On the occasion of the exhibition ‘Reclaim the Earth’ on view at Palais de Tokyo in Paris from April 15th to September 4th, 2022, Daria de Beauvais questioned Thu Van Tran about her art.
DARIA DE BEAUVAIS As a general rule, your work tends to draw upon memory and according to Claire Le Restif, it “relentlessly instigates the aesthetic experience as a way of potentially revisiting history.” How do you achieve this in your artistic practice?
THU VAN TRAN It is difficult to say what constitutes an aesthetic experience—a delight that escapes our understanding. This is often quite a tenuous occurrence, made possible by a sort of alchemy, a quality of the light… It is most likely a question of phenomenology. You can invite it by creating openings within the form, but I don’t think it can stem from an intentional composition. The path of subjectivity in our relation to his-tory, the quest for beauty as an ethical approach, contemplative emotion as a valid means of analysis are, in my view, the conceptual prerequisites necessary to its emergence.
DB: As part of the exhibition ‘Reclaim the Earth,’ you envisioned a botanical panorama inspired by a painted ceiling in the Palazzo Grimani, in Venice, covered with intertwining fruit trees, as well as by your own series From Green to Orange. Can you describe the origins of this new endeavor?
TVT: I was initially struck by the beauty of this painted ceiling and overcome with an emotion that I’ve been trying to recapture and convey ever since. This botanical fresco seemed timeless to me, as though removed from the present moment. It spoke of abundance and marvelled at what nature and humans could create together. Pure illusion, pure chimera! If we truly had to live under the mirror of a celestial roof, I believe it would have to reflect hybrid species, just like ours: mutant identities forced to move around in a fragile, unstable, and at times authoritarian ecosystem. The series From Green to Orange, which I began working on about a decade ago, embodies this transformation—the greenery of the landscape gives way to the dramatic staging of the color orange.
DB: Being especially attentive to the material aspect of your works, how did you determine the shape of this new project, all at once photography, painting, and architecture?
TVT: The original shape of the botanical dome will become a panorama, a landscape in the romantic tradition. This is why the dome appears as a window. I was aiming for some sort of excessive lyricism. Our beliefs shape us in the same way as history and myths do, and so when I discovered this dome in Venice, I asked myself: where do we project our worldviews? Part of the answer would have to be onto form I strive to reconnect with the aura of photography, of historical painting, of spiritual place. I often cite the example of the rubber plant: to retrace its trajectory is to view it through a critical lens, but also to open a dream space, to convey an aesthetic, emotional, and sensory experience. And this is only attainable by ensuring that form and matter embody various intensities. The process behind From Green to Orange entails a slow disappearance as well as a reappearance; a lush wilderness vanishes and is in turn reborn amid fire and fury. Here, I sought a sort of theatricality, and the dome participates in creating this effect.
I believe that history is filled with contaminations, which become apparent in concrete elements such as plants.
DB: Both an archive and a natural sensory realm, this work presents a series of invasive or toxic plants, which are the product of hybridization, natural evolution, or human manipulation. How did you become interested in these transformations?
TVT: I am interested in what American anthropologist Anna Tsing has called the second nature—the natural environment that was subjected to capitalist transformations—as well as in our capacity to be reborn and to live among the ruins. The matsutake mushroom, for instance, was able to emerge from the ashes of Hiroshima. The Hevea brasiliensis, or rubber tree, will be the starting point for this mutating botanical landscape. Other plants, such as mistletoe and ivy, which are natural parasites, or lily of the valley and oleander blooms, whose toxicity has been common knowledge for centuries, will also have their place in the installation. The Hevea is a hybrid species; by focusing on its trajectory as I did over the past few years, one can unearth a history of domination in our modern world, shed light on various conflicts that arose during the colonial period, and pave the way for a vernacular and critical perspective on its exploitation. Perhaps a sign or a historical irony, rubber didn’t exist in South-East Asia before its seed was imported by French sailors who arrived in Indochina in the early 20th century. Hevea is a quintessential invasive species, grown by grafting; as of 1910, young Hevea plants that were too fragile to survive in the Vietnamese ecosystem were literally grafted onto young local fruit trees already deeply rooted in the ground. The latex then slowly contaminated the sap of its host until it mutated entirely, a durable and sustainable contamination process, mirroring the way in which a civilization establishes itself over another, through colonization. I believe that history is filled with contaminations, which become apparent in concrete elements such as plants. Incidentally, I am referring just as much to the invasion or colonization of our minds—an immeasurable contamination, and the impact of this new project must be experienced on this very scale of intensity.
DB: Is this subjective and immersive herbarium a way of exploring the cohabitation of plants, as well as our relations with them?
TVT: Absolutely—the idea of toxicity must be brought into question. How do hosts and parasites implicitly accept one another? How does our paradoxical nature push us towards toxicity, excess, overflow as well as harmfulness? Within the Buddhist culture I was raised in, there is a quest for balance, and yet I have never sensed this balance in nature… During a trip to the Amazon, I realized that there is an immutable, powerful, complex, telluric wilderness that is intrinsic to the magic of the earth, which is incompatible with the Western worldview. Only when this nature becomes spiritual and mystical, a place of myth and potential imagery, do we actually engage with it.
During a trip to the Amazon, I realized that there is an immutable, powerful, complex, telluric wilderness that is intrinsic to the magic of the earth, which is incompatible with the Western worldview.
DB: How does this project relate to your long-term exploration of colonial history? Is it part of your focus on issues of ecocide, in the colonial or post-colonial context?
TVT: What do we do in the face of the grey melancholy fields left behind after an immoral quantity of dioxins were dumped over the primeval Vietnamese forest by the American army in the 1960s? The focus on soil as well as the notion of ecocide were slow to emerge as central issues. But they have finally come to light, as evidenced by the historic lawsuit filed by activist and reporter Tran To Nga against some fifteen American agrochemical multinational companies that have manufactured or sold Agent Orange. These are no longer isolated or contextual environmental concerns— they have established themselves in the present day by contaminating our mental space. The shapes and colors of this intimate realm are now forever connected to that theatrical setting. In some way, with my latest project, I am pursuing my quest for this reminiscent image.
Interview published in issue 33 of Palais Magazine on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Reclaime the Earth’ on view at Palais the Tokyo in Paris from April 15 to September 4, 2022