Skip to main content Start of main content

(Tran)scribed History: Thảo Nguyên Phan’s Palimpsest Visions of Colonialism and Conversion

Thảo Nguyên Phan, from the series Voyages de Rhodes, 2014–17, watercolour on found books, 23.5 × 15.5cm. Courtesy the artist
Nora A. Taylor considers how Thảo Nguyên Phan’s Voyage de Rhodes complicates colonial visions of Vietnam.
Thảo Nguyên Phan, from the series Voyages de Rhodes, 2014–17, watercolour on found books, 23.5 × 15.5cm. Courtesy the artist

In his series of lectures that were compiled in the book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), Jacques Derrida reflects on Sigmund Freud’s Wunderblock, or ‘Magic Mystic Pad’, the psyche’s ability to remember without a recording instrument.01

 Once a machine is used to archive memory, it signals the death of the spontaneity of that memory. In Derrida’s view, it becomes a palimpsest, erasing the mind’s ability to simultaneously recall what has been recorded. This idea resonates with Thảo Nguyên Phan’s recent body of work Voyages de Rhodes (2014–17). The work consists of a series of watercolours painted directly onto the pages of an ancient book, Alexandre de Rhodes’ Voyages et Missions du Père Alexandre de Rhodes en La Chine et Autres Royaumes de l’Orient, avec son Retour en Europe par la Perse et l’Arménie, published in 1653; the artist discovered and purchased an original copy on eBay in 2013. The work thus apposes contemporary images onto the observations of a seventeenth-century European missionary to Vietnam. The watercolours themselves are beautifully created. Fluid as water, and precise in their execution, these clearly drawn images would not be so perplexing if they had not been laid over the pages of a seventeenth-century book. Phan’s watercolours hover over De Rhodes’ printed text like ghosts of the present, while De Rhodes’ writings resurface periodically like distant echoing voices of the past. The juxtaposition of drawing and text is thus unsettling and prompts a series of questions. First of all, how are these two entries related? What does the temporal gap between them reveal? What is the significance of recalling Vietnam’s early encounters with the West, and thus also Europe’s early encounters with Vietnam, in a contemporary artwork? Do the drawings act as palimpsests and thus erase the memory of De Rhodes’ vision of Vietnam? Is the artist saying that the layers of Vietnamese history are buried too deep in contemporary memory to be visible in the present?


The seventeenth century is not the most obvious place to look for traces of a Vietnamese past. More recent historical events, as many artists and authors have found, would seem more compelling to explore. The decades of war in the second half of the twentieth century that devastated the people and the landscape, and which are permanently etched in Vietnamese collective memory, have been the subject of countless memoirs, films and artworks on both sides of the Pacific. It is a past that many would soon forget, but cannot. Or as Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in reference to the artist Dinh Q. Lê, ‘impossible to forget, difficult to remember’ 02 person living in Vietnam during the war could forget the sound of helicopters overhead and the cries of wounded children? But who could also remember what exactly happened on which night? Some events remain a blur. And for the generation born after 1975, such as Phan – those who had no first-hand experience with combat and did not witness the bombings and air raid shelters suffered by their parents – the war was just a distant patchwork of images made of stories, recollections from relatives or narratives promulgated by the state. Some of the most horrendous events may appear fantastical to those who did not live them. Similarly, the acts of heroism touted by the government may seem like imaginary tales of virtuous deeds.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, from the series Voyages de Rhodes, 2014–17, watercolour on found books, 23.5 × 31cm. Courtesy the artist

Phan’s work often explores this magical place between fiction and reality. Renal Calculus, her MFA thesis work at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013, consisted of a kidney stone that she acquired from a man that she met in Vietnam. The stone had been in the man’s body for over a decade and caused him great pain until he had it removed in 2012. She felt empathy towards him but also, as she stated in her description of the piece, she fell in love with the kidney stone. He agreed to send it to her in Chicago, identifying it as a ‘souvenir rock’ on the customs form. Once an inseparable part of the man’s body, it appeared now as a precious object, glistening from the mineral deposits, a strange and mysterious product of human secretions. Like a combination of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade and Zen Buddhist philosophy of the ever-changing, making and remaking of the self, Renal Calculus leaves room for the viewer to imagine the space between interpretation and objectivity. The kidney stone acts as a relic, a residue of a past life that no longer serves any purpose in the present but carries the aura of once being possessed by a human body. To keep the kidney stone is to retain its memory, minus the pain.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, Mekong Mechanical, 2012, video installation and artist book, 18min 33sec, colour, sound and watercolour on silk, photographs, fabric, silver leaf. Courtesy the artist

