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"Nguyen Trinh Thi: Letters from Panduranga" on view at Jeu de Paume
Ngyuen Trinh Thi, Letters from Panduranga, 2015. Coproduction: Jeu de Paume, Paris, Fondation Nationale des Arts Graphiques et Plastiques et CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, avec le soutien du Cultural Development and Exchange Fund. Courtesy de l’artiste. © Ngyuen Trinh Thi, 2015.

PARIS.- Nguyen Trinh Thi (born 1973, Hanoi) is an artist and filmmaker. She studied journalism and photography at the university of Iowa and international relations and ethnographic film at university of California, San Diego. Her documentary and experimental films have been screened at festivals and exhibitions nationally and internationally. Nguyen is the founding director of Hanoi DocLab (2009), a center for documentary filmmaking and video art in Hanoi, where she continues to teach today.

Selected for her layered, personal and poetic approach to contentious histories and current events through experimentations with the moving image, Nguyen is the last of four artists exhibiting in the satellite 8 program “Enter the Stream at the Turn.” She is best known for her works Unsubtitled (2010) and Landscape Series #1 (2013) – uniquely formatted video installations that deftly speak to issues of censorship through the perspective of the collective, the journalist, the artist.

Nguyen’s Satellite 8 commission, Letters from Panduranga (2015), extends her experimentation between documentary and fiction in an essay film portraying a Cham community living on the most southern and last surviving territory of Champa, an ancient kingdom dating back nearly two thousand years and conquered by Dai Viet (current day Vietnam) in 1832. The area of Ninh Thuan, once known as Panduranga, is the spiritual center of the Cham’s ancient matriarchal culture.

Letters from Panduranga was initially inspired by the fact that the Vietnamese government is to build Vietnam’s first two nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuan by 2020. Public discussions regarding the project have been largely absent in Vietnam due to strict government controls over public speech and media; and local communities have also been excluded from consultations.

Through a network of Cham scholars, Nguyen spent a number of residency periods in Ninh Thuan between 2013 and 2015. With each stay, she struggled with questions of accessibility, of representation, of documentation, and of speaking on behalf of the other. Thus, while Letters from Panduranga began as a portrait of the Cham in Vietnam under circumstances that threaten their very existence, it also became a portrait of the artist.

Nguyen says, “As artists, we have contradictory desires: to be engaged, but also to disappear.” As we are treated to intimate portraits of individuals and communities, beautiful panoramas of the sea and land, careful frames of sacred and leisurely spaces and rituals, we listen to a voiceover narration from an unidentified female and male reading the letters they have written to one another.

Both in states of varying uncertainty, they pose critical questions around everything we are seeing: issues of fieldwork, ethnography, problems with accessing history, with ongoing colonialisms—from the French invading the Viet to the Viet invading the Cham.

Among other references are facts relating to the United States’ destructive bombing during the Vietnam War, artifacts from colonial exhibitions and art collections, the vulgar place of tourists and the cultural policies of UNESCO, and quotes from one of Nguyen’s main influences, Chris Marker, notably his film essay Letter from Siberia (1957), and Statues Also Die (1953), both of which were incisive and novel in their critique of the impacts of industrial and colonial movements.

By the end of Letters from Panduranga, the visual and narrative elements seem rightly indeterminate. Nguyen’s voiceover concludes with the last line of the Cham poet Tra Vigia’s epic poem Blurry Nights, “Perhaps I’ve been dreaming in a poem that’s coming to its end.”

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