Working with family can be a minefield, yet James Nguyen’s upcoming collaboration with a distant uncle has led to much deeper issues of consumption, colonialism and coffee.
The stories that we all tell about our families — complex, long-winded and suffused with minute details — have an incredible quality to change with each retelling, twisting and turning and often with few fixed points of reference to pin them to a particular time or place. Although this might perplex a journalist or historian, for performer and artist James Nguyen these stories are the basis for his upcoming work On the Border of Things Part One. Reuniting with his uncle Cong Ai Nguyen, On the Border of Things draws on the dissonances and differences between old family tales.
“The stories [Cong Ai] would tell about himself are different to someone else and you're like 'there's a gap' and that's when you start to be part of that story, when you piece these things together.”
While this is the first time that James has worked with his uncle, it’s not the first time that he has incorporated his family into the development and execution of his works. In Exit Strategies (2015) James collaborated with his parents and brother to reflect on a mythologised version of his family history.
This work, and others like it, do not just provide James Nguyen with his artistic output but also play an important role in providing time for his family to come together.
“With my family it's hard to find time to sit down and have meaningful conversations, so making art is a really great excuse to hang out, and when you hang out there's no pressure to 'make a thing, deliver stuff' it's like 'whatever comes out, comes out,'” said James. This leads to a lot of unexpected outcomes, something that James has embraced in following the threads of his uncle’s experience back to Vietnam.
“I would never have thought to, at the start of it, to go to Vietnam to reflect on my uncle, and so leaving it open and letting it evolve is really nice and I guess it's nice for an audience to see something evolve.”
On the Border of Things has shifted James’s focus from installation art to a stricter interpretation of performance. This has grown out of both his three-year residency at PACT Centre for Emerging Artists as well as the requirements of the different spaces that James has worked in.
“Theatre and contemporary art are kind of different in that when people come in they have different expectations because the space has boundaries and ways of functioning and so I started to evolve my practice to be less abstract and it kind of really helped me to focus as well.”
While in the past James has had greater flexibility, On the Border of Things promises to be more direct, while also letting the audience create their own associations.
“Actually it is kind of nice to have a straight monologue, and then you use installation and video and stuff to allow people to make their own connections and imagine their own realities.”
These realities will flow from James’s exploration of the food industry that his uncle has worked in since arriving in Australia. Part of the development of the piece involved James following in the steps of his uncle who has moved between different agricultural regions of Australia where he has worked as an itinerant fruit picker. James then brought his own perspective to bear on this landscape.
“When I look at the world I guess I look at it through a film, cinematic lens, ‘look all the horizons you can see.'”
Having previously explored the layered nature of histories in the Australian landscape in his work The Good Earth (2017) at Campbelltown Arts Centre, On the Border of Things turns to a more explicit examination of the food industry.
“I'm like ‘this is fucking crazy’, when you have a cup of coffee you don't realise the health implications for the people, you're like 'oh it's Colombian coffee or it's from the highlands of Vietnam or Timorese coffee' and you have this romanticised ideal of what you're consuming.”
While in Vietnam, James returned to his family’s coffee plantation where, after a particularly wet season, the drying coffee was becoming mouldy and releasing fungal spores that James and his relatives had to breathe in. Documenting his stay, James would collate picturesque photos of the Vietnamese landscape along with text describing the harsh realities of the production process.
“In the food industry [in Australia] as well there's this obsession about the provenance of food and how it was produced but no one ever says ‘Well ok, how much did you pay for the people who picked the wine, or picked the grapes that made that wine, and did you pay weekend rates for the waiter that actually brought that food to you?’”
This line of inquiry dovetails with current discussions of the exploitation of migrant workers in the fruit picking industry, yet for James also resonates with ongoing issues of colonialism and the removal of indigenous people from their lands. However, James cautions against seeing this as an exclusively Australian issue as his experiences in Vietnam illustrated.
“It's not only Australia that's dealing with these issues. And it's not only Australia that's racist and prejudiced to its Indigenous people. In Vietnam my cousins were like 'oh those Indigenous mountain people' and so we all have this mentality of otherness and a capacity to treat other people lesser than us.”
Simultaneously, James’s uncle has his own way of viewing the layered histories of the landscapes he works.
“For him, he's like 'Oh this is how it is,' white people and Italians were here first so they own the properties and because we come later we work for them and then you know we start to make money and then we start to buy land and then other people will come to work after us. So for him it's not seen as a racial thing, it's kind of a natural evolution.”
These discussions and more will be brought together in On the Border of Things Part One which runs at PACT in Erskineville from January 17-20. Part Two will be developed for Next Wave Festival which will take place in May.
Buy tickets here www.pact.net.au/whats-on/border-of-things