Thi My Lien Nguyen – Within, With and Between

She feels at home between the worlds and finds categories beautiful but unnecessary. My Lien also sometimes rantes about art without statement, and stories about and not by minorities annoy her. A portrait of a visual storyteller.

My Liens self-description is not ‘photographer’, but ‘lens-based artist’ – an ambiguous expression. “I find it incredibly difficult to describe myself. It also depends on the context whether I am a photographer or videographer,” says the artist, who lives in Winterthur. She owes this professional openness to her training in ‘Camera Arts’ at the Lucerne School of Art & Design.

“We were never pushed in a direction in which the categories would be clearly separated.”

Thi My Lien Nguyen, family trip to Seealpsee in Appenzell around 2004, from the series “Hiếu thảo – With love and respect” (2017).

This is also reflected in her bachelor thesis “Hiếu thảo – With love and respect” from 2017, which was exhibited the following year as a solo show at Kunst(Zeug)Haus Rapperswil-Jona. The Swiss-Vietnamese woman who grew up in Thurgau deals with her family history with an almost ethnographic view.

Photographs that stage everyday situations and objects, curated images from family albums, old newspaper articles and official documents, but also verbally passed on stories of her mother and grandmother combine to form a multi-faceted visual narrative of departure, taking in and growing up. A reflective self-questioning about a life in different cultures, with the other culture and therefore between cultures.

From sharp borders to an open border area.

She situates her working method «between the fine line of documentary and photographic art». In the space between documentation and art, but also between journalism and storytelling. “I find the question about categories very difficult, sometimes even unnecessary. It’s kind of nice that they exist, but they don’t speak to me. I also want to question these differentiations”.

She brings the documentary into art because she wants to tell stories. And art into the documentary, because she wants to be free in form. “Exactly this being in-between the worlds is a lot of fun for me”.

Thi My Lien Nguyen on the 5th of July 2020 in Winterthur at the BBQ Edition of the Milis Supperclub.
Photograph: Raisa Durandi

At the beginning, however, she did not feel part of the art world. It appeared to her as a luxury that only that part of society can afford, which has no material or financial worries. At the same time, though, she felt comfortable with it because art offered her a freedom of form that the media and customers could not offer her. Nevertheless, the purely formal game of l’Art pour l’Art” is not hers. “For me it is important that an artistic work has a statement.”

Ultimately, she is interested in stories:

“As a ‘visual storyteller’, I not only execute, but also choose for myself which story is important, which voice is important or which people should be represented.”

Questions that must be asked in the media and also in art, but which are still far too little asked. Her answer to the question of which stories should be told more often is clear: “We definitely need to tell more stories about minorities in Switzerland. Above all, they must go deeper than questions like “What do you feel when you are asked: ‘Where do you come from?”. The intention is to tell stories that give an insight into a reality from the perspective of those who live in that reality. The reality of the post-migrant society that is Switzerland.

Stories that, among other things, go through the stomach. Thus My Lien, as hostess of Mili’s Supper Club, would tell the transcultural stories of Lao-Vietnamese dishes if it were not for the Corona crisis. It hit her hard, too. Finally, for the time after Corona she would like to pursue another project of her heart: “For some time now I have been thinking about the project of bringing together the diaspora of Swiss-Asian artists and cultural figures.”