Michelle Nguyen | Before I Depart

For her new solo exhibition, Vietnamese-Canadian artist Michelle Nguyen offers a moving and ruminative extended artist statement on some of the major recurring themes in her work. Enlightening and illustrative quotes selected by Nguyen accompany her own text.

Michelle Nguyen Before I Depart opens at Bau-Xi Vancouver's upper gallery on Saturday March 9 and runs through March 23, 2024.

Michelle Nguyen, Water Feature (Wailing Venus). Oil on canvas, 49 x 36 inches.

On the Omission of the Face

“Man shouldn’t be able to see his own face – there’s nothing more sinister. Nature gave him the gift of not being able to see it, and of not being able to stare into his own eyes.
Only in the water of rivers and ponds could he look at his face. And the very posture he had to assume was symbolic. He had to bend over, stoop down, to commit the ignominy of beholding himself.
The inventor of the mirror poisoned the human heart.”

― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

“The notion of human faces as recognizable, categorizable, and distinct from other kinds of faces first emerged as a scientific conception in Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)…For many, the face is the basis for sympathy; morality enhanced by face to face interaction…The face shocks us into recognizing our stark difference from and our profound responsibility to one another.”

— Namwali Serpell, Stranger Faces

“Studies have shown that the average person correctly assesses another person’s expressions (thinking, agreeing, confused, concentrating, interested, disagreeing) only 54% of the time. Despite the belief that a face is clearer than a word, there’s more variation in what facial expressions mean across culture, gender, and individuals than we might imagine.”

— Namwali Serpell, Stranger Faces

“In fact, it [the self] was barely even a concept at all until about the seventeenth century, when languages such as English and German began to use the word “self” as something other than an intensifier (as in “I did it myself”). Then, as we shall see in later chapters, the “self” began to replace the “soul” as a special kind of kernel within each individual, walled off in part from everyone else. Attention turned inward, as people were encouraged to know themselves through, for example, the widespread use of mirrors, the writing of journals and autobiographies, and the painting of portraits, often self-portraits. “Western individualism” was born, along with, eventually, psychoanalysis and any number of afflictions of the self.”

— Barbara Ehrenreich, Natural Causes

Michelle Nguyen, Alter For Hungry Ghosts. Oil on canvas, 72 x 42 inches.

On Death and Grief

Altar for Hungry Ghosts is influenced by the Buddhist altars that can be found in many Vietnamese households. Though varied in size and display, most of these altars contain similar elements such as photos of deceased family members, candles, incense, and edible offerings such as fruit.

The last time I was home, I found my late paternal grandmother’s dentures placed upon our home altar. My father had found them while cleaning up. He did not know what to do with them, and settled for placing them there in their white plastic case next to her photo. My grandmother was cremated and her ashes have long been strewn, so there is this odd feeling of knowing that her body has been long gone but this very intimate casting of the inside of her mouth still exists. In that way, her dentures feel like an unintentional death mask.

My personal memories of my grandmother are intertwined with memories of us spending them outside together underneath the cherry tree in our backyard. I very much associate her with the dusting of pink petals drifting in a swirl of confetti in the springtime and eating cherries right off the branches in the summer. The altar in loaded with many of her favourite foods and meals that I recall sharing with her. Additionally, on one’s birthday, upon cutting the cake, it is customary to serve the first piece to the eldest in the family, often the patriarch or matriarch.

It has almost been eighteen years since my grandmother passed away, and though time has aided in numbing that pain, it is still very much present in our household. My father is a very stoic and quiet man, so to see these rare moments of vulnerability of his is very meaningful to me. My father’s act of putting the dentures on the family altar also spoke to (for me at least) how there is no right way to mourn. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s most well-known work, The Five Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance), have actually been greatly oversimplified since its conception. These stages actually do not have to happen in order and can be repeated a multitude of times. Grief is a part of every human experience and I want to encourage others to engage in it more.

You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.

Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?

— Anne Carson, The Glass Essay

“When people hear the term “grief,” they frequently think about concrete loss and trauma—a break up, a departure, a death…Something must have already happened to illicit grief, and that event must have taken place in the past. However, when looking at the origins of the term “grief”—from the Latin gravare, to burden—we can see that there is no reference to time or to a cause at all. To grieve is simply to feel weighed down, to be made heavy, to experience mental suffering and deep sorrow.”

