Nguyen Trinh Thi. Letters from Panduranga
Catalogue of the exhibition

Nguyen Trinh Thi’s practice is a personal and poetic layering of hidden histories and current events through experimentation with the moving image. She is best known for variously formatted video installations that deftly speak to issues of censorship through the perspective of the documentarian, the artist, the collective.

Letters from Panduranga extends Nguyen’s experimentation between documentary and fiction in an essay film portraying a Cham community living in Ninh Thuan —the most southern and last surviving territory of Champa, an ancient kingdom dating back nearly two thousand years and conquered by Dai Viet (present-day Vietnam) in 1832. Ninh Thuan was once known as Panduranga—the spiritual center of the Cham’s ancient matriarchal culture.
While Letters from Panduranga began as a portrait of the Cham in Vietnam under circumstances that threaten their very existence, it also became a portrait of the artist. Through a network of Cham scholars, Nguyen spent a number of residency periods in Ninh Thuan between 2013 and 2015. With each stay, she struggled with questions of accessibility, of representation, and of speaking on behalf of the other. Nguyen says, “As artists, we have contradictory desires: to be engaged, but also to disappear.”

Nguyen’s film offers us intimate portraits of individuals and communities, stunning panoramas of land and sea, careful frames of leisure and sacred spaces—all as we listen to a voiceover narration from an unidentified female and male reading the letters they have written to one another from “the field.” Both in states of varying uncertainty, they pose critical questions around fieldwork, ethnography, accessing history and ongoing colonialisms —from the French invading the Viet to the Viet invading the Cham, from the United States’ destructive bombing during the Vietnam War to artifacts from colonial exhibitions and art collections, from the vulgar place of tourists to the cultural policies of Unesco. And throughout there are quotes from one of Nguyen’s main influences, Chris Marker, notably his film essay Letter from Siberia (1957) and Statues Also Die (codirected with Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet, 1953), both incisive in their critique of the impacts of industrial and colonial movements.

By the end of Letters from Panduranga, the visual and narrative elements seem rightly indeterminate. Nguyen’s voiceover concludes with the last line from the Cham poet Tra Vigia’s epic poem Blurry Nights, “Perhaps I’ve been dreaming in a poem that’s coming to its end.”

Erin Gleeson

Texts Erin Gleeson and Vandy Rattana.
Jeu de Paume / CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux.
French / Khmer / English, 15 x 21 cm, 64 pages, 14 euros


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