Exit Strategies is the title of Vietnamese-Australian artist James Nguyen’s first major solo exhibition. Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, the exhibition is at once a deeply personal reflection and a brave commentary. Through a series of video works and installation, Nguyen weaves the narrative of his family’s struggle and survival in economic downturn to impart a greater story of Australia’s own diverse and disputed history.
The concept for the work was developed during Nguyen’s Beijing Residency in September, 2014. “The idea behind Exit Strategies was to look at the political by exploring the personal,” the artist says. “I developed a work around the honest and personal depiction of my family life at a specific time and place.”
Nguyen’s semi-true story plays out across the ground floor, first floor and storeroom space of the 4A galleries. “Australia had deregulated lower-skilled sectors such as the textiles, clothing and footwear industries,” he explains. “In order to compete with increasingly cheaper imports, my parents’ textiles business had to produce 24/7, and my parents made the decision to secretly move the family to the factory in Western Sydney.”
For Exit Strategies, Nguyen collaborated with his parents and brother. The project seems a cathartic, collective re-evaluation of familial history. Hanging diagonally across the first room is Flatbed Knit Polo Collars, a patchwork screen Nguyen and his mother sewed using hundreds of surplus polo-shirt collars saved from the family factory. Upstairs, a four-channel video piece entitled Gimbal is splayed across four draped white tarpaulin sheets. Nguyen cast his mother and father in the work, not as themselves, but rather to play out scenes as himself and his brother as children. The parents spin in circles on shopping mall trolleys, and race down suburban streets in matching white shirts. “Through watching my parents re-perform these activities, it gave my brother and I an insight into their dignity and resilience as people facing economic ruin.”
As for how Nguyen felt about giving his family a significant role in his work, he says, “I gave quite minimal instructions and allowed my family to play, interpret and add to the work. This process allowed us to carry out a difficult conversation through performative action, and engage with the collective effort of completing a project.”
Exit Strategies is at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art at 181–187 Hay Street, Haymarket until October 10.