— Breeshia Wade, Grieving While Black

“When we fail to recognize the grief inherent in so many of our other emotions, we fail to engage honestly with our experience. Our lives are full of griefs, full of losses big and small, and every loss is a spiritual death. Neglecting that grief leads to spiritual decay, a rotting that attempts to plug its own holes with the wholeness of others. Too many of us are driven by grief rather than informed by it, allowing our fear of impermanence and powerlessness to justify our brutish disempowerment of others.” 

— Breeshia Wade, Grieving While Black

“It’s imperative that each of us starts attending to our own grief, not to the exclusion of, but for the sake of, the world. Although the consequences of stifled grief tend to flow downhill from social power, we all have a lot to grieve, and we are each capable of causing tremendous suffering as a result of our relationship to fear of loss. The type of work required from each of us must extend beyond self-care, therapy, and relaxation. It must involve deliberate internal exploration of our deepest fears and desires.

Grief can either be used as a tool to bring us closer to ourselves, and thus to each other, or it can tear us apart.”

— Breeshia Wade, Grieving While Black

“You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it. Or, most realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.”

— Barbara Ehrenreich, Natural Causes

Michelle Nguyen, Shape Shifter. Oil on canvas, 57 x 72 inches.

On Metamorphosis and Shapeshifting

I’ve always had a fascination with insects since a young age because of how different their existence seemed in comparison to mine. I remember spending my time after rainstorms walking around scooping up worms from the concrete and placing them back in the soil so they wouldn’t get trampled. I had learned that worms had five hearts and I could not imagine the pain they were capable of feeling. I had only one and I felt so deeply; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to feel with five hearts.

In a 2014 episode of Radiolab entitled “Goo and You,” producer Molly Webster looks into the change a caterpillar goes through within the pupal stage, how they basically become a soup of stem cells and reassemble themselves into that of a butterfly. A 2008 study by Douglas J. Blackiston et al. found that caterpillars retained their memories through their metamorphosis. They trained tobacco hornworm caterpillars to associate a particular odour with that of pain (a mild electric shock) and found that they would actively avoid the smell as moths.

Transformation myths such as that of the werewolf and ones in Greco-Roman mythology can easily be compared to the drastic transformation of many insects.

Additionally, I am interested in the subjectivity of the term “pest” and how which creatures are considered pests hinges solely on how human perceptions and beliefs change over time. For example, in Bethany Brookshire’s Pest, she notes that rats and mice were considered symbols of prosperity in early developments of agriculture. To have rodents meant that you had food, you had wealth. Whereas today, rodents are often associated with filth and the poor. Two mice can be seen on either side of the table in Altar for Hungry Ghosts.

In my painting practice I often paint over old works, partly for practical reasons (not wanting to spend money on more canvas and stretchers). Three of the paintings in this body of work are pieces that have been painted over. Shapeshifter (2023) was previously Succubi Feeding (2019), Altar for Hungry Ghosts (2023) was Soft Suits II (2019), and Smokescreen (2023) was Kindle (2019). I would compare these pieces to palimpsests.

Just because something is not shown on its surface or no longer has a physical presence does not mean it wasn’t important and served a purpose. The blank canvas and the self-made person is a myth. Context is everything.

“All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

is Change.”

― Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower

“I’m lumpy and porous, I’m an animal, I hurt sometimes, and I’m different one day to the next. I hear, see, and smell things in a world where others also hear, see, and smell me. And it takes a break to remember that: a break to do nothing, to just listen, to remember, in the deepest sense what, when, and where we are.”

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

“Every day, we witness and experience both birth and death in a variety of contexts. We experience the loss of our parents on multiple levels, from witnessing the disappointment in their shortcomings to simply watching old age transform them into people we barely recognize—and from that loss, new insights and possibilities emerge. With each moment, the person who we are is dying to make room for the person we are becoming.”

— Breeshia Wade, Grieving While Black

Michelle Nguyen, Smokescreen. Oil on canvas, 15 x 17 inches.

On Climate Change

I have thought about the paintings Smokescreen and Flooded Fountain and think they are apt reflections on the grief that accommodates our growing climate crisis. The guardian stone lions/foo dogs are seen as protectors and are often placed outside of palaces, tombs, and places of worship, much like the motif of the gorgoneion in Greco-Roman culture. In this case, they can no longer offer protection. Objects people have built to stand the tests of time deteriorate. Flooding and forest fires have become a frequent reoccurrence in British Columbia, especially in the last few years. Heavy rainstorms in the winter have washed away entire stretches of road, and wildfires in the summertime are impossible to ignore when the smell of singe and smoke roll in with the frequent change of the winds.

