Art In Conversation
Tammy Nguyen with Megan N. Liberty
“Because each passage is so different, the suggestion is that your experience to truth is going to differ from the next experience of truth. I knew that I wanted each book to turn a certain way and I knew I wanted it to be suggestive of a cave opening.”
On ViewLehmann Maupin
A Comedy Of Mortals: Inferno
March 23–May 6, 2023
Tammy Nguyen often works in series, building bodies of work that examine moral ambiguity, often starting with an idea from philosophy or anthropology, or a deep dive into the natural world and its inhabitants. Her research-based practice has explored topics as far ranging as her own dental surgery, the allegory of Plato’s cave, the history of Forest City in Malaysia, and the langurs of the Vietnam mountains. Nguyen transforms her research into glittering lacquered paper paintings, collages, and artists’ books. In 2016, the artist started her own independent press, Passenger Pigeon Press, which includes Martha’s Quarterly, a subscription service of artists’ books, each made by hand with a sense of political urgency. These works are a material juxtaposition to her own artists’ books, often made in unique or small editions, with elegant bindings and complex structures. These books inhabit the space between book and sculpture.
On a snowy afternoon in February, I spoke with Nguyen in her studio in Connecticut about her newest body of work for her upcoming solo show A Comedy of Mortals at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Seoul. The exhibition takes Dante’s Inferno as its starting point and includes large scale paintings that depict American political figures from the period of the Cold War, creatures from Dante’s story, and spaceships. The works recast Dante’s story as the space race; a journey into the hot center of the earth becomes a journey into the sky. Much like Nguyen’s previous paintings and artists’ books, this series includes numerous references to history and science, such as newspaper headlines from a Japanese paper, foil stamped missiles, and photographs of the sun’s reflection on the moon. We talked about these references, Nguyen’s material and research processes, and her interest in moral confusion.
Megan N. Liberty (Rail): Tell me a little about your background; it was initially in painting and printmaking? So you were studying both at the same time?
Tammy Nguyen: Yeah, I went to Cooper Union and I did painting and printmaking. After Cooper Union, I got a Fulbright fellowship to study lacquer painting in Vietnam. I was really in love with printmaking at Cooper Union. I took every single printmaking class. Margaret Morton’s class, The Art of the Book, really changed my life. It was where I learned about artists’ books.
Rail: Your paintings seem so connected to your bookmaking practice. It makes sense that you were learning about both at the same time, and working on both in tandem. Could you talk a little bit about the starting of Passenger Pigeon Press, and your artists’ book periodical, Martha’s Quarterly?
Nguyen: Did you ever see my artists’ book Dana Ng in Danang City? This is going to connect to Passenger Pigeon Press! It’s shaped like a little monkey. This was a really important work because it was the first time I used political material in my work. When I was at Cooper, and while I was in Vietnam, I was a very abstract artist, you might even call me a muscular abstract painter. I was doing all of these abstractions with black thread and red. And I was trying to be figurative, but I was so scared of the figure. At Yale, I had made a painting of my grandmother turning into a bird, and Sam Messer, who was one of my professors, encouraged me to just go and look at birds—probably because it was like a shitty bird. He said to go meet Rick Prum in ornithology and evolutionary biology. I went over there, and it was like my brain cracked open—it’s like the clouds opened. I helped in the ornithology library where I was doing taxidermy. Then I started drawing from the skins, and that really cracked everything open. I started taking classes in anthropology. And I took an evolutionary biology class as well and became friends with some scientists. This was a few years before everything became political, but my gateway into it was through biology.
A year after I graduated from Yale, I took this document I’d been carrying around from 1969 that I found in Vietnam while I was living there that was a proposal for a way to modernize the central city of Da Nang in Vietnam, turning it into a second metropolis to Ho Chi Minh City. This document criticizes Saigon for being what they called a “primate city,” which is a provocative and obsolete term for describing a city that is so absorbent of a nation’s resources that it stifles the health of the entire nation. I took this document and I went to Vietnam, and I surveyed the land, and I actually met with a Vietnamese primatologist, who taught me about the red-shanked douc langur. It’s a langur that you see throughout my artists’ book, an endangered species of langurs that live on Sơn Trà Mountain and Peninsula, a very historical place with local mythology and military history just planted inside of it. So I made this character, Dana Ng, and I wrote this story. After I made this, I was deeply disappointed that no one read any of it.
