In a 2020 conversation between the artists Diane Severin Nguyen (b.1990) and Lucas Blalock (b.1978), Blalock referred to Nguyen’s photographs as ‘kind of “grunty”’, stating that they ‘present more as sounds than as words’.1 In the last few years Nguyen has gained recognition for her practice of photographing ephemeral sculptures that she creates from found natural and artificial materials. The resulting images exist in a liminal space between abstraction and figuration, seduction and repulsion and the bodily and the synthetic. Writers and institutions often focus on the ambiguity of Nguyen’s work and the empathetic response it is meant to elicit – for example, Franklin Melendez recently noted that her works confound language while generating an excess of it.2 And yet, even though her images decontextualise objects, they are not themselves without context. In interviews and articles Nguyen has repeatedly placed her practice in the lineage of documentary photography, notably in relation to images of the Vietnam War, but this is often absent in the wider discourse surrounding her work.
Nguyen creates ambiguous images in order to challenge the idea of photography as an unambiguous medium. For her, it is not objective, documentary and truthful, but rather ‘dirty, promiscuous, and not safely “art” to begin with’.3 She photographs materials with similar unstable qualities: hair, grass jelly, fingernails, napalm and dust. The lighting sources in her photographs can be either natural or man-made, from flames and sunsets to iPhone flashes and LED lights. She often searches YouTube for tutorials that she can incorporate into her sculpture-making, such as fruit carving or hair-braiding, and the napalm that she incorporates is handmade, based on an online recipe. Nguyen describes her process as intuitive and resulting in ‘99% failure’.4 Her gestures are ones of decontextualisation: she skirts abstraction by staging familiar materials and objects in unfamiliar scenarios. Nguyen has related her unorthodox practice to her experience growing up as a child of Vietnamese immigrants in America, and in particular the way her mother would interact with physical things, such as wrapping sauces and chips in cling film. One day Nguyen returned home and her mother was in the garden stabbing fake flowers into the ground:
For her there was no difference. The fake flowers and the real flowers were filling up the yard and making it look vibrant. Seeing her do that – combine the natural and the artificial for the sake of this cohesive image – I felt so much relation to that in my work.5
As she notes, ‘certain materials are understood very differently through the camera’.6 In her practice, items are transfigured through the lens. The camera intervenes just as her sculptures threaten to become something else.
Her solo exhibition at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris (MEP), comprises nine photographs made between 2019 and 2021 FIG.1. Each work features sultry neon colours and, characteristically, it is often unclear exactly what the image presents. Individual elements are recognisable – a metal chain, a sheet of plastic, tufted seeds – and yet the whole confuses. In Daily Affirmations FIG.2 a chain pulls away from and ruptures the material in which it is embedded: a yellowish, latex-like material that is disturbingly evocative of skin. In Ribbon Devotion FIG.3 green strands of a vaguely vegetal-looking material are braided tightly together; red liquid seeps down from the highest knot. One could consider Nguyen’s photographs in a similar vein to the unsettling and surreal images of Torbjørn Rødland (b.1970) or Erwin Wurm (b.1954). Equally, one could place her work in the lineage of still life, although her images push the limitations of both stillness and life. Whatever they depict teeters on the edge of animation and rot. Nguyen’s mysterious assemblages are fleshy and moist; they ooze, sweat, split, crack and melt FIG.4. They are bodily without depicting a body, evoking pain and pleasure through the recurrent use of sutures FIG.5, moistness, strings and wounds, all independent of flesh. She engenders empathy for something unrecognisable: ‘knowing can create distance’, as she once said.7
In her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag argued that the Vietnam War was the first to be documented day after day, thereby ‘introducing the home front to new tele-intimacy with death and destruction’.8 This was the first war, she wrote, where it was virtually certain that none of the best-known photographs were staged, which was essential to their moral authority. In 1959, just a few years after the war began, the Nikon F camera was invented, bringing a 35mm camera to a professional market. It could take photographs quickly, which could then also be disseminated quickly. The camera widely propagated the horrors perpetrated against the Vietnamese and the toll of the war on American soldiers. Several photographs are credited with changing attitudes in the United States, and therefore the course of the war. Nguyen, however, is deeply critical. She often points out the parallels between the Nikon F and Agent Orange, the chemical that was invented the same year and used by the United States as part of its herbicidal warfare campaign.9 For her, both were deployed in the Vietnam War as technologies of exposure: one captured the war for the gaze of others, whereas the other defoliated huge swathes of forest for the gaze of soldiers. Agent Orange seeped into the land and the bodies of those who lived off it. Although the use of photography during the Vietnam War is often considered in positive terms, ultimately influencing its end, Nguyen is sceptical of this viewpoint: photography informed how people were seen, how knowledge was gained and ultimately who lived and who died. This is the violence at the heart of documentary photography that she pushes against.
‘At the core of my work’, Nguyen has remarked, ‘is a deep desire to de-essentialise everything: to not let anything be trapped by someone else’s knowledge of it’.10 Her ambiguous and visceral images frustrate our desire to know what we are being confronted with, leaving us instead to consider how certain imagery, as abstract as it may be, can provoke an emotional response. After all, a grunt can be many things: a foot soldier, a subtropical fish, a dessert made of berries and biscuit dough or a short guttural sound.