Choice does not equate freedom. In “Thuy &” at the Robert F. DeCaprio Gallery, Anh-Thuy Nguyen’s videos and photographs show a person with a choice of two cultures—struggling and constricted, rather than free. The big theme of the exhibition is identity. Nguyen is Vietnamese American, and Thuy (of “Thuy &”) is a semi-autobiographical character that emerged from the artist over ten years ago. At the time, Thuy was created to help Nguyen process losing access to her culture while she was stuck in America, unable to visit Vietnam because of her visa.
In this exhibition, Nguyen—by way of Thuy—continues to grapple with what it means to exist between places, both physically and culturally. Divided into quadrants, Thuy’s work confronts internal struggle (“Thuy & T.”), external expectations (“Thuy & Rice”), continuous change (“Thuy & Sand”), and the need for belonging (“Boat Journey”).
In a Dibond triptych Thuy wraps her hands in gauzy yellow boxing tape, prepping for a shadow-boxing match that plays on a loop next to the photos. In “Untitled #3,” Thuy looks out from behind a strip of tape, half of her face concealed by her hand and its wrap. In “Untitled #4,” Thuy’s entire face is covered by the shape of her fist, which she holds, wrapped and ready, in the foreground. In “Untitled #2” her palm faces out, all five fingers extended, the symbol for “stop.”
As Nguyen notes, this silent match was created to visualize the internal struggle of existing between cultures, but as she made it, a rash of anti-Asian violence spread across the United States. “Quickly the piece took on new meaning,” she writes. “Each punch I threw [was] my frustration, anger, pain and sadness toward the experience of being an immigrant.”
Conflict is brought to the surface in “Thuy & Rice,” a video projection where Thuy smears cooked, sticky rice across her face. The camera is close, its focus on the way the rice resists her skin. She tugs and rolls the rice around, and starts to eat the grains from her fingers, chewing slowly with her eyes closed and mouth slightly open.
In “Thuy & Sand,” Thuy drags a woven basket full of sand across sand. The photos are simple as they sound, but also stunning. The piece deals with constant change—cycles of life, creation and destruction—and sand is a comfortable metaphor here (as in: the sands of time). The creamy expanse of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, where the photos were shot, is completely smooth. Each step she takes shift the sands to emphasize her footprint, then shift again as the bag makes its pass. This series of movements is so tiny as to be irreversible, but they leave a mark regardless.
Thuy’s “Boat Journey” was more subtle in its symbolism, and probably for this reason, held my attention the longest. A small, origami-style boat folded out of leather is strung to a faceless Thuy throughout a series of photographs. She brings the boat to rest on fields, rocks, roots and water’s edge—but never on the water. There is a sense in these photographs that being grounded is not necessarily a good thing.
Though photography dominates the space, Nguyen offers the viewer a choice of mediums. Videos play on two of the gallery’s walls, and a gentle plucking soundtrack accompanies her “Thuy & T.” installation, which fills the room with sound. There are also the boats, physical replicas of the folded leather boat that Thuy drags around in “Boat Journey.” Floating between mediums and messages is a lovely but tiring journey, without any resolution. I left feeling the airy unmooring of choice—of wanting to feel grounded, but not stuck.
“Thuy &” at Robert F. DeCaprio Gallery, 9000 College Parkway Building F, Palos Hills. Through March 6.