Rail: The larger issue is that it’s really hard to create scenarios for people to read artists’ books.
Nguyen: Only in special collections. And then the other best case scenario is in my artists’ book class, when I take students to see them. I became deeply disappointed in this situation. I was just thinking, there’s something urgent about the story I was telling in Dana Ng in Danang City. And that became the birth of Passenger Pigeon Press. It was in response to this fancy book. Because, this kind of materiality, and the materiality of the content that I’m playing with now, needs a different form, it needs some kind of democratic distribution attached to it—it needs a different carrier. Passenger Pigeon Press books kind of live in that space between play and reading; they get destroyed. They’re not made in a way that’s going to last forever. It’s a totally different kind of space. When I was doing taxidermy, I learned that the passenger pigeon is extinct. And Martha is the name of the last passenger pigeon who died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. The whole idea with Passenger Pigeon Press was that it’s a resurrection through the form of publishing. It’s the resurrection of this bird through the form of publishing and it aims to create politically nuanced artists’ books. Martha’s Quarterly, the quarterly artists’ book subscription of Passenger Pigeon Press, really keeps my eyes open. It keeps me challenged all the time.
Rail: Tell me about what you are working on here in the studio now.
Nguyen: These nine books are the last things that I’m finishing up for this show, A Comedy for Mortals: Inferno, which has thirteen paintings, nine artists’ books, and nine works on paper. This exhibition is one of three exhibitions that I’m working on. It’s a trilogy. It explores Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’m changing the title from Divine Comedy to A Comedy for Mortals. What I’m doing for each show is making an analogy between Dante’s book, whichever installment it is, to a geopolitical theater; I don’t totally know what the next two installments are going to be about or what it’s going to try to compare. But this one is thinking about Dante and Virgil’s descent into hell as compared to an ascent into space. So up is down.
Rail: This isn’t the first time you’ve used philosophy as a jumping off point. It was Plato’s Cave before, and before that you worked on pieces that were inspired more by Catholicism and religion. I’m curious, what draws you to these specific narrative topics and modes of storytelling?
Nguyen: I’m really interested in asking questions that are about moral confusion. For example, in my series of artists’ books Four Ways Through a Cave, Plato’s allegory is a story about truth in a way, like what is true, what is not true? Now, of course, in the system of Plato’s allegory, what is true is what’s outside of the cave, but you can also think about it as what is inside of the cave is very true to the prisoners in relationship to their life experience, right? I feel like it would be wrong to negate that truth in a way. There’s a friction there between the prisoner who escapes and what he ends up learning and what he ends up adjusting about his worldview, and then what the prisoners continue to believe. I became interested in Dante because I had heard on a podcast with the classicist Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, Virgil knew Christ was coming. There’s this kind of moral grappling that Virgil experiences in creating the Aeneid. Then I was thinking about Dante, and about how Virgil as Dante’s guide through hell is essentially a story about loyalty to God. And so here Virgil is, this philosopher of a time before Christ, who knows Christ is coming. It’s so interesting to me that he is this guide. There’s something for me to play with that deals with some kind of a paradigm shift.
Rail: What draws you to any of these stories is when you feel like there’s a moment you can play with, that there’s something that you can sort of transform? Even as you’re talking to me now, you’re moving your hands in a tactile way. I love the idea that you think of these stories as malleable.
Nguyen: Yeah, and also, morality and ethics, right and wrong, truth, not truth—those are all concepts that I lack a lot of clarity about. So exploring classical stories is extremely fulfilling for me, not that I ever find any clarity after creating a body of work. But there’s something really reflective for me in the process of making all of the work. Thinking about the Space Race, it’s an arena of a lot of moral complexity, especially thinking about today, with space colonization: Whose world order do we follow? Is the world order a trustworthy thing? Is that real? It’s a really exciting terrain in thinking about the creation of society, the creation of civilization, citizenship, all those different things. I thought that it would be an interesting analogy to this descent into hell. And then this idea of going up into the sun, and then going deep into hell, two very hot, amazing, breathtaking places, was kind of an exciting, up-and-down relationship for me. At the end of Dante, Dante and Virgil exit hell by entering the dawn. That’s like exiting and entering orbit.
