– Spring/Summer 2019

(Tran)scribed History: Thảo Nguyên Phan’s Palimpsest Visions of Colonialism and Conversion

Nora A. Taylor

Thảo Nguyên Phan, from the series Voyages de Rhodes, 2014–17, watercolour on found books, 23.5 × 15.5cm. Courtesy the artist

In his series of lectures that were compiled in the book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), Jacques Derrida reflects on Sigmund Freud’s Wunderblock, or ‘Magic Mystic Pad’, the psyche’s ability to remember without a recording instrument.1 Once a machine is used to archive memory, it signals the death of the spontaneity of that memory. In Derrida’s view, it becomes a palimpsest, erasing the mind’s ability to simultaneously recall what has been recorded. This idea resonates with Thảo Nguyên Phan’s recent body of work Voyages de Rhodes (2014–17). The work consists of a series of watercolours painted directly onto the pages of an ancient book, Alexandre de Rhodes’ Voyages et Missions du Père Alexandre de Rhodes en La Chine et Autres Royaumes de l’Orient, avec son Retour en Europe par la Perse et l’Arménie, published in 1653; the artist discovered and purchased an original copy on eBay in 2013. The work thus apposes contemporary images onto the observations of a seventeenth-century European missionary to Vietnam. The watercolours themselves are beautifully created. Fluid as water, and precise in their execution, these clearly drawn images would not be so perplexing if they had not been laid over the pages of a seventeenth-century book. Phan’s watercolours hover over De

  1. Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’, Diacritics, vol.25, no.2, Summer 1995, p.15.

  2. Viet Thanh Nguyen, ‘Impossible to Forget, Difficult to Remember: Vietnam and the Art of Dinh Q. Lê’, in A Tapestry of Memories: The Art of Dinh Q. Lê, Bellevue Arts Museum, 2007, pp.19–29.

  3. ‘Riverscapes In Flux’ was curated by six curators and included seventeen artists based in Southeast Asia, and organised by the Goethe-Institut in Hanoi, the exhibition toured Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia from April 2012 to March 2013. Curators included Ade Darmawan, Apisak Sonjod, Claro Jr Ramirez, Erin Gleeson, Iola Lenzi and Tran Luong, see http://blog.goethe.de/ riverscapes/ (last accessed on 3 July 2018).

  4. Email from the artist, 10 July 2018.

  5. Milton E. Osborne, The French Presence in Cochinchina & Cambodia, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969, p.90.

  6. Translation the author’s.

  7. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2004 film Sat Pralat, or ‘beast’, translated into English as Tropical Malady, has a scene that tells the story of a woman who turns into a tiger at night.

  8. Zoe Butt, ‘Poetic Amnesia’, in Poetic Amnesia: Phan Thảo Nguyên (exh. cat.), Ho Chi Minh City: Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 2017, p.37.

  9. Jane Blocker, Becoming Past: History in Contemporary Art, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p.72.