, while the brokenness and separation of the two fragments persist. It seems that in the same moment, that they are both very close and very far away.
The final piece to be discussed is Mobile Necessity (2019), which consists of three heavy, dark steel panels, more than five feet tall, leaning against the wall. Each of them has a silicone body part and a set of two steel handles that would allow a person to hold it like a shield. The panel on the left acts as the background for the low-set seat of a person (Nguyen herself), while the middle and the right plates hold, respectively, a silicone shoulder and a silicone tongue (both parts are placed on the panel at heights relating to their particular position on the artist’s body). The title here gives Nguyen’s audience the sense that we can travel, necessarily, with defenses for the body in question. The steel sheets feel a lot like armor, while the body parts attached to them humanize them and indicate the inevitable vulnerability of the corporeal. The artist is always searching, here and in the other two pieces described, for an intimation of the physical in both abstract and figurative terms. In all three pieces there exists the imagination or actuality of performance--a way of actively demonstrating the human body and its suggestion of physical familiarity--not only for us but also for the artist herself.
What can be said in response to such complicated, affecting sculptures? Nguyen is very much an intellectual in these pieces, but that does not mean she foregoes the visual elements of which she is so much in command. Still, I wonder about her audience, given that she plays out her ideas on so high a conceptual level. Doing so may not disconcert her viewers, who would tend to be initiated into Nguyen’s sometimes arcane methodologies of form. Interestingly, though, her language remains personal and private, curtailing anything close to the audience’s wish to easily understand. One hopes that the written investigation of the artist’s motives and methods will result in a clear interpretation of the works, which immensely suggest without specifically defining. We know from the titles that Nguyen is determined to place the body--mostly, her body--in a site that would bring us closer to her. But maybe only a little if we also comprehend that she is keeping her distance. If we are meant to know her closely, we are also intended to maintain the gap between artist and audience, even though the body parts are as near to her physical existence as they can be. In the long run, this is not so much problematic as it is illustrative of contingencies none of us can escape, the artist herself included.
Images courtesy of the artist