On a balmy night in May, stealing a brief moment of respite in a quiet corner, Tam Nguyen was absorbing it all – the streaming influx of visitors; the whirring buzz of congratulations and conversations, friendly embraces and flower bouquets; the convivial clink of wine glasses. It was, after all, the opening night of “Illuminated Curiosities”, a group exhibition organized by the Nguyen Art Foundation across the campuses of EMASI Nam Long and EMASI Van Phuc. The show features 46 artworks by 26 artists, and Tam had served as its curatorial assistant.
Newcomers who are not quite familiar with the custodians of the local art scene, and even those well-versed in it, might be forgiven for having accurately guessed Tam – with his small stature, all-black attire, and febrile demeanor – as a junior assistant of some curatorial art stars. For Tam Nguyen is indeed a fresh face to the contemporary art milieu of Vietnam, with “Illuminated Curiosities” being his very first significant curatorial project, while the 22-year-old is still currently a junior majoring in Art and Media Studies at Fulbright University Vietnam.
The early trails of a young art apprentice
Born into a family of humble means from the South end of Vietnam, Tam Nguyen arrived at Fulbright with a dream, pure and simple, of transcending boundaries – be it the boundary between his small-town, public high school and the private, liberal arts education at Fulbright; between creative and cultural disciplines; or between generations of writers, artists, and art academics in Vietnam.
“It was the sheer force of curiosity and that feverish desire to learn, as a rookie resident of the city of Saigon, that prompted me to visit every museum, attend all gallery shows, and partake in any art projects looking for volunteers,” he says. “Naturally, I’d considered myself an outsider, with little to none understanding or connection to this esoteric world known as contemporary art.”
Tam attributes his first big break to work with the seasoned echelons of Vietnamese art to Dr. Pamela Corey, Fulbright faculty in Art and Media Studies. On her recommendation, in 2021, he became part of the research and editorial team for an upcoming book project about Nhà Sàn Collective, an independent artist collective in Hanoi, and their storied, undulating history of spearheading performance art, experimental exhibitions, as well as the careers of emerging avant-garde artists in Vietnam since 1998.
“In a sense, it has always been the faculty members at Fulbright who introduced me to new heights of intellectual rigor,” he says. “What we’ve learned or any skill we’ve developed in class can easily be translated into hands-on experience and real-life practice. The lecturers at Fulbright, in particular [former faculty] Dr. Aaron Anderson [of contemporary literature and cinema], and Dr. Pamela Corey are the ones whose dedication to their fields of research, not to mention their eloquent and captivating manner of speech, have inspired me towards a career in art and writing.”
Late 2021, Tam Nguyen applied for and got accepted into “Terms and Conditions of Writing and Publishing Art in Southeast Asia” – a series of virtual workshops organized by Afterall, a Research Centre of University of the Arts London, located at Central Saint Martins. One of its key goals was to “experiment with diverse or new forms of art writing and publishing among researchers, artists and writers across the region”.
It was through this program that Tam got to know fellow Vietnamese participants – independent art researcher and curator Ace Le, and independent translator/curator Duong Manh Hung – who would eventually invite him to become part of the curatorial team for the “Illuminated Curiosities” exhibition. “This stream of opportunities has been truly invaluable for a newcomer such as myself,” he says. “I’m honored to be able to call these established figures in the art community my friends and colleagues.”
Memories of art as signposts for the future
For “Illuminated Curiosities”, Tam spent the bulk of his time conversing with artists in order to draft the exhibition’s catalog, which details descriptions and concise dissections of the featured artworks. While the assignment played into his love of writing, it was also under the auspices of Bill Nguyễn, Director of Nguyen Art Foundation, that Tam learned how to write for the casual observers, the newly-initiated art enthusiasts.
“There’s always that temptation to employ big words, intellectual jargon, obscure references, whenever we write about art,” he says. “Bill Nguyễn has an instinct for the kind of writing that’s not only faithful to the artists’ vision, but also of clarity to the general public. It’s also the same lesson that Dr. Pamela Corey has been imparting to us at Fulbright, whenever we’re assigned to write a curatorial proposal, exhibition essay, or artist statement in class.”
With all the experiences harbored through Nhà Sàn Collective and the “Illuminated Curiosities” exhibition, Tam Nguyen soon developed a research interest into the past and current state of archiving contemporary art in Vietnam.
“Through those opportunities to meet with artists across generations and periods, I’ve come to realize how fragile, scattered and ephemeral the memories of Vietnamese art are,” he says. “Most of the time, those memories are stored within the artists themselves. We still lack proper systems to document and preserve their stories and their art. I think artists are voices of history, of critical thoughts and social justice. As an aspiring art researcher and writer born in the 2000s, I want to be the bridge that can mend this gaping hole still present in our collective memory.”
Writing as Art
Tam Nguyen also considered those conversations he had with artists as one of the rare rewards of being an “art laborer”, a “cultural worker”. For as much as they revealed to him the inspirations and underpinnings behind an artist’s individual practice, they also act as a frame of reference that helps Tam reaffirm how and why artistic expressions mean so much to him.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re an artist, writer, or art researcher, once you come across that one thing that you’re hopelessly passionate about, it’ll grow into an interest, even an obsession, that you find yourself holding so close to your heart,” he says. “Gradually, it’ll become something that defines who you are and how you see the world.”
Two years ago, that “one thing” that Tam stumbled upon was poetry. And as a testament to his laudable talent, Tam’s English poems have been published in journals and magazines such as Heavy Feather Review, Softblow, diaCRITICS, MAYDAY, Overheard, and Dryland. The acclaimed Vietnamese author Khải Đơn, who joined Tam in a recent poetry reading event at Fulbright University Vietnam, describes his works as “an infant cocooning in his mother’s womb, whispering about his father’s sorrow, the breath of his hometown after half a century of dropped guns and muted bombs.”
Indeed, a familial anguish; the ruminative threads that alert a son’s sense of self to the resigned psyche of his poverty-stricken parents; the collision of political forces that grieved the world; the unresolved tensions of an unforgettable summer romance – these are some of the themes you can find in Tam’s creative writings. “Since 2019, I began to read and write incessantly,” he recalls. “I’d discovered the power of writing to help me speak to the world in a truthful yet immediate manner. Poetry, for all its subtleties and astute permutations, is a medium that can transcend all boundaries to touch you at the core of your soul.”
Tam cites the American writer Maggie Nelson, and Kaveh Akbar, an Iranian-American poet, among his chief influences. While Nelson’s genre-defying body of work reflects his own desire to weave poetry, memoir, letters and essays together in his writings, it was through a long period of reading everything he could of Akbar that Tam learned how to thread a sense of personal narrative throughout his poems.
“I consider poetry as a form of art. A string of words, when it’s lovingly and carefully put together, can result in velocity of emotions and expressions,” he says. “Whenever I sit down to write, and this is a practice that I learned from Akbar, I love having a stack of books in front of me and spending an hour or so glancing through them. I would note down the bits and parts that really speak to me, then try to play around with words, experimenting with different combinations. Sometimes, just by swimming along the subconscious of dreams, the result can even surprise me.”