On Cockfighting

I have always felt an attachment to the rooster, being that it is the year I was born in, and a childhood activity my father partook in. My interest was further piqued upon learning that the chicken’s early ancestor, the jungle fowl, was originally domesticated for cockfighting as opposed to sustenance.

The birds were treated as sacred creatures throughout many early human societies, admired for their fighting prowess. “Archeologists have found people being buried with the remnants of chickens, rather than discarded as scraps…Because the birds were buried with humans, it suggested that they had a cultural or social significance…which means that a desire for meat did not drive the domestication of the chicken” (Smithsonian Magazine 2022).

In Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes of the Balinese Cockfight (1976),” the American anthropologist notes that before the invasion of the Dutch in 1908, cockfighting was seen as a “compulsory duty of citizenship”. Cock rings were found in the centre of the village, where the council house, temple, and marketplace were also located. The events itself were subjected to taxation and served as a major source of public revenue.

Cockfighting was only declared illegal while Bali was under Dutch rule, for it was seen as a “pretension to puritanism and radical nationalism (Geertz 1976).” Only then did this idea of it being “primitive”, backward”, and “unprogressive” (Ibid.) take shape. It is more than just pure bloodshed; there is actually a great deal of nuance to cockfighting. The men who raise these cocks put a lot of tender love and care into their upbringing. The birds are fed specialized diets and are washed in a holy bath of anti-inflammatory qualities. The birds are also taken out for exercise the same way one would with a pet dog. A common practice is for men to gently clasp the birds in-between their legs while squatting, using their hands to stretch and contract the birds’ legs like a human elliptical to strengthen them.

Though different breeds of roosters have different levels of aggression, they usually begin to show their willingness to fight at sixteen to twenty four weeks, which would also be the earliest some of these cocks will find themselves in the fighting ring. In comparison, most commercial broiler hens are slaughtered at six to eight weeks of age. I am not here to defend one act of cruelty to another, but one could argue that, despite the blatant bloodshed and violence these fighting cocks are subjected to, the length and quality of their lives are much more preferable than to that of the broilers we kill just for meat; they often live stressful lives in overcrowded barns with limited sunlight, and poor air and water quality. Compared to broilers, roosters bred to fight are pampered lavishly.

My father dabbled in cockfighting as a boy. He recalls tenderly wrapping his bird in a blanket at night while it slept to help it conserve its energy. He loved the bird and was saddened when it died in battle. There is a queerness to cockfighting that I initially was not expecting to find in a bloodsport primarily dominated by men—a tenderness and level of care that challenges one’s perception of gender and masculinity.

Michelle Nguyen, Amuse Bouche. Oil on canvas, 8 x 8 inches.

On Food

I mentioned in our talk that food is important to me personally as well as to my family and to the culture I grew up in. Paintings I create where food serves as a central subject serve a similar purpose to Dutch vanitas, a memento mori—a reminder to the audience of the ephemeral nature of everything. Additionally, the food set on these tables and altars are ammunition for political fodder.

Upon first look, having a cob of corn, a head of cabbage, and a slice of Emmental cheese gracing the same table looks mundane, but their shared space is quite remarkable, made possible due to the history of colonialism and globalization.

The food items I choose are often chosen for their colour and contrast, as well as things I have recently eaten or am craving. I enjoy allowing a certain level of impulse and daily disposition to have a role in the work. With regards to Vanitas and Altars for Hungry Ghosts, I looked into the origins of the different plants and produce after they were finished. I don’t usually go into production for a piece with a particular message in mind; it is something I weave together afterwards upon reflecting back on the process of making the work.

Lastly, I just wanted to note the significance of the lotus flower, which is the national flower of Vietnam. It is symbolic of rebirth because it grows and rises from muddy waters to bloom and returns to the same depths once withered to sow its seeds and continue the cycle. They are also sometimes used in wastewater treatment to remove certain polluted compounds and heavy metals.

-Michelle Nguyen, 2024

Michelle Nguyen, Vanitas. Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.

On Creating

Maybe the desire to make something
is the piece of God that is inside
each of us.

—Mary Oliver, “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses”

The artist in her former Vancouver studio.

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