The oxymoronic idea of a contemporary spectre also appears in a work that was part of the ‘Riverscapes In Flux’ exhibition organised by the Hanoi-based Goethe-Institut in 2013.03Titled Mekong Mechanical, the film captures a catfish factory where workers, wearing masks and protective suits, place fish on conveyor belts in a manner that contrasts with the natural environment and picturesque landscape of the Mekong Delta that is promoted in tourist brochures. Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whom she cites as an inspiration, Phan seems to question the ambiguous relations that humans have with objects and the spirit world, those invisible traces of life that are elusive to the living and yet appear in material form. Amidst the bluish tone that permeates Phan’s film, the filleted fish seem to float on the mechanical belt of the processing plant, without the skin and fins that gave them the ability to swim, like ghosts of their former selves. That same image of a fish factory worker placing items on a conveyer belt reappears on one of the watercolours that form her work Voyages de Rhodes. Even though the artist claims any correlation between the text and image is purely coincidental,04 so happens that the pages onto which this image figures contain De Rhodes’ impressions of a Cochinchinese (Vietnamese) doctor and his perplexity over the continued practice of spirit mediumship in the presence of medical science. If read together, drawing and text seem to comment on the cold contrast between machines and life. Perhaps they signal a nostalgia for a time when humans were better connected with the natural world.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, Mekong Mechanical, 2012, video installation and artist book, 18min 33sec, colour, sound and watercolour on silk, photographs, fabric, silver leaf. Courtesy the artist

Like the diaries of many other European travellers to Vietnam in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in an effort to understand the native population and propagate the Catholic faith, a large portion of De Rhodes’ manuscript is devoted to religious practices and belief systems of the Indochinese. De Rhodes (1591–1660), born in France of Jewish origin, entered the Society of Jesus in Rome in 1612 to dedicate his life to missionary work. He arrived in Indochina around 1619 and spent ten years at the court in Hanoi under the ruling Tri.nh lords. In 1630, he was expelled from Vietnam as the lord Tri.nh Trang became concerned about the spread of Catholicism in the realm. He returned to Vietnam in 1640 and began developing an early Vietnamese alphabet based on the work of earlier Portuguese missionaries. In 1651, he published a catechism and a trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary, which became the basis of the Romanised Vietnamese alphabet – Quởc Ngữ or ‘national script’.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, Mekong Mechanical, 2012, video installation and artist book, 18min 33sec, colour, sound and watercolour on silk, photographs, fabric, silver leaf. Courtesy the artist
Thảo Nguyên Phan, Mekong Mechanical, 2012, video installation and artist book, 18min 33sec, colour, sound and watercolour on silk, photographs, fabric, silver leaf. Courtesy the artist

Although not adopted by the population as a whole until the twentieth century, De Rhodes’ transliteration of Vietnamese phonetic words into Roman letters through a system of diacritics marked the start of Vietnam’s path towards literacy. Before De Rhodes’ transliteration of Vietnamese spoken language into a Romanised alphabet became the official written form, Vietnamese literati used a similar method of phonetic transcription involving Chinese logographs. The script became known as Chữ Nôm or ‘southern characters’. Nôm, as it is familiarly known, is a complex method of using classical Chinese characters to write spoken Vietnamese. Due to the difficulty in deciphering the pictographs, it was never adopted by the population at large and remained an instrument used only by the educated elite and the royal court. De Rhodes’ Romanisation of Vietnamese was potentially easier to master, but since its phonetic structure was based on Portuguese, the trading language of Europeans in Asia in the seventeenth century, it was not so easily embraced either.05It continued, however, to be used by Catholic missionaries to learn Vietnamese and proselytise well into the nineteenth century. They saw Quởc Ngữas a step for learning French and a means of divorcing Vietnamese from Confucian values.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that a wider movement was started to disseminate the use of Romanised script outside of the Catholic community. In the struggle against colonialism, QuởcNgữbecame entangled in the politics of nativism and the rejection of French education. Somehow, in the transition from a kingdom to a socialist republic, the Vietnamese writing system went from Chinese logographs to a Latin-based alphabet with diacritics, and the Jesuit missionary De Rhodes has been remembered as the originator of the national written script.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, Renal Calculus, 2013, found kidney stone, glass, video. Installation view, ‘Renal Calculus’, 2013, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy the artist

Living abroad for several years, having to explain the origins of the Vietnamese language to others unfamiliar with the language, Phan took an interest in the history of the Romanisation of the Vietnamese writing system and came across De Rhodes’ travel diary. De Rhodes’ observations of seventeenth-century Vietnam describe an environment and a time too remote for the personal recollections of any living person. Thus, in Phan’s eye, De Rhodes’ accounts became phantastical and imaginary tales detached from reality. Phan’s choice to use the pages of his book as a backdrop to her drawings is an engagement with this anachronism.