Rail: The sun seems to be a motif in a lot of your work.
Nguyen: This work is the body of work that came after Four Ways Through a Cave, so I’m thinking about the sun already.
Rail: In Four Ways Through a Cave what was so interesting was also the forms that the work took, especially in the artists’ books, which were so layered, and physically, the book form allowed you to experience movement through the cave towards the sun, out of the cave.
Nguyen: Four Ways Through a Cave were kind of like proposals for this prisoner in Plato’s allegory to exit and find truth, but of course, through each one, because each passage is so different, the suggestion is that your experience to truth is going to differ from the next experience of truth. I knew that I wanted each book to turn a certain way and I knew I wanted it to be suggestive of a cave opening.
Rail: I thought it was really interesting that you wove that story with another story from your own life about what’s true, and what’s not—your uncle who had a kind of checkered past. In the artists’ books, and in the kind of larger story around that body of work you’re also tying it to something more personal from your life.
Nguyen: This body of work, A Comedy for Mortals: Inferno, doesn’t have a story in a literal way from my personal life. Back to space, somebody told me that it’s best to have space launches occur as close to the equator as possible, because at the equator, the launch can take advantage of Earth’s rotational speed, and so there’s more propellant there. That was so poetic to me, because the equator is the tropics. That locates it close to everything that all my work has ever been about. I decided, what if we focus this on the Space Race? We’re going back to the Cold War era—1955 to like 1975. Then we’re going to just turn this perspective of hell and put it into Southeast Asia, we’re just going to put it there. We’re just going to imagine that this analogy is occurring somewhere around there, because that’s an equatorial area, if not very close. That is personal to me. The way I started going about making these analogies was—I’ve long been excited to peruse Stars and Stripes newspaper, a newspaper that was distributed out of Japan. A lot of the soldiers—American soldiers—who were stationed in Vietnam and elsewhere in the region would read it.
Rail: It was produced in Japan, but it’s in English?
Nguyen: It’s in English, meant for military personnel. I love this kind of shifting of the gaze just a little bit. It’s still meant for an American audience, but an American audience abroad. There’s something kind of, I don’t know, there’s something about displacement in there. There’s something about diaspora in there, though thinking very differently about the word diaspora. I’ve always enjoyed perusing through it because I like the language. I like the graphics, I like all those elements of it. So, basically, what I did was I went through Stars and Stripes archives, and I downloaded every single front page that had anything to do with the Space Race. It ended up being quite a bulky book. What I did was, I started the paintings first, and I just started to play around with the ground for all the paintings.
Rail: Can you tell me more about your specific process? The materials almost look—I know that they’re painted—but they really resonate with book making techniques.
Nguyen: They are—they are giant book covers! The paintings are done on panel. What you’re actually looking at is paper that has been laminated and stretched over a panel. I was searching for a surface that made sense to me. I really wanted a surface that was more or less extremely flat, but extraordinarily deep; how do you get color so deep that it can feel like it’s part of the body of the painting? Beyond gesso or beyond a kind of a ground or something like that, right. And so with paper, especially colored paper, the color runs through the painting. The first decision I always make is the color of the paper, because I feel like that is the first gesture. And then of course, being paper, I can take advantage of water in a way that you really can’t with fabrics, or wood, or other kinds of substrate. Paper and water have such a beautiful relationship, all of these watery effects and stuff like that. It’s really just these big, massive watercolor pours. And that’s how I started all the paintings.
Rail: I can see in the background here of all of the pieces of the newspaper that you’re mentioning—
Nguyen: I’m always interested in creating tension. I think that a lot of my paintings have this kind of mark-making that’s really specific. What do I throw in here to create tension between the marks and something else? I haven’t really played with typography that’s specific to newspaper headlines. But I think that that’s so different from the way that I create marks that I thought that would be a good way. I stretched all of this paper, and then I did these big watercolor pours and silk screened all of those headlines from the Space Race in Stars and Stripes: the rivalry with Russia, the conflicts in the Congo, the Berlin Wall—this texture of a world that is in chaos and grappling with a lot of moral issues.
