Thao Nguyen Phan’s film ‘Becoming Alluvium’ (2019) is caught in the crosscurrents of serenity and ferocity, beauty and harsh reality. In this video work, Phan’s ongoing research surrounding the Mekong River is experienced through fictional narratives, woven together with themes of local folklore, ecological concern, South East Asian industrialisation and the fanning Mekong River itself. Alive and lively, this mineral-stained river is shot from the shoreline, from above and from the water, creating a poetic language that envelopes the audience, sweeping us away for the sixteen minutes of the film’s duration.
In Phan’s first solo exhibition in the UK, a single-channel video is positioned in the corner of the gallery, as if it were too large to fit in the space. Like a river, it spills outwards. Starting in Tibet and running through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the artist’s native Vietnam, the Mekong River serves as the life-force of its large basin. It is also the basis for many of the region’s countless legends, origin stories and even the agricultural calendar. These are alluded to in ‘Perpetual Brightness’ (2019), a series of stacked paintings made in collaboration with the artist Truong Cong Tung. Using Vietnamese lacquer, eggshell and silver leaf, these six panel-like frames outline the branching river as it empties out into the ocean through Southern Vietnam. In the dim light, the reverse side of these frames reveal a series of almost luminous illustrations made of watercolour on silk. They depict the area’s past, present and future, while also pulling from the imagery referenced in Phan’s video while adding slightly more surreal characters like: a parade of insects, self-assertive people spraying pesticides, a boy caressing the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. The sound of the video installation—one moment the puttering of a motor, next the water-falling from an all-consuming dam—leaks onto these paintings, as does its light.
In a way, this is very much how the Mekong River behaves. Known for its brown alluvium waters, the river distributes nutrient-rich soil for the surrounding landscapes which has historically aided in the region’s food production. However, how human consumption and waste is presented in the first part of ‘Becoming Alluvium’, confirms man’s influence is strong upon the grand river. One scene, shot in an acutely tranquil part of the river basin, conceptualises this disruption well. Two boys, whose feet have travelled far along the river, wade their toes into a duckweed-cover catchment. As they rest on the banks, the surrounding stillness and peacefulness is interrupted with the sharp noise of their plastic whistles. This and the other segmented segments function as tragic testaments— both directly and abstractly presenting the cataclysm of fate and our contending Anthropocene. The film’s most striking part is the third and final chapter three. As an animation, it is a departure from Phan’s earlier videography and stands out aesthetically from the rest of the film. With watercolour characters and props moving over French archival drawings from the river’s colonial past, the story of the princess who became part of the Mekong River is told. These animations feel particularly impactful because they remind us that postcolonial and environmental justice are twin issues, both born from the same exploitative past.
‘Becoming Alluvium’ makes us feel small, like a grain of sand or sediment, watching history pass by, while also becoming irreversibly influenced by it. Through her storytelling, Phan’s work asks us to fully consider humankind’s behaviour and influence on the natural resources we rely on and cherish.