Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi

with Emily Butler

‘My work may have a concrete and solid subject, object, story as a point of departure, but eventually I’m interested in an uncertain epistemology. Uncertainty is my anchor, not-knowing is my state of being/doing. I aspire to create images that are moving, migrating, metamorphosing; that make stories, identities, meanings collapse and mutate; that do not have a certain content and form. How can I create an image without creating an image?’

My name is Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi aka Han. I don’t know what my work is about (laughs), but I can share with you some of the questions and dimensions I’m fascinated by, as I move through this world and continuously negotiate my relationship with it. At the moment, I’m mainly working with moving images. I think about movement as both substance and methodology. I’m interested in creating new relationships by layering various movements across space and time: from the movement of a light particle to a ping pong ball; from the movement of thoughts and waves to a planet. The Latin verb migrāre, mī̆gro, -āvi, -ātum means to move (from one place to another), to depart, to migrate, to change, to turn. My work may have a concrete and solid subject, object, story as a point of departure, but eventually I’m interested in an uncertain epistemology. Uncertainty is my anchor, not-knowing is my state of being/doing. I aspire to create images that are moving, migrating, metamorphosing; that make stories, identities, meanings collapse and mutate; that do not have a certain content and form. How can I create an image without creating an image? How can I find a form and rhythm that reflects the entanglement between the moving image and the act of creating the moving image? What could freedom of movement mean in the context of moving images?

What are you showing in The London Open 2022?

I’m showing a new piece, which is part of a trilogy that I have been working on since 2016. Linger On Your Pale Blue Eyes, is an attempt to imagine a scientist’s stream of consciousness during her escape from East Germany. In order to reach West Germany, she swims through the Black Sea in darkness and navigates with the aid of the Polar Star and the continuously changing starry sky. In the second part, The In/Extinguishable Fire (2019), a father and daughter explore their relationship by contemplating the aerodynamics of flying objects and recounting fragmented microhistories of the Cold War period in Germany – birthplace of the daughter – and Vietnam – birthplace of the father. The last part, This undreamt of sail is watered by the white wind of the abyss (2022) is shaped by an event during a woman’s odyssey across the ocean on a boat from Vietnam to Thailand after the American War in Vietnam. After her boat was attacked by pirates, she – who did not have the ability to swim – jumped into the ocean. This jump haunts and fascinates me, and I have been searching for a language to deal with this, although this is an impossible task.

The work offers a very personal and moving story about the experience of someone in your family, of a narrative about displacement. You describe the work as a hybrid between documentary and (auto)fiction, fairy tale and science fiction. Why do you combine all those genres in this narrative?

 I think it is really difficult, if not impossible, to grasp what we call ‘reality’. The boundaries between fiction and reality are rather blurry. Our realities can be constituted by fictions, and vice versa. My approach is to layer all these different genres or modes of ‘reality’ in this piece, so that the experience you addressed in your question can exist as multiple ‘realities’ simultaneously, and one of them can be interpreted as ‘displacement’. Furthermore, I don’t want my work’s focus to be limited to one individual’s perspective or story. Departing from a concrete individual experience, I aspire to expand that experience into an ecosystem consisting of different realities, events, agencies shaped by both human and more-than- human forces.

Adjacent to your video, we will be showing a sculpture, a hanging laryngeal mask with cyanobacteria growing inside. Can you tell us about the significance of this plant and object?

 Having experienced a lung injury some years ago and living with a reduced lung capacity for a few months, I’ve been contemplating the act of breathing – the possibility and impossibility to breathe – both on an individual and collective level. The sculpture emerged from these contemplations and exists in dialogue with the moving image work I’m showing. It consists of a laryngeal mask airway which is a supraglottic airway device, and it is used as a temporary method to maintain an open airway during the administration of anaesthesia or as an immediate life- saving measure in a patient with a difficult airway. This mask airway is filled with a cyanobacterial culture. Around 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen became a major component of the Earth’s atmosphere. This event is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. Cyanobacterial photosynthesis is regarded as the key source of oxygen and its release was responsible for changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and thus the evolution of multicellularity. The third element of the sculpture is an ostrich egg. I won’t say much about this, but would like to share a quote by Marcel Broodthaers which I came across recently: ‘All is eggs. The world is an egg. The world is born of the great yolk, the sun. Our mother, the moon, is covered with eggshells. And the belly of a wave is white. A heap of eggshells, the moon. Dust of eggshells the stars. All, dead eggs.’

Works in the exhibition:
This undreamt of sail is watered by the white wind of the abyss, 2022
Sculpture; laryngeal mask, cyanobacteria, ostrich egg
Dimensions variable

Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi (1988, Reutlingen, Germany)
2015 BA Fine Art, Städelschule, Frankfurt
2019 MFA Film, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
2020 PhD, Research in Film, University of Westminster, London

Selected exhibitions: into the earth below, the blue blur of bones, De Appel, Amsterdam (2022); The 60th New York Film Festival, Film at Lincoln Center, New York (2022); Still present!, The 12th Berlin Biennale, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2022); They breathe, the celestials, Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin (2022); Thinking Beyond, Lo Schermo dell’arte and NAM–Not A Museum, Florence (2021); An Ecstatic Accident Caused by Void and Fire, Art Hub, Copenhagen (2021); I unexpectedly became aware of lying in a bed located in a city located on the earth located in the world located in history, Haus, Vienna (2020); Sets and Scenarios, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham (2020); Screening Nature, Sàn Art, Saigon (2020); A Situation Which Resists Completion, Atletika, Vilnius (2019); What My Eyes Behold Is Simultaneous, Site Galleries, Chicago (2019); Die Stelle des Schnitts, Kunstverein Nürnberg, Nürnberg (2017); Parked Like Serious Oysters, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2015).

What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?

This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.

Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.

The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.

The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.

The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.

Gallery 1, Downstairs

The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.

Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.

Gallery 9, Upstairs

This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free  2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.

Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.

Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?

Gallery 8, Upstairs

The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.

Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.

On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.

The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.

Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.

See the full list of works here.

An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.

Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.