Rail: The fact that you use this as the actual backdrop, it also creates a tension between our ability to read and decipher it. Whenever we see text in works, we naturally want to try to read them, but you often obscure parts of it and hide it.
Nguyen: When I start out, I have these big note sheets. I want to have a reservoir of things to pull from that are specific. And I like playing with complicated conditions.
Rail: You’ve mentioned your research process. It starts with this generating of research documents?
Nguyen: Yes, just information, like all that stuff about the equator and so on, my assistant Holly helped me gather it. And this is a list of all the monsters and creatures. I wanted to mention that there’s this other thing in the texture. In Stars and Stripes there’s a bunch of wars that are mentioned in Dante. A lot of them are really specific Italian conflicts, but there were two—there was the Last Crusade and then also the Trojan War. And so stamped throughout is the final year of each of those massive epic wars. Those were two wars where there were huge paradigm shifts afterwards. I’m kind of grounding this space for some kind of a paradigm shift. There’s also these swirls and I’m thinking a lot about Inferno, the rings of hell swirling around and around and around this kind of vortex, you know. And then it also relates to the feeling of dissent or the feeling of assent, right.
Rail: And so you’re writing this text that’s going to appear, or?
Nguyen: The text is—what I’ve done is I’ve taken a few stanzas from Stanley Lombardo’s Dante translation, and I have handset type them and created concrete poetry where as you read the book, the words start to disappear, and then become other poems. They become something else. They also have material where you can learn about the race riots that were happening in Alabama, and then you could also literally read about what was going on at the China-India border, and then what was happening in Laos regarding Russia. The books are going to have full leather covers with onlays on them. They’re all circles, like the nine rings of hell, but they kind of open like bugs or spaceships.
Rail: So, the sides open almost like butterfly wings out? Like spaceship doors?
Nguyen: They’re all different though. For example, this one, this is the Alabama one, 4: Dogs in the Summer. This one’s a little different, more like a beetle. Or this one, 5: Through the Circular, which is about the Cuban Missile Crisis, opens like a ladybug.
Rail: Oh, a Trojan Horse.
Nguyen: Yeah, exactly. Each ring, each book has a sort of gruesome aspect to it, whether it’s like bird claws that are kind of tearing something apart, or if they’re snakes. But then, as you go through it, you’ll see that there’s all of these newspaper clippings from Stars and Stripes and also other newspapers that were covering the same story. And then there are these moments of notes that clearly explain what’s going on. There’s a tension here too.
Rail: And each has these annotations from your research notes on them too?
Nguyen: Exactly, because as I was looking at all this I was like, we need clarity. There’s so much confusion that we need clarity here, but what’s really exciting for me is to read this, and then next to it you read this poem, "all of a sudden three hellish furies stained with blood, they had the bodies and bearing of women,” and then you’re reading: “the independence divided the population, undeveloped economic and administrative systems.” It has the tension.
The paintings have a material tension. At a certain angle, these purple images totally disappear and become silver. It was this material decision where I wanted something alien or extraterrestrial. I love the tension between that type of very synthetic high-tech contemporary ink, and then it’s all on this beautiful masa paper. I’ve done all this suminagashi. It’s a photogravure intaglio print, so there’s more material tension there. Throughout the paintings, there’s a lot of hot stamping with some new tools. In When Bitten By Fleas there’s the target sign, there’s a helicopter, there’s missiles here.
Rail: The tension, though, is that they’re so beautiful too.
Nguyen: It’s a little disturbing.
Rail: It’s disturbing that there are beautiful and shiny missiles being dropped down into the forest.
Nguyen: Then there’s this scale situation, too, right? Because there’s so many missiles, they’re like stars in the sky, or something. In When Bitten By Fleas the three headed dog is a beast from the Inferno, but it’s actually combined with this image that went around of a dog biting a black man from the Alabama race conflict; there was a cop holding the dog. And it’s a newspaper image. If you Googled it, it was repeated in many newspapers and was also in Stars and Stripes. Seeing it in everything and then seeing it in Star and Stripes made me think, “Oh, let’s use that image.” But, how do we collapse that with Inferno? And then also the Space Race? Because these are things that are happening simultaneously.
Rail: The iconography, your style is very distinct. I know that the paintings are not meant to literally be read. But you do use comic graphics a lot in some of your other works, in your artists’ books. Did you grow up reading comics?