Since she doesn’t read French, she put herself in his place, spontaneously transcribing his words into images from her own imagination. Her watery pigments are laid softly onto the paper, allowing the print to seep in and out of the drawings. The subjects of her paintings are mostly children. She shows them apparently innocently playing games, skipping rope, banging on drums, wearing school uniforms – yet a closer look also reveals them lined up on the rungs of a ladder, falling off buildings, plants coming out of their genitals. The picture of the reclining naked children with stalks of sugar cane springing from between their legs is particularly striking. They appear on page 152 hovering over this text: ‘I do not envy those who were laying down so comfortably, sleeping so quietly. I leave them with a happy heart to travel to Tonkin and Cochinchina, to have such beautiful days and profitable nights.’06In this instance, Phan seems to extrapolate on De Rhodes’ words. While he may be discussing the funerary customs of indigenous people, Phan’s drawing looks like it envisions children’s sweet dreams haunted by the labour forced on colonial subjects. In other instances, what comes across as playground activity may actually be cruel punishment for disobedience. From this angle, Phan’s beautiful drawings suddenly become horror scenes: a girl turns into a were-tiger (perhaps an allusion to Weerasethakul’s 2004 film Tropical Malady)07; another gouges the eyes of a statue; another holds chopsticks in her mouth, as if forced to feed herself in an impossible task. Why are these harmless children the subject of what appears to be a critique of colonialism? Are these images allegories of colonial education? Or are they illustrations of what De Rhodes may have misunderstood of the Vietnamese language and customs?

The children could also be read as if in a trance. In a scene numbered fourteen by the artist (painted over pages 166 and 171 of the original text), boys and girls are gathered around a table. The page is almost completely covered in black watercolour, save for a light in the upper left-hand corner, possibly a child screwing in a lightbulb. The young people are holding hands as they look down over a blue cloth, as if in prayer. The viewer intent on reading De Rhodes’ text through Phan’s drawings – or vice versa, the viewer compelled to look at Phan’s watercolours through De Rhodes’ writing – may see Vietnam as a fantastical and incomprehensible world. But, they may also see the phenomenon of inculturation, conversion and adaptation. Rather than irony or satire, Phan’s beautiful drawings may be read more like magical realism or surreal histories; as if to signal that the utopian promises of idealism – whether Christian, colonial or communist – are, like fairy tales, true only if you believe in them. Enchanted by the world of the illustrations, the viewer is also tempted to forget what lies beneath.

Thảo Nguyên Phan, from the series Voyages de Rhodes, 2014–17, watercolour on found books, 23.5 × 15.5cm. Courtesy the artist

In her essay accompanying ‘Poetic Amnesia’, a solo exhibition of Phan’s work at Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City in 2017, Zoe Butt writes: ‘the vast collection of imagery and text is Phan’s own visualisation of a Vietnam that is at once foreign and yet familiar, that is at once humorous in its revealing of cultural differences and yet darkly demonstrative of how such readings may be misunderstood as socially threatening.’08This suggests that Phan is grafting her vision of Vietnam onto De Rhodes’ interpretation, or misinterpretation, of Vietnamese social practices, drawing attention to how outsiders read, or misread, local culture. And yet, somehow her drawings appear more like a critique of the present and of the rigid conformisms of ‘really existing’ socialism. Considering Phan’s search for the origins of the Vietnamese written alphabet, these drawings superimposed onto De Rhodes’ observations of the people whose language he is trying to understand may suggest a different kind of translation of image to text – not Phan’s vision paired with his words, but his vision paired with her visual language. The children that figure in her drawings, with their downcast eyes obediently accomplishing a task, may be avoiding the missionary’s gaze, averting their attention away from the viewer who is compelled to decipher the words lurking beneath. As such, Phan’s reflections on De Rhodes’ legacy may be more aptly interpreted as historiographical. As Jane Blocker, in her recent study of artists’ use of the past, states: ‘artists’ use of historical material are unorthodox historical methodologies that are not about the archive but are the archive.’09Phan’s watercolours act as her own Wunderblock, recordings of a past that she did not live but imagines in the present.

Installation view, ‘Thảo Nguyên Phan: Poetic Amnesia’, The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2017. Courtesy the artist and The Factory Contemporary Arts
Thảo Nguyên Phan, from the series Voyages de Rhodes, 2014–17, watercolour on found books, 23.5 × 31cm. Courtesy the artist


  • Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’, Diacritics, vol.25, no.2, Summer 1995, p.15.
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen, ‘Impossible to Forget, Difficult to Remember: Vietnam and the Art of Dinh Q. Lê’, in A Tapestry of Memories: The Art of Dinh Q. Lê, Bellevue Arts Museum, 2007, pp.19–29.
  • ‘Riverscapes In Flux’ was curated by six curators and included seventeen artists based in Southeast Asia, and organised by the Goethe-Institut in Hanoi, the exhibition toured Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia from April 2012 to March 2013. Curators included Ade Darmawan, Apisak Sonjod, Claro Jr Ramirez, Erin Gleeson, Iola Lenzi and Tran Luong, see riverscapes/ (last accessed on 3 July 2018).
  • Email from the artist, 10 July 2018.
  • Milton E. Osborne, The French Presence in Cochinchina & Cambodia, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969, p.90.
  • Translation the author’s.
  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2004 film Sat Pralat, or ‘beast’, translated into English as Tropical Malady, has a scene that tells the story of a woman who turns into a tiger at night.
  • Zoe Butt, ‘Poetic Amnesia’, in Poetic Amnesia: Phan Thảo Nguyên (exh. cat.), Ho Chi Minh City: Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, 2017, p.37.
  • Jane Blocker, Becoming Past: History in Contemporary Art, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p.72.