When she was four years old, MyLoan Dinh fled Vietnam with her family. Her mother packed a small bag with provisions. Her father burned all his identifying documents. They boarded the “Lam Giang,” the last South Vietnamese Navy ship to leave Saigon. Nearly half a century later, these experiences, and her subsequent life in the United States straddling two cultures, have become a well of inspiration for the Charlotte, North Carolina-based artist. Unsettled Provisions at Ogden Contemporary Art Center, the artist’s first exhibition in the western United States, merges personal narratives with collective experiences to explore themes related to identity, migration, and displacement. In more than a dozen recent works, Dinh forms a tapestry of hybrid spaces that reflect cultural tensions and addresses challenges faced by those negotiating a hybrid existence.
Trained as a painter, Dinh has evolved a versatile and eclectic art practice, moving with ease between painting, sculpture, photography, performance, and video, all of which provide layered meanings to her body of work. She often uses repurposed objects and artifacts to explore material culture’s metaphorical capacity. “Treat Yourself” utilizes inexpensive plastic beads to offer a critique of economic exchanges within nail salons, while “The Uncertainty of Nostalgic Things” utilizes commemorative Bicentennial plates to comment on diverging interpretations of historical events. Dinh’s recent work has gravitated towards video and performance. “Zoom Buddha” updates Nam June Paik’s famous work for the pandemic age while another video piece, exhibited on the floor, evokes movement and transitions, grounded in the image of railroad tracks (a particularly appropriate reference for this exhibit considering Ogden’s history as the crossroads of the west).
After spending time in refugee camps, both in Asia and in California, Dinh’s family was sponsored by a Lutheran church in the mountains of North Carolina. Her upbringing in a traditional Buddhist home, where Vietnamese was spoken, contrasted with her education in the largely Christian South. She speaks of this overlapping or intersecting of spiritual and cultural identities as “additive” rather than subtractive, which is reflected in her religiously nuanced works that draw parallels between diverse practices, such as the ritualistic washing of feet or the use of prayer beads.
In a compelling installation that dominates one wall, the artist evokes tradition and modernity while exploring cross-cultural misapprehensions. Because of the association with its English false-cognate, the repeated use of the Vietnamese word “Phúc,” printed on paper and repeated across several rows, may cause an American viewer to titter. The Vietnamese word translates to “happiness” or “blessing” and is often associated with wishes for prosperity and good fortune, particularly during the New Year; it is repeated 108 times, the number of beads in the mala, a Buddhist prayer bead; and it is printed on joss paper, commonly used in Vietnamese rituals to venerate ancestors. Juxtaposing a vulgar English word with a Vietnamese word of reverence and cultural significance, she taps into a deep well of cultural symbolism.
In a recent series of photograph-based works the artist reaches to more universal symbols to explore issues of belonging and displacement. The series is unified by the use of fabrics from “immigrant bags,” the large, generic, cheap bags in plaid designs used by immigrants and refugees around the world. The bags are so ubiquitous and so culturally codified, they serve to metaphorically cover if not erase individuals. Dinh’s photographs depict generally mundane scenes — a walk in the park or down a city street, a group of construction workers, a couple standing by a car outside a campground — in which individuals have been excised to show the plaid material of the bag beneath. Like the lights embedded into the works, which turn on at intervals, they aim to illuminate rather than attack.
No other material in the exhibit is as immediately compelling as Dinh’s use of eggshells, a medium which shows a profound attention to detail and the ability to transform delicate materials into complex, textured works of art. Eggshell mosaic is a traditional Vietnamese craft used to decorate objects like vases, boxes and picture frames. The process is laborious: the eggs must be sourced for color, boiled, cracked and glued to the objects, filling in the cracks with ever smaller pieces. Growing up, Dinh admired the objects in her home created with this technique, and she has applied it to several objects in the exhibition, including envelopes and a passport. The most compelling use of the technique is in a series of sculptures in which traditionally masculine items like boxing gloves and hammers are covered in the delicate material, inviting viewers to contemplate notions of fragility, transformation, and the juxtaposition of strength and vulnerability.
The exhibition is a thought-provoking and multi-faceted attempt to come to terms with the artist’s hybrid identity while communicating universal issues to a broad audience. The most moving work may be a performance which will be part of the opening reception. (A recording of the performance will play throughout the exhibition). “Longing for Harmonies” integrates objects embed with symbolic weight — like a dress, paper parasol, ghost money, wooden beads and needles — and crafts them into a meditative performances that resonates with the traumatic experiences of Asian American women. It is part ritual, part narrative, driven by a collaged soundtrack that mixes traditional Vietnamese music with American pop music and newscast recordings.
Unsettled Provisions is an evocative exhibition that weaves the complexity of identity with an aesthetic of resilience. Myloan Dinh adroitly employs media both traditional and contemporary to articulate a narrative that is deeply personal and universally relevant.
MyLoan Dinh: Unsettled Provisions, Ogden Contemporary Art Center, Ogden, Nov. 3, 2023 – Jan. 14, 2024. Opening reception Friday, Nov. 3, 6-9pm. “Longing for Harmonies,” which lasts approximately 30 minutes, will be performed at 6 pm. Doors will be locked during the performance to avoid interruption.
All images courtesy the author.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.