Nguyen: Not in an avid way. Like I liked comics, but I wasn’t a comic book collector or anything like that.
Rail: I feel like your paintings and your visuals really seem to draw from that kind of graphic language of comics. And even the way—they’re very narrative. I mean, we’ve just spent the past, you know, forty minutes telling me this story. Even the way that we experience them. They are certainly a singular image, but there’s a narrative moving through them that is similar to the way that you read comics.
Nguyen: You know, one of the most influential books for me is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. That book is amazing in thinking about drawing,
Rail: I actually used that book when I was writing about artists’ books early on in my career as a way to try to have visual language for describing the experience of reading artists’ books. There’s so much in your work where you see things breaking out of the frame, you see those multiple registers.
Nguyen: McCloud’s book was extremely influential to me in thinking about just creating images. I think that “How to read?” is a leading question in much of my practice, you know, like, how do you read this? How do you read a book? How do you read a print? How do you read something? When you can have the possibility of being literal and abstract, that’s super exciting.
Rail: And then also to add in the fact that there’s text that can’t be read.
Nguyen: With this newspaper stuff, a lot of it is illegible, because it’s old copies or whatever. And so there’s this texture of seriousness or this texture of a reliability and I think that’s really interesting.
Rail: It’s how the visual signaling of newspapers is immediately legible. Even if you don’t have the rest of this page or you can’t read the text. We know what a headline looks like, we immediately recognize it.
Nguyen: There’s this urgency to it, right? And what do you do with that urgency? These paintings glow in the dark. I wanted there to be this material curveball that’s in it. So in pitch black darkness they glow like kryptonite.
Rail: The headlines really pop in the dark.
Nguyen: They’re the only parts that glow! There is this quality where it’s like poison, like the poison is embedded in it.
Rail: Yeah, it definitely gives that quality to it. They’re radioactive in a sense.
Nguyen: I started out with a glow in the dark material. And then I kept shopping from this company. And then that’s when I found the reflective material. There was another point of tension with light because I started using illuminations in my work, because I wanted to play with light. I wanted these very flat paintings to have a sculptural quality. So now that I’m here, I’m exploring interference and dayglow, and things like that. They’re all gilded with different types of metals. I learned how to make illuminated manuscripts from Karen Gorst.
Rail: Thinking about how much narrative and storytelling and really specific intentionality is in these works, I’m curious if you think about how much a viewer is going to be able to catch this immediately? It offers a really rich opportunity for the viewer that does want to keep investigating the work. But it kind of creates a situation where on the one hand, there is the work here without knowing anything that you’ve told me today. I’m curious what your thoughts on that are.
Nguyen: I don’t expect a viewer who sees these works for the first time, or for once, to be able to pick up on even a fraction of everything that I told you. That being said, I also make work with the romantic idea that it’s made for someone who will see it again and again and again, you know? I’ve been having this experience with paintings at museums that I’ll see again, and I’ve really been enjoying it as I get older, that these paintings become more meaningful to me in different ways. I feel like I’ve taken that kind of an approach to painting its relationships to viewers. The other thing I’ll say is, I can’t help it—I don’t know what else to do except to breathe all of this specificity into the paintings. I’m interested in creating a dynamic, complicated, symphonic space, and I don’t know how to grab stuff unless it’s specific.
Rail: They certainly do reward the viewer—or the reader.
Nguyen: Either, or!
Rail: The viewer who wants to continue investigating it. I thought it was interesting with the Plato’s Cave work that you also wrote O, a more strictly narrative book, and that you wrote so much text to contextualize those artists’ books, which didn’t have as much in text in them.
Nguyen: Right. I think that those works can exist separately. I think that O is a written body, it’s a written work. It can contextualize Four Ways Through a Cave, but then they can also exist separately. And I guess there’s a bit of a sadness, because if you know that they were made together, you see the context here, and then if you don’t know, you don’t know.
Rail: I’m thinking about all the layers in the work and the way your process itself is layered, the experience for the engaged viewer is layered. That you actually layer paper to make these works, layered seems like a really resonant motif as well. Besides the sun.
Nguyen: I think that with the layering, there’s a very passionate enthusiasm.