Đi thì không có đường về – Leave, then there is no way home. Sáu Thị Nguyễn, 1965. Footage of rain falling on lotus in a bomb crater pond, in her home village, 2018. (Installation View Photo by Constance Mensh for Asian Arts Initiative)
 
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In this interview, Boone Nguyen reveals the dualistic, transformative, and poetic unpinnings of the common thread found throughout his work.

Your family’s immigration story from Southeast Asia to the US has been the foundation of your practice. Could you tell us more about how this experience has driven your photographic and installation-based work?

My experience as a war refugee in the metropole is foundational to my sense of self and informs my work through the themes of displacement and placemaking, landscape and historical memory, leaving and returning, loss and transformation. My photographic and installation-based work is thus fueled by the continuing search for a distant yet familiar homeplace where the intimacies of life and death and the dialectic of subjection and resistance serve as an archive of memory that is both personal and collective. 

Themes of displacement, renewal, and transformation weave themselves throughout your work. Could you talk about a specific piece or project that describes these ideas?

My most recent exhibition, Đi thì không có đường về (Leave, then there is no way home), uses documentary photography, observational video, and soundscapes to create an immersive site-specific installation about migration, memory, agency, and transformation in my parents’ home villages in Vietnam and in South Philadelphia, the neighborhood in which I grew up and today immigrants of all generations and backgrounds live. Tracing the cultural and spiritual affinities between these two communities, half the world apart, the installation rendered visible the richness of their social life and collective history.

You mentioned you are tracing the spiritual practices of communities, I am curious to learn more about these practices and how they translate into your work?

My multimedia installation work explores how the cultural and spiritual practices of displaced communities connect them to their history, build communality, and transform places that have been subjected to social, political, and economic dislocation. In Vietnam, I have been documenting—through photography and observational video—the burial practices of rural villagers. As an example, the family burial plot, where children killed by bombs are laid to rest, is fertile with sweet potato and banana trees, cultivated to provide nourishment for the living. In Philadelphia, I have documented spiritual practices of refugee communities, such as the Khmer Buddhist New Year celebration and the Hartalika Teej festival in the Bhutanese Hindu community.

Boone Nguyen
At rest among the sweet potato, 2013, digital photograph, 26 x 18 inches 


What do you want a viewer to walk away with after experiencing your installations?

I want to destabilize notions of sympathy and victimhood and for viewers to understand that, despite being subjected to horrific loss and tragedy, displaced communities exercise collective agency by cultivating their cultural knowledge and practice—while reclaiming places rendered surplus or left to die by the violent forces of imperialism, globalization, and racial capitalism.

How has winning the Jerome fellowship affected and/or changed your work?

Winning the Jerome Fellowship has given me the time and mental space to be introspective and self-reflexive about the trajectory of my work.

kinh hành - walking meditation, 2013, digital photograph, 30 x 20 inches
kinh hành - walking meditation, 2013, digital photograph, 30 x 20 inches


If you could describe your work in one word, what would it be?

Transportive.