“The art world has the privilege of literacy and access to text,” says Melbourne artist James Nguyen. “Wherever you go in the world art speak is inevitably high concept and often English language. But what about the communities that don’t speak English or feel they can engage with the complex terminologies of contemporary art?”

That desire to make the language of art more accessible and inclusive sits at the heart of Nguyen’s latest project, which takes over all four galleries in the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne. Open Glossary is a multilingual, collaborative exhibition and installation designed to challenge the language that permeates the art world and society at large, by making it more inclusive and accessible.

Born in Vietnam and based in Melbourne, Nguyen has collaborated with four other artists – Tamsen Hopkinson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Pāhauwera), Budi Sudarto, Kate ten Buuren (Taungurung) and Chris Xu – on Open Glossary, in an effort to explore the politics of displacement, activism, cultural exchange and sexuality.

“For me, the show works on two levels,” says Nguyen. “It’s a way to work with friends and people I’ve respected for a long time, and to just hang out and make art together. But beyond that, it’s about producing something for the audience to think about through the intersections of diaspora, queerness [and] language. It’s about recognising our place on Aboriginal land and thinking about queer and migrant experiences in a way that everyone can understand.”

The exhibition is a result of Nguyen being the second winner of the Copyright Agency Partnerships Commission, which supports mid-career and established visual artists with an $80,000 commission and exhibition opportunity at a partner institution – in this case, ACCA.

Open Glossary incorporates a series of installations, videos, workshops and events. They include a multilingual translation project of queer terms coined for, and by, non-English-speaking LGBTQI+ community members, while the venue’s main hall is filled with hundreds of white shirts for a work that probes the language of contemporary art.

Gathered from donations across Australia, the shirts evoke a range of historical moments – from the “Angel Ally” corridors at pro-LGBTQI+ rallies and vigils, to the deregulation of Australia’s textiles industry in the 1980s and an acknowledgement of Nguyen’s family’s sewing factory.

In a separate project, a collaboration between Nguyen and Māori artist and curator Tamsen Hopkinson looks at the shared term “hui”, which loosely means “coming together to negotiate” and resonates across both of their cultures.

For the final section of the exhibition, Nguyen and First Nations artist and curator Kate ten Buuren have crafted an interactive space for young people to consider their relationship with colonisation in contemporary Australia. Furnished with zines, dioramas and costumes, this hands-on project encourages participants to craft their own stories to engage with justice, Treaty, the Voice, and caring for Country.

“It asks a really simple question: when did you last feel heard?” says Nguyen. “With the referendum coming up, it’s about encouraging kids to develop new languages around caring for each other and caring for Country.”

Taken together, Nguyen says the works in Open Glossary make up a series of democratic language toolkits to bring non-English and plain-English-speaking communities into art world conversations.

“If an artwork is elitist, it’s very easy for people to walk past it,” says Nguyen. “But if it deals with issues in a very human and simple way, it enables people to engage. At the end of the day the things artists think about, like justice, beauty and how we communicate with other human beings, they don’t really require art speak. [So] if we can demonstrate the ability to work together, share ideas and hold space for each other, that’s almost like the universal human language.”

James Nguyen: Open Glossary is on at ACCA from Saturday September 16 to Sunday November 19, 2023. See more details.

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